Asabe Zainab, literally translating to ‘Zainab’s Fingers’ is a traditional Middle Eastern dessert, typically eaten during Ramadan. While some Levantine countries make these from Semolina and no filling. In Oman, we wrap a creamy based cheese in filo pastry, deep fry them and finish off by soaking them in a rich Saffron & Cardamom syrup. I have also come to learn that in Palestine they make something similar and call it Znoud El Sit (The Upper Arm of a Lady).
Zainab was not of religious context, but it is said that this lady lived over 100 years ago and made these sweet delicacies that looked like a finger, and would share them out amongst her village. She made them so beautifully that they were always after that, known as Zainab’s fingers.
During the month of Ramadan, there is not one of my aunties who will not have these at the table for after Iftar treats. Growing up I always wondered why we didn’t have them more often (and wished that we did), my mother always reminded me that if we had them every day, we would no longer be grateful for Zainab’s gift to us, and Ramadan held onto that spirit of gratitude.
As I got older, I would join the women of my family in making hundreds of these. While I was able to eat them so quickly, making them and learning how to roll and seal, was not as fast! I remember my grandmother always telling me not to over stuff them with cheese, you only needed a little; she would say “the cheese is like your knuckle, it is small and in the middle of your finger”! Learning the process, led me to appreciate why we save them for Ramadan and the odd special occasion, it also made me very thankful for Zainab, as she found a way to bring families together for generations to come.
In Oman we traditionally make them with a cream cheese (the red laughing cow if you know it). However, I prefer to use Ricotta and Mozzarella. Combining these two brings you both the creamy texture as well as that nice pull of melted cheese when you bite into them fresh our the fryer! The best part about these, is that you can make both your syrup and fingers in advance. The pastries will last up to a month in the freezer, which is perfect for during Ramadan, so that you can whip out just enough to fry each evening. The syrup will also keep perfectly for up to two weeks if store in an air tight, glass container.
· 2 Cups of Caster Sugar
· 1 Cup of Water
· Good Pinch of Saffron Strands
· Half of a Fresh Lemon (Optional)
· 3 Cardamom Pods
(A thermometer is helpful if you have one)
· 30 Rectangle Sheets of Filo or Samosa Pastry
· 125g Mozzarella Cheese
· 125g Ricotta Cheese
· 1litre of Vegetable Oil for Frying
· Water (for sealing)
1. Begin by making your sugar syrup as you’ll need this to be cold by the time it comes to frying the pastry.
2. In a saucepan combine all the ingredients and place on a high heat.
3. Keep stirring till the syrup starts boiling and then reduce the temperature to a medium - low heat for a further 10 minutes, until all the sugar has dissolved and the syrup has become slightly golden and thicker. If you have a thermometer you are looking for a temperature of 110°c.
4. Remove from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
5. Begin by shredding the mozzarella into tiny pieces and then combine with the ricotta.
6. Mix it altogether and place to the side.
7. Separate all your pastry sheets and cut them into rectangles if necessary and keep them wrapped in a damp cloth, to ensure they don’t dry out.
8. To roll the fingers, take one sheet of pastry and place roughly ¾ of a teaspoon of the cheese mixture at the bottom, leaving a slight edge to grab the pastry.
9. Make sure your cheese is in the centre, otherwise when it comes to frying, you may have some cheese that escapes!
10. To begin the roll you firstly need to turn both corners into the middle to form a triangle (almost like you are about to create a paper airplane), covering the cheese.
11. At this point you want to carefully take the bottom corner of the triangle and fold it over tightly, to begin the roll.
12. Then continue to roll all the way to the top.
13. When you get to the top, leave a slight edge and dip your finger into the water and rub it across the end part of your pastry and then seal it across. This will help ensure the fingers don’t unravel when frying.
14. Repeat steps 8-13 for the rest.
Frying the Fingers:
15. When using Filo or Samosa Pastry you’ll need to fry them from cold to hot oil, this makes sure that the all the layers come out crispy and also retain their crispiness.
16. Fill a medium sized wok or sauce with your oil – not too big a pan as you want the oil to be deep.
17. Place all your fingers inside the oil and then turn the heat up high.
18. Once the fingers begin to brown, reduce the heat slightly to make sure they cook evenly and keep turning them until they are completely golden.
19. As soon as they are ready turn them onto some kitchen roll to soak up excess oil.
20. Then carefully drop them into the syrup and mix until they are fully coated.
21. I serve mine with some pistachios & rose petals for that extra pizzaz!