Cupcakes have been trendy lately; popularized by Sex and the City, which itself is on DVD and has been shown in many countries of the world.
They’re now infiltrating the Muslim world and since a Fatwa has been issued against Mickey Mouse, no doubt someone will see fit to issue one against cupcakes.
Yes, We Speak Cupcake
WHAT BORDERS? Patrons at Sugar Daddy’s, which sells American-style cupcakes in the Middle East. By ANNA LOUIE SUSSMAN
Published: September 22, 2009
AS a young student at the multinational Aramco school in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, Fadi Jaber, a son of Palestinian refugees, always preferred his American classmates’ cupcakes, brownies and chocolate chip cookies to his mother’s pastries: knafah, qatayef and baklawah.
But when he tasted a vanilla-frosted vanilla cupcake from the Magnolia Bakery in Greenwich Village in 2004, it changed his life. He quit his marketing job at Unilever and used his savings to enroll in a baking and culinary management program at the Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan.
And after an internship at Billy’s Bakery in Chelsea, he was ready for his next move: In July 2007, in Amman, Jordan, he opened Sugar Daddy’s, the shop that brought the cupcake craze to the Middle East.
Cupcake shops have become as ubiquitous as hot dog stands in some American cities, and have spread to Rome; Istanbul; Berlin; Seoul, South Korea; and Sydney, Australia. Now Mr. Jaber has proved that even the Arab world is not immune to such a Western frivolity.
Members of Jordan’s royal family stop by the shop in jeans and sweatshirts, ordering boxes of cupcakes while their bodyguards wait outside. It is rumored that Queen Rania is a fan.
Since December 2008, the shop, which also sells cheesecakes and brownies, has been in the well-to-do neighborhood of Abdoun, which is thick with embassies and upscale restaurants. Mr. Jaber has also opened a Sugar Daddy’s in Beirut and in Dubai.
Most of his clientele (95 percent are women, he estimates) were familiar with cupcakes from living or studying abroad. Others knew them from the TV show “Sex and the City,” which has been shown on regional satellite stations for a few years. One customer asked him to draw lips on every cupcake. When he asked her why, she replied, “Because that’s soooo ‘Sex and the City.’ ”
Nabil al-Rabaa, Mr. Jaber’s partner in Beirut, where the shop opened late last year, said that while most customers had encountered cupcakes before, there was initial confusion. “There were a lot that would say, ‘I’ll take that muffin, and one of those muffins,’ ” Mr. al-Rabaa said. “Please, these are cupcakes!”
Kamal Mouzawak, a food writer and founder of Lebanon’s first farmers’ market, said that the chain appeals to the region’s historic sweet tooth.
“We’re also very keen on imported successes, and following food fashions,” said Mr. Mouzawak, who has a weakness for the carrot cake.
Dalila Mahdawi, 23, a journalist based in Beirut, said that cupcakes were a symbol of prestige. “Arabs who have money like to spend it on luxury items, and these are very creative and carefully presented,” she said.
At about $2 each, the cupcakes are indeed a luxury in Lebanon and Jordan, where per capita gross domestic product is $11,100 and $5,000 respectively, according to The World Factbook of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Karim Mikati, 20, was one of the few men at the Beirut branch on a recent night. He bought a carrot cake cupcake for himself and a red velvet one to surprise his girlfriend. He said that when he gave cupcakes to his male friends, they were enamored of them. He also comes in for the colored cupcakes.
“They’re amazing,” he added.
Along with such all-American favorites, Mr. Jaber, 31, also caters to regional tastes, offering specialty items like Blind Date, a sticky date cupcake with cream cheese frosting, and Ramadan cupcakes in flavors like pistachio with orange-blossom frosting.
Cupcakes have also bridged the most contentious divide of the Middle East. In the last year, three online cupcake stores opened in Israel, all in Tel Aviv.
Danielle Levy, who emigrated from England, founded I Love Cupcakes (ilovecupcakes.co.il) with her South African business partner, Hayley Rabie.
“We had both enjoyed cupcakes throughout our lives,” she wrote in an e-mail message. “In the past few years we have seen tasted and enjoyed them more and more with the rise of their fashion — in our own lives, film, fashion and TV.” Chocolate and vanilla are Ms. Levy’s most popular flavors.
Debbie Stein, a founder of TLV Cupcake Company (tlvcupcakes.co.il), also saw a niche in Israel.
“Many of the people living in Tel Aviv know about cupcakes either because they are immigrants from countries where the cupcake is popular or they have spent time abroad and were introduced to the cupcake then,” Ms. Stein, who is originally from Minnesota, wrote by e-mail. “Second, we saw Tel Aviv as the perfect place to introduce such a product because cupcakes are gourmet and fashionable.”
Along with chocolate and vanilla, Ms. Stein offers local flavors such as halva, chocolate citrus, and Pink Velvet, which is red velvet with pomegranate juice instead of food coloring.
Ofer Yeger’s Cupcakes (cupcakes.co.il) also opened in Tel Aviv.
Mr. Jaber, who hopes to expand further, insists his product is immune from anti-Americanism in the region.
“These desserts have such a universal appeal,” he said.
“Not to mention,” he added, “walking into a party with a box of cupcakes in hand is trendy.”