Whenever my college friend Dania would visit her family in Amman, Jordan, several of us would wait in anticipation, as we knew Dania, a Palestinian-Jordanian, never returned home without a tin of Arabian pastries roughly the size of a manhole cover. The red container would open with a dramatic whoosh, and from beneath the decorative paper rose intoxicating zephyrs of toasted phyllo, pistachio, and honey. Close to 100 individual pastries sat pushed against one another, fused together with golden syrups.
Dania’s last name is Zalatimo, and her family still runs one of the most successful pastry empires in the Middle East: Zalatimo Sweets. Over a pot of black coffee with cardamom, Dania would introduce and curate each different pastry as if it were scripture. The decadent tutorial introduced me to names like kol wish-kor, ghreibeh, burma, barazek, and of course baklava. With each bite, a dozen layers of crisp phyllo would part, revealing strata of toasted walnuts and sugared pistachios.
As we blissfully toiled our way through the gluttonous pantheon of golden delights, Dania lamented stories of her homeland. As much as she loved the bite-sized selection, she claimed that it could not compare to the freshly baked pastry that made her family famous; the special mutabak that locals call Zaltomeeh.
The cheese-filled mutabak is meant to be eaten fresh as soon as it comes out of the oven. To experience it correctly, she said, I would have to travel to one of the family-owned shops scattered throughout the Middle East. Popping the last piece of kol weish-kor into my mouth, I vowed that someday I would.
A few weeks ago, while driving through a checkpoint in the West Bank, memories of Dania and her Zalatimo Sweets flooded back into my mind like a dream from a past life. I turned to my friend, Palestinian journalist Tala Zeitawi, and asked, “Have you ever heard of a pastry company called Zalatimo Sweets?”
“Of course,” she said. “Everybody knows them. There are a bunch of shops, but the original stall is in the Arab souk in Jerusalem.”
“Do they make the Zaltomeeh?”
“That is literally all they make. We can go there tomorrow.”
The Arab souk in Jerusalem’s Old City is an endless labyrinth of market stalls that carry an assortment of textiles, spices, and quasi-religious tchotchkes. Industrial-sized ram’s horn shofars sit next to locally sourced crowns of thorns. Aggressive merchants promise the best prices on olive wood rosaries, manger sets, and “holy water” from sacred grottos. Traditional medicine stalls sell ambergris balms, frankincense, myrrh, and even mystical oils for expelling jinn. Thousands of pilgrims from around the world make their way through the bustling tunnels on their way to visit The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church, considered the holiest site in Christianity, was built on the location where it is believed that Jesus Christ was crucified and entombed.
I walked through the market for an hour before finding a tiny stall hidden by a side exit near the church’s entrance. The little stone room, with its vaulted ceilings, resembled an ancient crypt more than a pastry shop; the interior contained one oven, a counter, and not much else. This was a far cry from the affectedly quaint confectioner parlors I had grown accustomed to. No, this was something hard and ancient—a genuine article.
A man with laurels of silver hair emerged from the shadows with a smile. His name, he told me, is Yousef Zalatimo.
In 1855, while deployed as an Ottoman soldier in Lebanon, Mohammad Zalatimo developed a love for baking. The hobby led to him marry a baker’s daughter, and the couple soon moved to Jerusalem where together they practiced their shared love for baking. After experimenting with different recipes, they perfected a modified version of the mutabak, an Arabic breakfast pastry consisting of buttered phyllo, goat cheese, and confectioners’ sugar.
The couple opened a shop at the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1860. Every Sunday, lines would form as people exited the church from morning mass hungry for breakfast. On Fridays, worshippers would eat the pastry on their way to pray. The market stall became so synonymous with the mutabak pastry that it was locally referred to as “Zaltomeeh” in honor of the Zalatimos.
Over the years the souk, surrounding streets, and portions of the church were rebuilt. Even with the city transforming around them, the Zalatimos and their next of kin held onto their spot in the market. Because the space is considered by officials to be an archaeological site, the Zalatimos are not permitted to perform any cosmetic changes to the façade. Aside from a few small adjustments such as swapping their stone hearth for a gas oven, very little has changed for the bakery in the past 158 years. The Zaltomeeh is still cooked on the same handmade copper plates that it was in 1860. While the copper was once easily serviced within the Old City, the Zalatimos must now take their plates to one of the last metal workers in the region, almost 20 miles away in Hebron.
For well over a century, the Zaltomeeh pastry has been stuffed with jibneh baladi, a Bedouin cheese produced in the West Bank. The rustic goat cheese is first dried, then salted, and after a brief aging is sweetened. Following recent restrictions on dairy products made in the West Bank coming into Israel, the Zalatimos are often forced to compensate with a similar cheese produced in Tel Aviv. (Youssef assured me his customers know the difference.)
The entire Zalatimo Empire grew out of the Jerusalem store front. The expansive family now runs 12 major retail locations in Jordan alone, and manages a major mail order and wholesale business. Some of Yousef’s first memories are of being a toddler and standing on his tiptoes to see the crisped mutabak steaming on the shop’s counter. Now 58-years-old, by keeping the Jerusalem shop in business, he is officially the guardian of Zalatimo Sweets’ spiritual fountainhead.
Each mutabak is made fresh to order, and begins with the rolling of the phyllo against a stone counter. Yousef then whips and thins the dough to the point of transparency, after which he tosses in a dollop of cheese and folds the package to resemble an oversized, origami fortune teller. The bundle is brushed with butter, placed onto the copper tray, and thrown into the oven.
Ten minutes later, Yousef pulls out the steaming golden brown pastry. He ceremoniously anoints it with confectioners sugar and cuts it into fours. The crisp buttery dough mixing with the melted cheese is profoundly sublime; it presents a nuanced departure from the far sweeter baklava varieties found at most shops. (It’s not cheap, either—tourists be warned. But it does taste precious, to an almost magical extent.)
“We will always hold onto this shop,” Yousef told me when I told him that I knew Dania. “It is not just important to our family, it is also important to Jerusalem. Anyone here will tell you that there are two things you must eat when you visit the Old City. First you have to find the best ka’ak bread, and then for dessert, you must visit the oldest bakery in the world and eat the Zaltomeeh.”
Taking Yousef’s advice to heart, I realized it was time to go and search the market for some proper ka’ak. However it seemed only right to order a second Zaltomeeh to share with Yousef in Dania’s honor.