Kahk, the festive cookies made for various religious festivities in the region, are said to go back to Pharaonic Egypt. Images of kahk have been found engraved on the tombs of ruling members of the 18th dynasty.
They are baked in a round form to mimic the shape of the sun, and it’s said they were first offered by queens to the Cheops pyramids guards the day the sun passes on its rocks.
But as with every culinary tradition, kahk has traveled through time and space, mutating in method and form to become representative of cultural variations.
Kahk recipes and traditions vary widely even just within Egypt, depending on both region and family tradition, but there are many to explore elsewhere too. Here’s a non-comprehensive list of thoughts on how kahk varies from household to household and region to region.
Photographer Randa Shaath‘s maternal family comes from Alexandria. She says two things distinguished her grandmother’s kahk recipe: The use of a herb called “rouh,” which gives it a special smell and is a blend of anise, ginger, cloves among other spices, and the creation of round-shaped cookies with a hole in the middle, typically stuffed with a date-based mixture.
Journalist Haytham Mahgoub from Nubia explains that kahk in 44 Nubian villages is generally made out of corn flour, rather than wheat. The corn is usually locally cultivated, harvested and milled. Part of it is set apart each year to bake the Eid kahk, while the rest is sold as the main source of income. Because most men work far from their villages and don’t come back for this Eid holiday, there’s a tradition of stuffing a carton with the homemade kahk and sending them with travelers on the train.
The grandmother of Mada Masr’s Heba Afify hails from the Delta city of Mansoura. Her kahk recipe is supposedly a secret, but she was willing to reveal two small features of it: strong heating of the ghee and using a stuffing of agameya, which is loosely a combination of nuts and honey, as opposed to the more common malban stuffing.
Afify’s grandmother earned the expertise at the age of 18, when she was asked by her father to go buy readymade cookies but overlooked the request until it was a day into Eid. So she had to do it from scratch after a brief moment of panic.
Writer Tamara al-Rifaie, who hails from Syria, says that orange blossom is the distinctive ingredient in Syrian kahk, as opposed to rose water which is most commonly used in Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon and other countries in the region.
“There’s something extremely refined about orange blossom. It’s like delicate white lace but in a flavor,” Rifaie says. “It elevates the taste of pistachio and of sugar or syrup. It takes them somewhere much more distinguished. But it isn’t exclusive to a class or to one’s financial position. In old households drinking water could never be served without a few drops of orange blossom. It’s a staple in a damascene kitchen.”
In Palestine, historian Sherene Seikaly tells us that two spices are more traditionally used there: cinnamon and nutmeg. Some people use flour and others use semolina.
And for Ranwa Yehia, a youth programs developer who comes from Lebanon, the use of anise, cloves and mahaleb is distinctive in the Lebanese dough recipe, as opposed to the rouh mixture mentioned above.