Eid comes with all forms of celebrations, new clothes, outings, gifts, and most importantly, delicious food. As Egyptians, we love dessert, especially Arab desserts, and more times than not, stores like to incorporate additions to traditional desserts, like Kunafa bil Nutella and Basbousa bil Lotus. Yet, one of the most popular desserts in Egypt, and a very strangely named one is Sawabe’ Zeinab (Zeinab’s fingers).
Mainly a mix of semolina, flour, and sugar, Sawabe’ Zeinab is one of the few desserts that stood out at keeping itself the same over the years; it has remained a favorite to many, without needing any additions to it.
There are three different stories on the origins and history of this popular Egyptian dessert.
According to multiple sources, the history of Sawabe’ Zeinab dates back to 1260 AD, after the Mamluks of Egypt, led by Al Zahir Baybars, defeated the Mongul Empire in the Battle of Ain Jalut, and returned to Egypt to celebrate their victory. During the celebration, Al Zahir Baybars ordered desserts to be made and distributed to the attendees. Upon noticing and tasting Sawabe’ Zeinab, he asked the chef about the name of that strange dessert that he was seeing for the first time. Confused and worried, the chef muttered “These are Zeinab’s fingers,” referring to the cook who prepared the sweets, and left traces of her fingers on them.
The second story revolves around a young woman who was known to be a great cook and a talented baker; it was said that she made this dessert for her fiancé’s family. They named the dish after her because of how much they relished the sweet. They said “teslam sawabe’ Zeinab”, which translates to “May God bless Zeinab’s fingers.”
The final narrative, which happens to be the most popular one, claims that Sawabe’ Zeinab was named after Al Sayeda Zeinab bint Ali. At the age of four, her father was killed during the Battle of Karbala. When the soldiers noticed that she was not letting go of his body, they cut her fingers loose, and the dessert was later named after her as a tribute to her.
*Al Sayeda Zeinab bint Ali was Ali ibn Abi Talib’s eldest daughter, and Prophet Mohammed was her maternal grandfather.
Regardless of the original history behind the name of this tasty dessert, it remains a staple in most houses, and occasions.
Learn the recipe here.