A Conspiracy. A Murder. An Egyptian Bread Pudding.
Updated: Jul 1, 2019
There are many tales surrounding the origin of a famous and most delicious bread pudding said to have its origins in ancient Egypt.
Today we’re talking about Om Ali, a golden coloured dessert, with a rich and creamy consistency, with its creaminess historically attributed to the use of warm buffalo milk, and peppered throughout with raisins, sultanas and pistachios.
Om Ali is still an incredibly popular dish throughout the middle east, and widely considered there to be one of the best desserts in existence. This may be due to the fact that while incredibly delicious it is also seriously simple to make.
The recipe, passed down from generation to generation, has largely stayed the same throughout history. All that is required is some puff pastry, milk, sugar, cream, and a handful of nuts, raisins and dried fruits. Mix them all together and throw them into an oven. Simple as that.
But, like many famous dishes, the story of how this recipe came into existence is a hotly debated topic. I have come across three different stories, all very different in origin, with each one ramping up the levels of intrigue and deception.
The name of the dish Om Ali is an Arabic name that is literally translates as the Mother of Ali.
So lets start with the first story.
This tale begins in the 13th century with an old lady living in a run down village somewhere along the Nile Delta. One day a rich and well known Sultan is passing through this particular village and stops to rest whilst on a hunt. In the way that rich Sultans do, he demands that the old lady bring him something to eat. She panics. She doesn’t have anything worthy of a Sultan, No meat, or fresh fruit. So she scrambles home as quick as she can and scours her cupboards for something to feed to this passing king.
She grabs the staples she has at hand, and throws in some left over dried fruits and nuts, anything to give the food some much needed flavour. Once the ingredients have all been mixed together she pops the dish into the fireplace to bake. Soon, the mixture has risen and has an inviting golden crust on top. She calls to her son who is working out the back of the house to come inside and deliver the dish to the Sultan.
Bewildered, he carefully picks up the dish, making sure not to burn himself and rushes out of the house towards the Sultan and his entourage.
The king sees the boy approaching and stands to meet him, grateful for the food that will soon quiet his rumbling belly.
He looks down at what the boy offers him and is dismayed to see a plain looking dish with some gently rising steam still emanating from it.
But, his hunger trumps his curiosity and he heartily digs in to the bowl and then, with the first bite, his eyes light up. This ordinary looking dish is anything but plain, in fact, it may just be the best thing he’s ever tasted.
He turns to the boy and asks him what his name is. “Ali” comes the reply. “And who made this delicious food?” he asks. “My mother made it, but she is old and so asked me to deliver it.”
The Sultan turned back to the bowl and made sure to leave not even a crumb uneaten. He thanked the boy again and set off with his hunting party and upon returning to his city made sure to instruct his cooks on how to make this delicious dessert. When they asked what they should call this new dish the Sultan had brought them he thought for a moment and then decided. We shall call it, The Mother of Ali’s Dessert, or as we know it in Arabic, Om Ali.
Our second tale is in some ways rather more fanciful than the first. It tells the tale of a young Irish nurse who has left her homeland and travelled across the mediterranean to make a new life for herself in the great Egyptian empire. This story is set somewhere between 1863 and 1879 during the rule of Khedive Ismail, a Turkish viceroy overseeing Egypt and Sudan.
Back to our Irish nurse however and we see that she has landed in Cairo, finding herself astounded by the new sights and sounds of a new and strange land. She took up work where she could find it and one day the beautiful young nurse happened to catch the eye of the aforementioned ruler Khedive Ismail. He had her brought to him and over time wooed her. The only problem was that he was already married, and so took the Irish nurse to be his mistress.
Theirs was a whirlwind affair and slowly she grew tired of always being in the shadows whilst his wife was showered with gifts and all that comes with being a powerful ruler's wife. The nurse asked Ismail for a grand gesture to prove his love for her. He wanted desperately to please her but was mindful of not giving the game away to his wife and their contemporaries.
So he came up with a solution that would both honour his mistress and keep their secret to themselves. He called his head cook and commissioned him to create the most delicious dessert he could, but to make it simple enough that anyone in the kingdom could make it, so that her name would be spread far and wide. The cook complied and within a few days he presented the Khedive with the delicious dessert we know today. And it still bears the surname of the young Irish nurse to this day, Om Ali, or O’Malley.
Our third and most in-depth story follows a woman named Shajar Al-Durr. Her story begins with her being bought as a bonded slave by a man named Al Malik Al Salih.
Shajar Al-Durr was known to be very intelligent as well as a rare beauty in her region and it didn’t take long before her master Al Malik took her as a concubine. Whether she had any say in this is unknown but is unfortunately highly doubtful.
As luck would have it, Al Malik would soon rise to the position of Sultan and as his star rose, so did hers. She would accompany him to Cairo where he would take up his mantle of ruler.
Soon after the move, Shajar Al-Durr fell pregnant with his child, a boy they would come to name Khalil. The Sultan loved the boy and he loved Shajar, and once Khalil was born he decided he would marry the mother of his child and make her his queen.
They were happy together for almost a full decade when in 1249 the Sultan suddenly died. This was bad timing for the nation as Egypt was currently under attack by the crusaders. Finding out about the death of their Sultan would be a massive blow to the morale of the people and so Shajar Al-Durr decided to keep his death a secret.
She confided solely in the supreme commander of the Egyptian army and together they buried the Sultan in secret without letting anyone know of his untimely demise. To get around the inevitable questions she declared that the Sultan was too sick to see anyone or have any visitors. She instructed the cooks to have his meals delivered to her personally in his private tent and then to collect them from her later.
They knew they could not keep up this charade forever and would need to find a solution that would keep them both in a position of power. The problem came, however, when they discovered that the Sultan had not left any documents behind describing who should succeed him. What she did find however were a number of blank documents that had been pre-signed by the Sultan so as to streamline his administrative affairs. Shajar Al-Durr and the Supreme Commander used these documents as royal decrees declaring an oath of loyalty be sworn by the soldiers and Mamluks (this word meaning slave soldiers) to the queen and the Commander.
Eventually, the news leaked and word of the Sultan’s death reached the crusaders who swiftly marched into Cairo. Seeing an opportunity to overthrow the rulers they then moved on to Al Mansurah, where Shajar al-Durr resided.
A man named Abu Al-Futah, otherwise known as Baybars was one of the commanders of the Egyptian forces. His army would in time, inflict defeat on the Seventh Crusade of King Louis 9th of France. As a side note he would also go on to lead the Egyptian army against the Mongol forces in 1260, winning the battle and inflicting the first ever substantial defeat of the Mongol army. This is considered to be a major turning point in history.
Now, Baybars. as we’ll call him, came up with a plan to which Shajar Al-Durr agreed. This military plan led to the Egyptian army and local townspeople trapping the crusaders in an ambush and in doing so killing Louis IX ‘s brother Robert the 1st.
One of the now late Sultan's sons, from a previous marriage, arrived in Egypt and this forced Shajar’s hand in officially announcing that the Sultan had in fact died. The son named Turanshah, joined forces with Shajar al-Durr and together they finally defeated the crusaders, eventually capturing Louis IX.
This victory made Shajar al-Durr incredibly popular among the slave soldiers known as the Mamluks. They supported her claim to become Sultan over that of his son and heir Tarunshah. When it seemed as if they would not be getting their way, they took matters into their own hands, conspiring against Tarunshah eventually assassinating him to make way for Shajar to rule.
She would take on many titles in a bid to legitimize her reign. One of these titles was “Malikat al-Muslimin” translated to mean Queen of the Muslims.
She also had coins minted with her image and titles and she signed royal decrees with the name “Walidat Khalil”. She used these titles including her son’s and late husband’s names to gain respect as heir of the Sultanate.
However, it was not enough. As a woman, the powers that be refused to accept her as a ruler. But Shajar would not go quietly. She decided that if she couldn’t rule in name she would rule through the name of another, and so she married a man named Izz Al Din Aybak, a popular Egyptian commander, making him the official ruling Sultan. The only problem for Shajar was that her new husband was already married. She did not want to share power or her husband with this woman and would actively prevent him from seeing her and insist that he divorce her. When he would not do this, Shajar began concealing important state matters from him, deciding on things and making decrees without his knowledge.
He became suspicious of his new wife and in a move designed to strengthen his power (with the added benefit it would seem of annoying the headstrong Shajar) he took yet another wife in order to form an alliance with a powerful neighbouring empire.
As I'm sure you can imagine, this did not go down well with Shajar once word reached her of her husband's actions. In fact, it sent her into a rage and she lashed out at her husband, striking him dead. This was a problem, and she knew right away that what she had done was a terrible crime. Her only solution was to hide the body and claim the next day that the Sultan had died suddenly during the night. Unfortunately for her, no-one was buying her story and when it was proven that she had murdered the Sultan, she was sentenced to life in an Egyptian prison.
Now Aybak, the man she had just murdered, had had a son with his first wife named Ali and he was made the new Sultan of Egypt. His mother (Om Ali) had won out in the end. However she wasn’t fully satisfied and had never let go of the grudge she held against Shajar for trying to get Aybak to divorce her. Om Ali would not be happy until Shajar herself faced death just like her husband.
This is where the story splits and you have the opportunity for a choose your own adventure style ending.
One account tells of Om Ali bribing some palace maids to sneak into the prison and beat Sharjah to death with their shoes. It seems like an awfully specific command, but there you go.
The second account has Om Ali more personally involved in the act of retribution by luring Sharjah up to the top of a tower and lying in wait for her. Once Sharjah appeared Om Ali grabbed her and threw her from the tower to fall to her death on the streets below.
Either way, now that her love rival was dead, Om Ali demanded her cooks compete to create a dish celebrating the death of Sharjah Al-Durr. The dish was created and subsequently named after the victorious wife. Om Ali was not done and wanted to make sure that everyone joined in on the celebrations. She had the desserts distributed throughout the city, and the people cheered, chanting her name in thanks. While I’m sure that the pudding itself was delicious there was one more reason that I’m sure added to the delight of the citizens. Remember those gold coins that Sharjah Al-Durr had minted with her face on them? Well Om Ali made sure that at the bottom of each bowl, hidden underneath the pudding was one of those gold coins, lying face up, to remind everyone just exactly who it was that she had defeated.
Until next time. Bon Appetit.