Days before the start of Eid Al Fitr, Cairo’s patisseries began filling their displays with heaps of kahk — the crumbly biscuits with a variety of fillings that are Egypt's favourite dessert during the three-day celebration at the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
Made from a sweet dough whose main ingredients are flour, sugar, yeast, milk, ghee and sesame seeds, kahk is one of the more difficult dishes that young Egyptian women learn from their mothers.
The biscuits are customarily filled with either date caramel or a gel of starch and sugar called malban that is very similar to Turkish delight, and almost always dusted with powdered sugar as the final step.
“I made my first successful batch of kahk when I was 14 years old,” recalls Azza, 44, a mother of five who makes the biscuits for her family each year.
“Unlike a lot of the girls around me at the time, I learnt pretty quickly because every time I made a mistake, my mother would give me a smack,” she told The National.
“We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, so wasting any of the food in our house on a ruined batch would make my mother really angry.”
Historians say the recipe for kahk dates back to ancient Egypt, and making it continues to be an important rite of passage for many homemakers, especially those from the country's rural provinces
Although it is widely available at patisseries nationwide, Azza says that the rise in food prices this year, especially of flour and sugar, has made making the biscuits at home more prudent than ever.
“This year, buying ingredients which yield about 2 kilograms of home-made kahk is the same as buying 1 kilogram of ready-made kahk from the patisserie,” she said. “We make over 10kg of kahk each Eid, sometimes more. It’s customary to take it with us when we visit our relatives during the feast.”
She says the cost of the fillings has also risen significantly, which forced her to make them at home — something she had not done in the past.
“It doesn’t really bother me, since I make everything at home anyway, even my bread. But I am from Fayoum, where this is the norm. For a lot of women living in Cairo, who weren’t taught how to make such things at home, the rise in prices has proved a much bigger problem.”
Making large batches of kahk is a long and arduous process, Azza says, and yet she looks forward to it because the preparation brings Egyptian women together in a social ritual that many find healing.
“When we were kids, my mother would host many women from our village in our home and we would all make the kahk together,” said Noura, 41, Azza’s sister. “Each woman would bring with her whatever ingredients she had. Some of them didn’t have much to bring. We would all sit in a circle and share stories. The women would air grievances or complain about their husbands and at the end of the night each woman would leave with kahk to take home to her family.”
Despite its importance to so many Egyptian women, making kahk at home has been on the decline because the younger generations do not want to learn how, says Azza.
“When I was a young girl, a woman’s entire value was derived from her ability to make a variety of dishes at home,” Noura recalled. “I remember my mother-in-law getting really angry with my brother-in-law’s wife because she had not been taught how to make even simple dishes at home. I remember feeling very ashamed for her, and not wanting to ever be in her situation.
“It's different now. My daughters don’t have the same anxieties as I once did. I think they’re too preoccupied with social media. They won’t even eat it most of the time because it has too many calories.”
However, she believes kahk will remain an essential part of Egyptian culture, whether it is made at home or not.
“Kahk is kahk. It’s a part of Egypt and one of our most important national dishes,” she said.
“And even though they don’t like to make it themselves, my daughters still join our gathering during Eid every year to watch us make the kahk. They laugh and share stories too. And to me, that’s all that matters.”