Food News

The Middle-Eastern Cookie That Caused a Panic in Pennsylvania

September 22, 2016

This Monday morning, a customer at a Gulf gas station in Marshalls Creek, PA panicked after spotting an unattended box with Arabic lettering at a gas pump. After all, it was just hours after the tristate area went on high alert for signs of Ahmad Khan Rahami, the now-apprehended man thought to be responsible for bombings in New York and New Jersey over the weekend.

Said customer called the state police, alarmed by the box's Arabic lettering, fearing it contained a bomb. That Monday morning became a real scene, involving three police cars and the arrival of the Hazardous Devices and Explosives Unit, also resulting in the premature closure of a nearby daycare that day. The situation was diffused by noon, because they realized it wasn't a bomb after all, but something much more innocuous: A box of ma'amoul, shortbread cookies stuffed with dates.

Ma'amoul (sometimes stylized as maamul, mamool, or mamoul) are semolina shortbread cookies native to the Near East. Their dough is often soaked in orange blossom or rosewater before being stuffed with dates, pistachios, or walnuts—these ingredients are ground into a paste along with spices like cinnamon and star anise. The cookies are molded into various shapes using intricate wooden instruments (see below), and different fillings call for different shapes. Date fillings call for flat tops, while pistachio-filled ma'amoul are oblong; if they're filled with walnuts, the cookies are shaped like domes with rounded tops.

Ma'amoul are woven deeply into the cultural fabric of the Near East and its diaspora. As Azhar Hashem explained in this beautiful piece for us in July, ma'amoul are consumed widely in the region year-round, but consumption spikes during holidays, from Easter or Lent for Christians to Eid for Muslims to Purim for Jewish. They're a food everyone eats, and therefore something of a cultural neutralizer.

There's a whiff of irony in here for a cookie that's something of a cultural leveler to inspire such anxiety. Sadly, local coverage of this Monday's incident hasn't even deigned to mention the fact that this box of cookies was ma'amoul. Peep the descriptors used for ma'amoul: "A box of Arabic cookies," scribes Carmella Mataloni of the local ABC affiliate. PennLive's John Luciew, bless his heart, is a bit more suspicious of that signifier, saying they're "so-called 'Arabic cookies'" while referring to Mataloni's coverage. "A box of cookies with Arabic writing," writes Kevin Kunzmann of the Pocono Record. All of these avoid naming ma'amoul at all, let alone doing the harder work of educating those whose fears are activated at the the sight of big, scary Arabic lettering on a box of shortbread cookies.

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Ever had ma'amoul? Let us know in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Jackie Duhamel
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  • Smaug
  • Suzanne
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.


Jackie D. September 19, 2017
Love, love, love ma'amoul! I use to get them at a nearby Lebanese restaurant that has sadly closed. I tried to make them at home once, but they weren't the same. You've inspired me to start looking for a new local source.
Zelda September 23, 2016
They look like Iranian kolompeh.
witloof September 22, 2016
When I lived in Paris I frequented a little Middle Eastern pastry shop in the tangle of streets near Place St. Michel, and I often bought a ma'amoul or three to eat on the way home.
Joyce A. September 22, 2016
Endive or witloof? 😜😋
Rachel September 23, 2016
witloof... love the name :)
Smaug September 22, 2016
I was thinking of trying the recipe, but I was thrown by the "mastic"- surely not the same stuff you use to hold on wall tiles?
Maedl September 23, 2016
Mastic is the sap of a tree related to pistachio and is used in liqueurs and candies. I would look for it in a Greek (or maybe Turkish) store.
Smaug September 23, 2016
Thank you- went to Wikipedia for further info; the tree is Pistachia Lentiscus; there are also a couple of new world trees that produce a sort of mastic. Other names; Arabic Gum (NOT Gum Arabic, an entirely different substance), Yemen Gum and Tears of Chios, Chios being the Greek island where it is primarily produced. So even if I never made cookies, at least I learned something.
amysarah September 23, 2016
Mastic, in this case pine resin, is used to flavor the eponymous Retsina - very popular in Greece. I gave it several tries, but just couldn't. My travel companions, however, loved it - I think it's one of those love it or hate it flavors.
Smaug September 23, 2016
The word (so they tell me) comes from a Greek word meaning gum. My one real experience with Retsina was that it tasted pretty darn good by the fourth or fifth glass (though not good enough to repeat the experience).
Maedl September 23, 2016
Mastic is not pine resin. The resin used for Retsina comes from the Aleppo pine--Pinus halepensis--which is widely distributed in the Mediterranean region. Mastic has a very mild flavor and is derived from a tree related to the pistachio--Pistacia lentiscus. It, too, grows in many regions around the Mediterranean. However, the EU has granted mastic a "protected designation of origin" and "protected geographical indication” status. This mastic is produced only on the island of Chios, a Greek island off the Turkish coast.
amysarah September 23, 2016
Well, okay then. When I was in Greece, it was described to me as both mastic and pine resin - in casual conversation. Clearly imprecise. Whatever its origins, it still reminded me of turpentine vapors.
Smaug September 23, 2016
According (once again) to Wikipedia-and apparently amysarah's experience-, while the product of Chios has a protected designation status in Europe, the word mastic or it's equivalent is frequently used throughout the region for various substances that are substituted for it- including pine resin, gum Arabic and several others. Outside of Europe, apparently anything goes.
Maedl September 24, 2016
Legally, anything does not go. These designations are protecting what is considered intellectual property and there is a tangle of international agreements on recognizing and enforcing the regulations. If you don't pay attemtion to these designations--and look for them on your food packaging--you end up with lower quality fake food, i.e. sawdust in your Parmigiano.
Maedl September 24, 2016
Well, they are both resins, but from different trees. Try to find something containing mastic--Last fall someone gave me some mastic candy, where the delicate flavor was very clear. Maybe look for Turkish Delight--but check the ingredients to ensure that mastic was used and not a cheap substitute.
Smaug September 24, 2016
The European Union's authority only extends to how the term is used for product labeling in commerce within their jurisdiction. They have no more authority to tell anyone how to speak their own language than anyone else-i.e. none.
Maedl September 24, 2016
There are bilateral agreements, treaties and regulations between the EU and other countries, so I disagree with your assessment of the situation. Try producing a cheese in Wisconsin called Parmigiano. You’ll hear from plenty of lawyers very quickly.
Smaug September 24, 2016
Once again, this only speaks to product labeling in commerce. If they had any standing outside their jurisdiction they wouldn't need bilateral agreements, treaties and regulations. You can buy domestic Parmesan, Argentine Parmesan etc. anywhere in the US.
Maedl September 24, 2016
The reason you can buy parmesan made in the US is that it is not called Parmigiano Reggiano. That’s a loophole that US producers exploit. If consumers don’t know the difference . . . .
Smaug September 24, 2016
We do mostly speak English, of one sort or another, here. It's possible the USDA made such an agreement- they do have some authority over food terms used in commerce, within their jurisdiction. I don't see that any of this has any relation to the general use of language. It does raise the somewhat interesting question of whether the EU can stop you from giving away Sicilian Parmesan (or Parmagiano) in Italy-I'd guess no, but only a guess. You can certainly buy Mastic made from ppetroleum or from the sap of various trees in the US.
Suzanne September 22, 2016
I was there. I work there. The police were just doing thier job. We were afterall on high alert. If I'd found it first I would have simply thrown it into the trash as the owner should have but it didn't go down that way. I'm sure there are many things that would put any unattended package be deemed suspicious. Thank you all for your concern about the patrons of this business !
Frank C. September 23, 2016
How can a box of cookies be deemed suspicious when it clearly says on the box that they are date filled cookies? There is even a picture of cookies on the box. And who has never heard of Halwani Brothers ma'amoul? My kids grew up on these. And if a box of cookies contained a bomb, would the bomb makers actually write "bomb" on the box? And what does being on high alert have anything to do with cookies? Hey maybe this Syrian box of cookies is related to an Afghani terrorist, even though Afghans are not from the Middle East? The level of ignorance in this country is apalling.
Suzanne September 23, 2016
A terrorist had just blown up people near a beach in NJ and a location in NY. This location was less than an hour from there. The suspect was at large likely fleeing from those locations. The Poconos is a common place to pass through when leaving these areas. It was suspected this terrorist would strick again. Middle Eastern cookies are NOT commonly sold at convenient stores/gas stations in the Poconos. Most people throw thier trash in the trash cans. Terrorists use many kinds of containers. Put all these factors together and ..... Do you have any idea what a bomb being detonated at a gas pump would do ?
Suzanne September 23, 2016
Your an idiot.
Shawn O. September 22, 2016
I lived in Syria for awhile and some of my fondest memories are going to Midan in Damascus to watch ma'moul being made. I'd often get free hand outs by shop owners who were so proud of their product and just showing their natural generosity. I always had and a hard time limiting myself to buying a reasonable amount. So delicious!
Saffron3 September 22, 2016
Thanks Jennifer! I admire that phrase, "food is a good way to make friends". So true the world around.
pattiB September 22, 2016
My Egyptian neighbor introduced us to mamool a few years ago. He brings us boxes of them from the bakery at the end of Ramadan. We look forward to it!
Maedl September 22, 2016
When Germany first began receiving refugees, perhaps three or four years ago now, many were settled in temporary homes in my small town. A friend, Petra, and I helped teach them a bit of German and introduce them to some of the local culture. Petra traveled frequently and found several mamool molds in Geneva. She brought them back and a week or so before Christmas, we invited some of the young people we were working with for an evening of baking, followed by dinner. We prepared the cookies, setting up an assembly line for making the dough, and then pressing and stuffing them with date and nut fillings. While we were doing that, one of the young men prepared a chicken stew and rice, a recipe from his mother. It was a lovely evening, full of happiness and sharing. Best of all, it helped these young people remember home and feel a sense of connection both to their old and their new homes.
Jennifer S. September 22, 2016
The news people missed an opportunity. Yes, to be sure, the story is about unattended parcels and fear of a bomb. But wouldn't it have been neat if they got some of the cookies from a local bakery and tried them on air? Kind of a good way to cool the "us vs them" atmosphere we see so much of lately. Food is a good way to make friends.
Mayukh S. September 22, 2016
We're on the same page, Jennifer!
Stefanie S. September 22, 2016
I was lucky enough to make ma'amoul with my Syrian and Lebanese aunts. The fresh cookies are so different and so much better that the ones found in the "box with Arabic writing." The molds have different shapes - one is traditionally used for dates and one for nuts. You can get the wooden molds online.
Saffron3 September 22, 2016
I love these cookies! I buy a box of middle eastern pastries, every Christmas holiday, mostly mail-order from larger middle-America Turkish bakeries, in celebration of the season's stories. I have trouble sharing.
i never knew about the shapes of the dome tops denoting fillings.
Maybe I'll try them for Christmas gifts! Thanks.
caninechef September 22, 2016
While a discussion of the cookie at the route of the problem might be of interest on this food site it seems superfluous to the coverage of the original news story. Are you perhaps offended for the sake of being offended? If it was a box for nuts or bolts would it be a slight to call them hardware? Cookies seems like a perfectly acceptable label to me for the intent of the original news coverage which I assume was about a mix up and not the cultural significance of this particular food item..
melissa September 22, 2016
the author doesn't strike me as being "offended" (that term is so loaded nowadays, immediately used to disqualify legitimate complaints of all forms), i read the sentence, "Sadly, local coverage of this Monday's incident hasn't even deigned to mention the fact that this box of cookies was ma'amoul" as more of a lament at a missed opportunity (not a journalistic requirement) to celebrate a delicious cookie and, like the author states, educate a fearful public about a culture they fear. what IS offensive is the journalist's disbelief that arabs could share something in common with americans -- cookies: "PennLive's John Luciew, bless his heart, is a bit more suspicious of that signifier, saying they're 'so-called "Arabic [sic] cookies."'"
Miriam I. September 22, 2016
Last year my daughter's H.S. put on Kismet. I bought Maamoul for the boosters to sell at the performance. There was some skepticism but they were a hit. Who doesn't love maamoul?
Pastraminator September 22, 2016
It could be they didn't want to screw up the pronunciation? i had to go online to see how it pronounced. Sounds delicious though and one of those things that is easier to buy than bake. yeesh
Miriam I. September 22, 2016
I love them and a friend once taught me how to bake them, but I've never made them again. You can buy the cheap boxed version which are sort of fig newton equivalent or you can buy fresh ones at Middle Eastern restaurants or bakeries and they are heaven.