Beyond baklava

Dazzling chickpea cookies, decadent Turkish delights, the sweet-sour joyride of faloodeh: Middle Eastern desserts are full of history and flavor discoveries—and they’re vegan.

All of these desserts are carried at Mediterranean Market, 1547 Fulton Avenue, Suite B; (916) 972-1237.

They look like massive inverted ice cream cones in the middle of the desert. And inside these ancient Persian earthen structures, built around 400 B.C., is dessert. The structures, called yakhchals, were the analog precursor to electric refrigerators, and the frozen dessert stored inside was another ancient Persian invention: faloodeh, the precursor to ice cream. And the (sour) cherry (syrup) on top? It’s totally vegan.

It turns out, there are actually many sweets from the Middle East of Asia that are vegan. The flavors and textures may be “adventurous” to uninitiated palates, but open minds and open mouths will find themselves on a delicious trip. Since these desserts can be purchased at international markets, one just needs to know which ones to look for.

Probably the most well-known Middle Eastern sweets are baklava and Turkish delight. A lot of baklava—layers of crispy phyllo dough with cinnamon-spiced ground walnuts and pistachios drenched in sugar syrup—is made with butter and honey, but not Diamond Bakery’s; it uses vegetable oil and sugar. Made in Fremont, owner Adel Mougharbel says it sells thousands of units of baklava every week. His family started the business in 1986 when they immigrated to the United States from Lebanon, but the history of baklava may go as far back as 200 B.C.

Less ancient is Turkish delight. Lore has it that it originated in Anatolia in the 18th century when a sultan wanted a new sweet to impress a lady he was sweet on. The delightful treat we have now comes in many variations, but in general, it’s a bite-size jellylike cube made of cornstarch, not gelatin, flavored with rose water, with bits of pistachio, covered in powdered sugar. Besides being vegan, it’s wheatless.

Another celiac-safe sweet is noon nokhodchi, or chickpea cookies, made of roasted chickpea flour and cardamom. These also originate from Iran and are usually an inch in size and clover-shaped. These golden cookies are mouth gold: Despite being delicately powdery, they are rich and melt in your mouth. A few bakeries make these, but don’t mess with any other than B.B. Sweet Factory’s. Made in Pomona, B.B. makes the smoothest, creamiest version.

Then there is the cotton candy. Called pimaniye in Turkish and pashmak in Farsi, it translates to a different fiber: wool. The dense, decadent stretched-sugar treat is often in hairy, vanilla ivory clumps—that’s right, no crazy food coloring.

All of these desserts are meant to be consumed with black tea—the tannic bitterness and sugar balance each other out—except for the frozen dessert mentioned, faloodeh.

Faloodeh is an icy rose-water sorbet with white vermicelli rice noodles that is doused with lemon juice or sour cherry syrup. “It’s older than ice cream,” says Mitra Golnazar, owner of Gol Ice Cream. Her San Ramon-based company has been making the frozen treat since 1947 when her father, Hussein Golnazar, founded Saffron Ice Cream in Iran. The family brought the business to the United States in 2006. It’s sweet, tart and refreshing, and Golnazar assured, “It is 100 percent vegan.” But please eat it from a bowl, not an ice cream cone.