Aleppo’s Mysterious Frothy Marvel

Published December 5, 2017

As a girl, I watched my grandmother make Aleppo’s mysterious frothy marvel called Nataef. Sitto would simmer what looked like pieces of wood until the liquid thickened and foamed. She would strain it and then pour its foam and liquid into her beaten egg whites, which were standing up in stiff peaks. She’d then begin to pour her warm sugar syrup into it, in a stream, all while continuing to beat the mixture into a snowy-white marshmallow confection of goodness! As a girl, it seemed like magic to me! All of this mixing suddenly became a beautiful bowl of sticky sweet marshmallow. I dipped my finger into it, smiling at the sweetness and whiffing the aroma, with a seeming hint of licorice. That scent was unmistakable, even in my memory, many years later.

As the years went by, Sitto stopped making this topping. I think it was due to the exotic nature of its key ingredient. I remember, that at some mid-point in our years together, while in the Midwest with my own young family, that I called Sitto and told her that I’d found a wonderful substitute for it, called Cream of Tartar. My grandmother was so delighted that I was experimenting and told all her friends about it. It was before the internet, so this seemed a logical approach at the time. Although I had the recipe, I was determined to learn more about this sweet topping that I enjoyed all through my childhood. Why was it not seen again? Where was that wood-like ingredient? Where did it come from? Even the Middle Eastern grocers and specialty shops would remark that they either knew of it and couldn’t get it or that they didn’t understand what I was talking about! It became the mysterious frothy marvel of my search.

But years later, as I researched this mysterious marshmallow topping, its origins and the plant which gave it’s unique whiter-than-white gloss, I learned it was really the root of Aleppo’s own soapwort bush. And it is this simmering root that gives this dessert its world-famous topping known as Nataef for Aleppo’s famous Karrabij filled cookies! I have the online source for this root in both cookbooks in the Where To Find It chapter. Mystery solved!