In preparation for Eid, Egyptian families get together and bake kahk, a traditional butter cookie, and not even high prices will stand in their way of preserving their traditions.
Um Karima is carefully balancing four trays of cookies on her head as she walks into a small bakery on a busy street in Giza, located just a few steps away from her home.
Arranged on the tray is round-shaped kahk, traditional Egyptian butter cookies that are a staple in Eid celebrations, also known as Eid el-Fitr, which mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.
One by one, a bakery employee takes the trays of cookies and places them in the oven.
“Don’t eat any of it,” Um Karima joked with the bakery’s employees as she left. “I can’t promise I won’t,” one of them responded.
They agreed she would be back early the next morning to pick up her kahk.
Baking kahk for the Eid holidays is an age-old tradition that, some Egyptologists say, even dates back to Pharaonic Egypt.
Many Egyptians even call the holidays marking the end of Ramadan Eid el-Kahk. The kahk dough can be stuffed with dates, walnuts, pistachios, malban (similar to Turkish delight), agameya (a mix of honey and nuts), or even served plain, depending on each family’s palate.
“We used to bake it in the oven at home,” the 34-year-old mother of five told Middle East Eye, “but it’s too expensive to do that now. The gas cylinder costs EGP 60 ($3.50).”
Instead of baking hers at home, Um Karima solicits the help of the local bakery, which bakes them at EGP 10 ($0.60) per tray. Last year, the same bakery charged EGP 8 ($0.50) for the same tray of kahk.
Um Karima had stopped baking kahk at home since the government floated its currency in 2016, causing a hike in prices, which took a toll on every part of society. Local traditions and customs were no exception.
Still, her Eid isn’t complete without kahk. She recounts helping her mother as a child in the governorate of Beni Suef, south of Cairo.
“That is how it has always been. When I was a child my mother would sit me and my sisters down and we would help her make the kahk, and carefully shape it and place it on the tray before heating it up in the mud oven we had back then.
“Last year we baked ten kilos [of kahk], but this year we could only make five kilos,” she lamented.
Egyptians continue to struggle to get by as they grapple with another round of austerity measures, despite a drop in inflation to 11.5 percent in May from 12.9 percent in April, according to Egypt’s national statistics agency.
This week, the government announced a cut in electricity subsidies by 26 percentstarting in July. Earlier this month, the price of drinking water and sanitation services was also increased by 46 percent. Last month, the government raised metro ticket prices, more than tripling some fares, sparking angry and sporadic protests. These measures come as part of a $12bn International Monetary Fund loan programme.
Ramadan, an employee at the bakery named after the holy month, told Middle East Eye that this year they have been selling a kilo of kahk stuffed with dates and malban for EGP 160 ($9).
Manar, one of the bakery’s customers, was standing in a corner with her son, carefully picking kahk from one of the trays and then placing them in a golden cardboard box. She told MEE that while she had bought five kilos of kahk last year at a different bakery which sells it at cheaper prices, this year she cannot afford to buy more than three, since the bakery she is used to dealing with had closed down.
“I don’t know how to bake it myself,” Manar told MEE. “I don’t know anyone who makes it at home at all any more. Most people think it’s too much work and not worth the slight difference in cost.”
In La Poire, a high-end patisserie popular in Cairo and Giza, a kilo of plain kahk costs EGP 195 ($11), kahk stuffed with dates is EGP 225 ($13) while kahk stuffed with pistachios costs EGP 340 ($19).
An employee in the shop, displaying trendy Ramadan desserts such as kunafa made with a modern twist including mango, Nutella, and red velvet cake stuffings, confirmed to MEE that prices have risen this year, but could not elaborate on how much.
Randa Maher, a 27-year-old mother of two, sat outside her modest home in 6th of October city in Giza, cradling her nine-month old son and watching her five-year-old daughter run around.
Maher has never bought ready-made kahk and promised herself that she never would, but she has noticed that the number of friends baking kahk at home has been dwindling in recent years.
“Yes, it’s cheaper to make it at home, but for many people the meagre difference in price is not worth the effort and the time,” Maher told MEE. “There are so many people I know that have stopped baking it at home, especially the younger generations.”
Yet for Maher, skipping this Eid tradition is out of the question.
“I remember seeing my mother bake kahk every year a week before Eid,” Maher told MEE. “She would squish and mush up the dough, and my brother and I would mould it and shape it.
“I would watch her put the yeast on the flour and then add butter to the mix. She would add a hint of vanilla essence, milk mixed with sugar, a dash of rose water, orange, or banana essence, or anything really, to make the kahk smell nice,” Maher said.
The best part of the whole process, she says with a smile, was the “happiness that came along with it”.
The high prices have led her family to also decrease the quantities of the baked goods. “A few years ago we would make around 12 kilos, this year we made just four.”
Egyptian families tend to make kahk in abundance to share with their close friends and neighbours, and offer it as a gift to their guests.
Butter and ghee
The rising prices of each of the ingredients have affected the production of kahk in different homes, but ghee and butter have seen the most dramatic price hikes.
Usually one kilo of flour needs to be mixed with half a kilo of butter or ghee to bake one kilo of the rich cookies.
“One kilo of ghee now could cost EGP 90 ($5), or even more. It cost EGP 35 ($2) before the inflation and EGP 16 (less than $1) a few years before that,” Um Karima told Middle East Eye.
Maher said she bought a lower quality brand of butter because it is cheaper, as opposed to an imported brand she usually buys that cost her over EGP 140 ($8). She spent EGP 37 ($2) on ghee for each kilo of kahk.
“Some brands are so bad though, it makes you feel like you’re not even eating real kahk,” Maher explained.
Fifty-two-year-old Nadia Ahmed sits in her apartment with bowls of dough in front of her, going through the steps of adding and mixing the kahk ingredients together as though she could be doing it with her eyes closed.
“[Baking kahk] is a tradition and I cannot do without. Even for my children, I want them to experience the same happiness that I experienced as a child. This is something we are used to doing at home, and without it, it would feel like something is missing,” Maher told MEE.
She told MEE that while she and her family baked 10 kilos of kahk last year, this year general price hikes have led them to bake just half of that.
Ahmed has three daughters and one son, and she says the entire family gets together to bake.
“It’s not just any other day, it has its own joy.” After they finish putting everything together, they carry all of the trays to the bakery at the end of the street where it costs 10 EGP ($0.60) per tray to put in the oven.
“[The prices] have affected everyone and everything,” Manar said.
But Egyptian women insist on maintaining Eid customs and traditions.
“It is mostly about getting together and making something collectively,” Maher, who left her hometown of Fayoum, southwest of Cairo, two years ago to come and live in Giza, said. This year, her older brother and his wife came to spend the day baking with her.
“Back in Fayoum, all of our relatives and neighbours would get together to make the kahk. We would take turns and help each family bake each day of the week,” she recalled with a sense of nostalgia.
Ahmed also said that the process of baking kahk feels like an act full of “blessings” for her. “For example, if one of our neighbours is tired or sick this year, we all make sure to bake a batch of kahk for her. That’s what the whole tradition is about.” In fact, generously gifting kahk to guests is a common practice.
“I am happy that I am keeping [this tradition] alive for my children,” Ahmed said.