It is Holy Thursday, fewer than three days to Coptic Easter, and Morkos Kamel is happily surrounded by his children and grandchild who have come over to his house in Al-Mahalla Al-Kobra in the Delta to celebrate the holiest day in the calendar according to Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church.
Along with his wife, Kamel is immersed in preparations for the Easter dinner that the family enjoys after attending mass of fresh molokheya and stuffed vine leaves alongside a wide range of meat, poultry, and desserts. Then there are kahk cookies iced with powdered sugar.
Kamel has done all the shopping, and his wife, daughter, and daughter-in-law are doing the cooking. For the holiday of Sham Al-Nessim right after Easter Kamel is preparing the ultimate Egyptian delicacy of fesikh, or salted or fermented fish.
He has bought mullet, the bigger ones of around half a kg. He has one for every member of the family and has added an extra fish to make sure that everyone has ample.
Kamel is very serious about preparing fesikh at home. Fresh, hand-picked fish and quality salt are in order to make sure that the colour, taste, texture, and smell of the final product that is served for lunch on Monday are all just right. “It has to be pinkish, soft, not too salty and not with an overly intense pickling smell,” he said.
This is the only way to make fesikh compatible with the salty fish he used to enjoy as a child some 70 years ago at his parents’ house in the same city.
“Back then, a seller would be riding a donkey and carrying two small barrels on the sides while calling out ‘fesikh, soft as butter,’” Kamel recalled. His mother would look out from her balcony to ask the seller to provide her with some salted fish.
“We used to buy our fesikh for Sham Al-Nessim, but then I decided to do it at home rather than buy it,” he said.
After having bought a too salty batch Kamel decided to switch to the home-made choice. “It is not hard to prepare,” he said. He buys good quality fish and keeps it tightly wrapped and in a warm place for a night or two to make sure that the flesh becomes tender. He then properly salts it and keeps it tightly wrapped and in air-tight jars for 10 days or two weeks depending on the weather.
What Kamel does with eight to nine mullets for the occasion, Nabil does with close to 100 kg of fish for the holiday that all Egyptians across the religious and socio-economic spectrum celebrate. He has been in the business of making and selling fesikh for over 50 years.
“People don’t just buy fesikh for Sham Al-Nessim. It is also very popular after Ramadan, but it so happened that Sham Al-Nessim and Eid Al-Fitr are coming one week apart this year, so we are expecting a good season despite the economic crunch that is forcing people to cut down on food shopping,” Kamel said.
“We are not getting as many orders as we used to, of course. A client who used to order three or four kg is now only ordering two,” he added.
Nabil said that prices have been increasing. “Of course, everything is getting more expensive, the fish, the salt, and the wooden barrels that we use for salting. And then we have to increase the wages of the workers,” he said. This is not making it any easier for clients whose budgets have also been declining.
Nabil has not prepared as much fish as he did last year. “It is because the market is generally slower and not just because Sham Al-Nessim is coming during the fasting month of the Muslims. Actually, Eid Al-Fitr comes only one week later,” he said.
Even so, “for most Egyptians, a meal of fesikh is a quintessential necessity for Sham Al-Nessim especially and also for Eid Al-Fitr,” he added.
CELEBRATIONS: On 24 April, Egypt’s Copts celebrated Easter, and on 25 April, Sham Al-Nessim was celebrated, even if in a limited fashion because of Ramadan. On 2 May, it will be time to celebrate Eid Al-Fitr.
While Easter is not an official holiday, Sham Al-Nessim is. The government has announced that the week starting on 30 April and continuing until 7 May will be a public holiday to allow for the celebration of Labour Day on 1 May and Eid Al-Fitr.
Hoda Mahmoud has already secured the order of fesikh that her family will be having for lunch on the second day of the Eid holiday. “Just like kahk, fesikh is essential in Eid Al-Fitr,” she said.
On the first day, Mahmoud will serve kahk and tea with milk for the breakfast that she shares with her husband and her visiting sons and their families. “It has to be tea with milk not coffee,” she stressed. Lunch will be fried fish. “It has to be fried because we don’t eat fried fish during Ramadan Iftars because it would make us very thirsty the day after,” she added.
The second day is “the ultimate fesikh day with fesikh and salted herrings and sardines and green onions and lots of lettuce and baladi bread — it has to be baladi bread,” she said.
While Kamel’s family has abandoned making kahk at home for the Eid Al-Quiama (Easter) and has decided to buy it instead, Mahmoud has to introduce new items to suit the taste of her children and grandchildren.
Only one of Mahmoud’s eight grandchildren is interested in fesikh. “He takes a bite or two, but he would not really indulge. The other [grandchildren] would not even touch it. They dread its smell and call it rotten fish,” she said.
The salted herring and sardines would pass the grandchildren. However, to really please them, Mahmoud said, she has had to introduce “untypical items”, including smoked salmon. The only part of Sham Al-Nessim that Mahmoud’s grandchildren subscribe to is the coloured hard-boiled eggs and the brioche that she bakes herself in the shape of couronne de paques and some of the chocolate bunnies she has always bought from a Heliopolis patisserie.
“Things have changed: I would have never thought that I would be serving sandwiches of smoked salmon on brown bread for Sham Al-Nessim, or that I would have to bake brownies and cupcakes to serve alongside kahk for Eid,” she added.
Having grown up at the heart of the middle class, Mahmoud remembers when she and her siblings would join her mother, aunts, and grandmother during the last 10 days of Ramadan for a long process of kahk making. “It was a ritual that we immersed ourselves into as an extended family every day from noon until one or two hours before Iftar and every evening from [the early evening] to Sohour two hours before dawn,” she said.
At that time, “in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was not customary to buy ready-made kahk because the comparison would always be in favour of home-made,” she said. Not so many patisseries were baking kahk for Eid.
According to Liliane Issa, owner of one of the oldest patisseries in Alexandria, Alexandra Hamos, said it was around the late 1980s and early 1990s that her store started to sell kahk for Christmas, Easter, and Eid Al-Fitr.
In previous decades, Issa recalls that Hamos clients would prepare their kahk at home and send it for baking at the patisserie.
“I think part of this is due to the fact that up until the 1980s most people did not have the right ovens at home to bake it in. Later, people became less interested in spending time on the elaborate process of making it and petit fours at home,” she said. “It is quite an elaborate process,” she added.
Towards the 1970s a few ladies started independent upscale kahk businesses. They made the kahk at home and sent it to be baked at patiserries. The prices of this high-end kahk were not accessible for many. This meant that for the most part kahk was still mostly made at home despite attempts to commercialise it.
In the late 1950s that Egypt opened its first national biscuit factory, Bisco Misr. Kahk was one of the products of this new company. “Bisco Misr kahk was very different from the kahk we used to bake at home. The size of each was much bigger than the ones we made at home, but they were not as rich in butter as kahk should be,” remembered Sawsan Raouf.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s shortly before its privatisation along with other food and beverage companies at the time, Bisco Misr started a marketing campaign including a TV commercial that used to be aired at prime-time in Ramadan. The key message was that it was much easier to buy than to bake kahk.
According to Raouf, this was also a moment when eating out was turning from an outing to an exercise designed to avoid cooking. Pizzas and burgers, soft drinks, and a wide range of candy bars, either imported or made in Egypt, also started to appear.
While Bisco Misr was slowly improving the quality and packing of its kahk, other pastries were increasing volumes with a growing interest in ready-made kahk.
Fayez Anwar, a baker at a Heliopolis bakery, said that it was around this time that it became less and less fashionable for people to book large black baking trays ahead of the Eid to bake their kahk. “I think it was around the late 1990s, only ten years after I had started working for this bakery, that it was becoming rare to have anyone enquiring about arrangements for baking home-made kahk,” he said. Eventually, bakeries around the city started to bake and sell their own.
Raouf agreed that it has become rare for the middle classes to bake kahk in the old-fashioned way. “The tradition lingered a bit in the less economically privileged circles, but around Heliopolis it was certainly falling out of fashion,” she said.
In Dar Al-Salam, a part of the city where the economic crunch is taking a toll, Ahmed Hussein has always had old-fashioned black oven trays sent out “by order and on a careful schedule” to several apartments around the neighbourhood for the kahk to come for baking in the oven of his small bakery. But during the past few years, he said, the orders have been dwindling with the increasing budgets required.
“There is also the issue of comparisons. No lady would want to be seen baking now, much less baking kahk, than she used to or than her neighbours or her in laws do, for example,” he said. More and more ladies say they will just buy ready-made kahk.
Raouf tried to keep up the tradition for as long as she could, and she started to bake her own at home before she succumbed to buying a big box of biscuits and petit fours, she said.
At first, she would take the kahk out of the box and arrange it on serving plates, but as the quality of the boxes improved she would skip the serving plates, especially if it was a family gathering.
According to Ahmed Farouk and Zahra Nour, two sales assistants in two of Cairo’s upscale patisseries, the evolution of packaging that has taken place during the past four years has been enticing for people to resume the habit of buying kahk for gifts.
The tin-coloured boxes that carry Eid Al-Fitr motifs that have been introduced during the past few years have increased sales significantly, Farouk said. He explained that this increase is not just about the appeal of the packaging, but also about the convenience of buying a single pre-packed box of a selection of kahk, sable, and petit fours.
“Clients now don’t have to buy in kg, which is inconvenient in view of the prices that have increased by close to 100 per cent in less than 10 years,” he said. However, he added, this year in particular with the “really soaring prices” smaller-sized tin boxes have been introduced.
Meanwhile, baking kahk at home has started to pick up to meet the convenience of having it made with lower calories or more cheaply. “It has become so expensive. I have three children, and we are a big family of many siblings. I cannot make do with two kg of kahk and petit fours, and I can’t spend over LE1,000 to get seven kg of a decent quality selection,” said Nadine Ahmed.
She checked with her mother and mother-in-law for a few tricks and watched a few YouTube videos and a couple of TV cooking shows and then she embarked on making her own as a result.
While this has allowed for the resumption of a fading tradition, the introduction of new varieties of kahk and fesikh has also allowed people to have them to eat again.
Salma Haroun said that his family had abandoned both kahk and fesikh for over ten years. “First fesikh was stopped for health concerns, and then we stopped buying kahk because we would buy it and have a few for the first day of Eid and then it would be just left,” she said.
INEVITABLE CHANGES: The introduction of new varieties including 250 g disposable packages of fesikh bites mixed with shredded green onions and olive oil or tahina in some high-end supermarkets has tempted Haroun to try again.
“I got one and served it. My husband and I had some, and the children had a dip or two,” she said. For the past three years on Sham Al-Nessim, Salma has been consistently buying a single pack of 250 g.
“It is neat and tidy, and it has no intense smell. I serve it with another pack of smoked herring and a few coloured boiled eggs and a bread basket,” she said. For Haroun, the essence of Sham Al-Nessim is about enjoying a day out in the open air in the pleasant sun with blooming flowers and colourful butterflies. The tradition is well served with two neat and disposable boxes of salted fish.
Meanwhile, Haroun said that the availability of 250 g packages of kahk and petit fours on the shelves of the supermarket has encouraged her to buy a couple of packs to serve with tea or coffee for the first and second day of the Eid.
According to anthropologist Nahla Emam, it is such innovations that allow traditions to survive. “Celebrating holidays is always associated with food, and sometimes particular recipes have to evolve in order to survive, and sometimes it is the way this food is made or consumed that has to change,” she said.
However, as Emam agreed, changes are inevitable one way or the other. “We generally think that kahk and fesikh in particular have a very old basis in Egyptian history, but for sure the way we eat them has changed in one way or another over time,” she said.
Today, there is hardly any trace left of the habit of having the women and children of an entire extended family, or in some neighbourhoods of an entire apartment building, coming together to bake kahk. However, there are YouTube reviews on where to go to buy the best or most affordable kind.
A tradition, Emam argued, is about a set of patterns. “Some of the patterns go away, and some new patterns come in. It is always a dynamic process,” she said.
Health concerns are among the reasons people have changed their consumption of both fesikh and kahk.
According to cardiologist Heba Attiya, because of life-styles that include less physical activity, there has been an increase in the levels of obesity and health hazards like high blood pressure and diabetes.
An individual whose nutrition choices are dominated by fast food, sweets, and soft drinks all year long has already caused his health enough harm for it to be worsened by the excessive consumption of salted fish or rich biscuits.
“There is also the issue of the declining quality of the ingredients and the sometimes poor preparation methods that add to the risk,” Attiya said. With health consciousness seeping through society, she added, more and more people are opting for alternative ways to enjoy the holidays.
This is also prompting changes in food habits. Many people tend to travel for the holidays rather than dedicate their time off to big meals and extended socialisation. A day by the beach is becoming a holiday favourite for many people. Inevitably, this consumes the budget allocated for kahk shopping and does not allow for a fesikh brunch.
However, a few things have escaped the change. One is the wish to dress nicely for prayers, either at church or during the early morning prayers in and around a mosque. Sales assistants at several inexpensive causal clothes stores in Cairo said it was becoming a lot more frequent for clients to shop for their children alone.
“Budgets are tight, and we can barely buy a new dress for each of the two girls. We don’t need to wear something new. We are just happy to see our daughters wearing new dresses as we walk them to mass,” said Hani Labib.
For Marwa Mustafa, what counts is not buying a new dress but buying a new prayer outfit for when she goes out with her friends for Eid prayers at the mosque. “For us, the real essence of Eid is when we go to prayers and see the colourful balloons falling down on us after we do the prayers,” she said.
For Nadia Hussein, Mustafa’s mother, the ultimate Eid moment is when she hears Egyptian singer Umm Kolthoum’s classic song Ya Leilat Al-Eid (Eid’s Eve is upon us).
According to music critic Mohamed Diab, it is music rather than anything else that marks such occasions. “The songs of the Eid carry an intense dose of joy with them that really makes people feel delighted. It is the rhythm of the music that gives a sense of festivity rather than anything else,” he said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.