Saturday May 23, 2020 By: Alexandra Kinias
Kahk El Eid, the uniquely Egyptian mouthwatering biscuits are made with generous amounts of butter, stuffed with honey and nuts, Turkish delights, dates or figs, embellished with decorative geometrical patterns and sprinkled with powdered sugar. They are the signature breakfast for Egyptians celebrating the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting.
Unlike other Islamic countries, Egyptians celebrate their religious festivities in their own unique Egyptian way. Inherited from ancient Egypt, baking kahk to celebrate religious festivities is a ritual practiced by both Muslims and Christians. Along with Eid El Fitr, Copts – Egyptian Christians – also bake kahk to celebrate Easter and Christmas. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that these addictive delights that melt in your mouth have maintained the same name since ancient times. In spite of the various military conquests and invasions of Egypt along its history, Egypt maintained an inherently stable culture and traditions, some have been practiced continuously without interruptions over the millennia; baking kahk included. That’s what gives Egyptians their unique identity.
When it comes to culinary celebrations, Egyptians have mastered eclectic recipes for every occasion, and along thousands of years, they have collected quite a number of them. Kahk in ancient Egypt was offered to the high-priests during religious holidays. Scenes on the temples of the ancient cities of Thebes and Memphis and engravings on the walls of some tombs depict ancient Egyptians making kahk. These engravings show how they mixed honey with butter, added flour, kneaded the dough, layered the disk-shaped pieces on flat sheets and baked them in ovens.
Ancient Egyptians stuffed the kahk with dates and figs and ornamented it with images of Aten, the sun god. The kahk depicted the solar disk and the designs embellished on it resembled rays of the sun. Today, metal tongs are still used to produce the same effects and tons of Kahk are baked and consumed in Egypt annually.
Nonetheless, as they saying goes, life is a journey not a destination, and so is baking kahk. It’s not just the delicious taste of the final product that Egyptians strive for year after year, but the process itself. Home baking kahk is a delightful ritual, even though in modern day urban Egypt, many families abandoned it and they buy it ready made. However, everyone nostalgically remembers the rituals from their childhood, still practiced by a vast majority of Egyptians who cannot afford the prices of the readymade kahk.
For decades, when time was in abundance, baking kahk was a social gathering. Few days before the Eid, women from the same neighborhood or family convened together with their children and baked kahk from sunrise to sunset, and often for more than one day. Women used the family recipes of their mothers and grandmothers. They distributed the roles among them. Some kneaded the dough, some cut it, rolled it, stuffed it, flattened it into circular shapes, and finally ornamented it with the metal tongs before they layered them in oven trays. This serious process was done while chatting, gossiping, exchanging recipes, and matchmaking. Rolling dough with greasy hands brought pleasure to children who were also allowed to create their own shapes.
Before home ovens were known, or even to be able to bake such enormous number of trays, women baked their kahk in neighborhood bakeries, for a small fee. In villages, women gathered in their courtyards and baked their kahk in their outdoor brick ovens. The aroma of kahk baking in the ovens wafted through the neighborhoods and announced the Eid was around the corner. Once baked and cooled off, women covered the kahk with heaps of powdered sugar and stored it in tin boxes. Families exchanged their kahk and gifted it to their relatives and friends. For weeks, they ate it for breakfast and at tea time, and served it to their guests.
With every passing year, the annual home baking tradition is losing ground to commercially made kahk, available in stores everywhere. Modernity is certainly making life easier, especially for working women, but that would never substitute childhood memories that many grew up witnessing over the years. It’s quite sad that young generations would miss this experience entirely, but c’est la vie. They will have their own kahk memories. And while we are reminiscing over a part of our life that can’t be reproduced, let’s remember that the tradition that has survived for thousands of years, will keep evolving to accommodate every generation. Enjoy your kahk, whether home baked or purchased — Happy Eid
Photos credit to photographer Heba Khalifa. Check her website here
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