Sara Al-Sayed: Kahk Essence

Salé Sucré Pâtisserie image, source:

Ramadan had started and I decided to find the nearest Egyptian/Arab deli. My expectations were humble. I just wanted to get my hands on a few cans of fava beans (ful) and dried dates. Over the years ful has become a fixture of my suhoor around midnight or as late/early as dawn to guarantee my energy levels wouldn’t plummet over the course of the fasting day. The dates are to break my fast on as is traditional.

I located an Egyptian deli, owned and run by a Coptic family, a 35-minute drive away in East Brunswick, New Jersey, and came back with three massive cans of ful, two packs of frozen Greek sambusek (one with cheese filling, one with spinach filling),  one-quarter kilo of mild rumi cheese (I couldn’t sample it while fasting, so I didn’t buy too much), frozen okra, thick beef sausage and a mix of nuts. I avoided both kunafah and qatayef, my lack of a sweet tooth making it easy. Instead, I committed an act of nostalgic whimsy: it had been Sham El-Nessim and Coptic Easter the previous week and I had found no sign of the smoked salted herring or mackerel associated with that holiday in the supermarkets. And so it came to pass that I made up for the unceremonious passing of Sham El-Nessim by treating myself on two successive Ramadan days to a thirst-inducing iftar appetizer of smoked salted herring drenched in olive oil and lime juice, garnished with sliced green paprika and spring onion and seasoned with black pepper.

In the month before Ramadan there were two Easters as well as Passover. Thanks to reports of Zoom-mediated festivities I learned that on Passover – celebrated in the same month as Sham El-Nessim – children chase and slap one another with sprigs of spring onion, reenacting how the Pharaohs whipped the Jews out of ancient Egypt. Today many would concur that it is enough to eat spring onion to drive people away without recourse to physical violence – all the more useful during these times of mandated physical distancing.

Ramadan was drawing to an end. Of the three cans of ful, I only managed to consume one, in three servings. My stomach had quickly adapted to a smaller daily intake and by the last week of the month I could barely nibble through a bowl of oatmeal for suhoor. It was a time of grounding, homecoming, through mental and culinary ritual. The lockdown period had generated its own rituals, and other rituals proceeded in lockstep with them: one to two special meals and one take-out meal a week, one grocery shop every ten days with subsequent disinfection of all food packaging.

The highlights. There has been eggplant moussaka. There has been cauliflower moussaka. The latter despite my husband signalling he wasn’t so big on cauliflower. He grew up with a certain notion of moussaka, the Greek notion, which predisposed him to disliking my native variety, so I thought that by imposing other vegetable moussakas on him he’d be convinced that the culture with the most elastic concept deserves credit for being the wellspring. Thankfully, the cauliflower moussaka grew on him and he stopped calling me a culinary essentialist. Would I be able to trace the provenance of the dish at the Princeton library? I did come across an extensive collection of ancient magic compendia sharing a shelf with philosophy books, and the effect was to insinuate a sense of documentary credibility relative to, say, culinary encyclopedias. 

Last Ramadan the Egyptian El-Shorouk newspaper ran a daily piece on the history of some staple Egyptian food item. The guiding principle was simple: whatever it was, it could be traced to ancient Egypt, as evidenced by temple or tomb murals. Even croissant, it appears, had an Egyptian origin. I’ve come to nurse two constraints on knowledge accretion and assimilation: Arabic misinformation, and non-Arabic misrepresentation.

Speaking of ritual and the written word, I had a distressing dream in three acts, probably triggered by a combination of heavy moussaka, coffee at 9 PM (I was too afraid to embark on fasting without adequate caffeine withdrawal ease-in) and exceptional humidity. The pandemic fashioned its own dream archetype. In the first act the dish drying rack loomed large, stacked full glassware, cutlery, pots and pans that didn’t have time to dry before a new batch was ready to replace them. In queueing theory terms, the rate of incoming requests exceeded the queue servicing rate. In the second act this came to represent the experience of going through all the questions of an exam in time. I couldn’t tick off the questions fast enough as time ran out. It must have been a high-school English or Arabic exam, with me leaving the composition question to last.

In the final act clearing my desk took on the significance of dish washing and exam anxiety combined as the dish drying rack became a library bin in which I carried around my personal belongings – I would have dropped my rucksack in a locker beyond the security portal. So I was working in the library at a desk with my red-dish-drying-rack-doubling-as-library-bin at arm’s length, my belongings themselves having been taken out and arranged before me. The pandemic reached neighboring towns. I refused to believe it would hit our own. We were warned we might need to evacuate the library. So I put my belongings back into the bin and withdrew to another desk, relatively out of sight. Out came the contents again. Then the pandemic hit town and we were told to evacuate. I cleared away my desk yet again and retreated to another, even further from view. But we were to be forcefully removed from the library. I had nowhere to hide and defensively clutched my red-dish-drying-rack-doubling-as-library-bin as they came for me. I woke up in a sweat. 

But before croissant there was kahk, and if there’s anything I’m not essentialist about, it’s kahk. The Shorouk daily piece, if my memory serves me, traced the etymology of “cake” to kahk, itself an ancient Egyptian specialty. I made kahk for the Eid without its essence.  I’ve been wanting to bake kahk since I moved abroad and stopped spending the Eid in Egypt as the lunar month crawled back up the Gregorian calendar, no longer coinciding with summer. It was becoming less and less viable to go home for Eid. Year after year I would check online kahk recipes. Year after year I would give up the baking venture, discouraged by the near certainty that I would find neither ghee nor the “kahk essence” spices.

“This year, I’m baking kahk,” I would tell my mum defiantly on the phone.

“Is there kahk essence where you are?”

“I doubt it, but there are online suggestions for substitutes.”

“That won’t do. No kahk essence, no kahk!”

A couple of years I was lucky with a fast-growing circle of Egyptian friends hauling kahk over from timely trips home. But this year, freshly settled in the US, my luck’s run out. I was bent on taking the plunge and experimenting with spice concoctions until I got it right. We’re in quarantine, I’m still unemployed, kitchen time between studying and job hunting is routine. But if I ever were to find here the right brand of ghee and the right assortment of base spices to experiment with, it was going to be at the Egyptian deli in East Brunswick. I was amused to know that authentic kahk essence had been imported in timely fashion and actually run out at the deli just a day before I got there, though still determined to buy a mix of base spices for experimentation. The blogger-baker behind my online recipe of choice hazarded a guess at the ingredients of kahk essence: mahlab, fennel and anise. A commenter on her blog recipe hazarded another: cinnamon, cloves and cardamom.

This game has no rules. There is no culinary synthesis algorithm at my disposal that, on being fed the desired taste, aroma, colour and consistency descriptors will automatically spew out the required ingredients. I understand this is the procedure at the core of recent attempts to synthesize a substitute for real meat with a smaller ecological footprint.

Anyhow, I surmised that true kahk essence must be some arbitrary mixture of an arbitrary subset of the six spices above subject to the condition that mahlab be a member of this subset. I don’t even know what mahlab is. I have no associations with it beyond kahk. Nor did Wikipedia help at all with demystifying it. Still I added it to anise, cinnamon and allspice, which seems to include cloves and much more besides. Whether it was beginner’s luck or the blogger-baker’s fail-proof recipe, I did make kahk that is essentially kahk without kahk essence. My husband – not a kahk connoisseur, but he’d had enough experience – approved. It seems the blogger-baker perfected the recipe over the years in the pursuit of not quite kahk, but an uncanny hybrid between kahk, its fluffier relative ghorayyeba and petit-fours – because she likes it that way. I share her palate now.