Most, if not all, holidays and celebrations in Egypt are associated with food. While this might indicate a gastronomically obsessive culture, it wasn’t always the case. The different holiday foods were all about the process of making them, not just the eating. Or that’s how it was for my family at least.
I had a traditional grandmother; traditional in the sense that everything had to be made from scratch. And it was made collectively. Many of my earliest memories of my grandma’s house are of my mother, my aunts and sometimes family friends led by grandma in an extensive session of food making. Lemons were pickled with saffron; each lemon half cut into four and stuffed with the herbs. The katayef batter was made at home to be stuffed with nuts and fried later on. And of course, my fondest memory is of the week preceding every Ramadan, when the family got together to make the Kahk, the ghorayeba, the petits fours and the biscuits. The Eid cookies.
As children, we were given dough to play with, while our mothers worked on stirring, mixing, shaping and baking. At the time, we were oblivious to the fact that a kahk making industry existed; that kahk was sold in shops to people who didn’t make them. And when we realized this, we dismissively ignored the ready-made kahk. Simply, its taste didn’t compare to our grandma’s that everyone we knew waited for.
It was only after my grandma fell ill and was too weak to lead the process that we stopped. Knowing how stubborn she was, the family decided against making the kahk (a tradition exclusive to her home) in fear that she would insist on joining. And for two years after her death, her daughters, in the spirit of mourning, refrained from making kahk, which in essence is a celebratory food.
This year, my cousins and I managed to convince our mothers to revive what we proudly referred to as our family tradition. We wanted our delicious unrivaled kahk back. But most importantly, we wanted to revive our grandma’s legacy. She always worked to make other people happy, whether by standing by their side when they needed her or by simply making their favorite foods. And her recipes were well kept treasures.
We rolled our sleeves for the work to come. For a week before the agreed weekend, my mother kept experimenting with ingredients to get the right mix and the exact time it needs in the oven. And last Friday, the women of the family came to our house and the work kicked off. It was a laborious process that stretched over four days, with stirring, mixing, kneading, filling, shaping and tasting on repeat. There were stories shared over hours of preparing trays of kahk and biscuits and an overall sense of gratification to be doing this again.
I have to admit that seeing the sheer amount of butter, sugar and flour used — that would make each health-conscious, calorie-counting person cringe — I had my doubts about eating what we were producing. But that was only temporarily.
The process was also tiring, but it provided an already tight family a chance to bond even more. I hope to do it again next year, not just for the soft kahk sprinkled with powdered sugar I’ve been devouring, but for everything this tradition means and exudes and for holding dearly at its core the memory of my grandmother. It’s one tradition I’d hate to lose.