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Nur ar-Ramadan

The lonely Fanous

As we prepare for the holy month of Ramadan, our palates scream for kunafa. Amany Abdel-Moneim goes in search of the best shredded wheat in town

Everything is falling into place. Dried fruits, nuts and apricot paste have filled the food shops and in some cases pushed their way out onto the sidewalk. Colourful lanterns are just about everywhere. The shopping spree for Ramadan essentials is on.

I am reminded of childhood when we would gather around my mother's table and stare hungrily at the feast being set up. Most of our attention, of course, was focussed on the sweets, namely: qatayef, a pastry stuffed with pistachios, almonds and raisins, and drenched in a syrup of lemon and sugar; kunafa, a dessert spun out of shredded wheat and topped with raisins, nuts and cream; and last but not least, khushaf, a compote of stewed apricots, figs, prunes, dried dates and raisins.

" Kunafa is said to be of Fatimid origin," says 62-year-old haj ALi Arafa, the owner of Cairo's most famous kunafa outlet. Arafa grew up in his grandfather's confectionery shop in the working class quarter of Al- Sayeda Zeinab, where he still works today. "It was introduced by a physician at the court of the Khalifa Abdel-Malek Bin Marawan," he explains. "Some princes were having a hard time fasting because of their voracious appetite. So the doctor worked to develop a dish that would not only be delicious but would have a long-lasting warming and filling effect. The doctor then instructed the princes to eat great quantities of this heavy dish just before dawn. As a result, they never went hungry during the day again."

That is one story. Another popular history of the desert's origins claims that the Fatimids, who were Shias, wanted to win the hearts of the Sunni Cairenes by creating an especially festive atmosphere during the month of the fast, and accordingly introduced all sorts of scrumptious deserts, among them kunafa.

Over the years this concoction of shredded wheat has come to take many different forms on the Ramadan table. There is the cake-like dish stuffed with nuts, cream, or bananas, a bite-sized variety, and conical and egg-shaped nuggets. According to Ahmed Ali who runs a well-known sweet shop in Al-Sayeda Zeinab, "we sell kunafa throughout the year. But in Ramadan, people eat kunafa almost every day."

Arafa points out, however, that during the holy month people prefer to buy raw kunafa and make the dish up at home, whether plain or with nuts, baked in an oven or cooked on the range.

As a result, stands offering raw kunafa have literally sprouted up all over town. According to aam Khamis, who has been in this business for 50 years, "raw kunafa used to be prepared by hand. The dough would be baked on a tray of copper with a small oven underneath it. However, in the 1970s we started using gasoline instead of coal, which altered the character of the heat under the tray, and by the early 1980s most of our ovens were electric."

The modern mechanised process starts by pouring the dough into a metal funnel from which the kunafa threads emerge via a fine sieve. These fall onto a hot rotating surface and are collected in large bunches of blond hair ready for baking. The holes of the sieve can be adjusted to create strands of three different widths.

"We usually go for the thin strand because it is easy to cook," says Ali. "And while we also sell modern forms of kunafa stuffed with banana and other fruits, most of our customers ask for the classic kunafa with nuts during Ramadan."

To make a traditional kunafa at home, Ali suggests that you use two types of sweet syrup, of different density. First, pour the lighter syrup over the kunafa while it is still pretty hot, then add the thicker syrup later. And if you want to stuff your desert with clotted cream, you will first need to fry the kunafa with butter till it is golden and sweeten it. Put half of it in a tray, add the cream, and cover with the rest of the fried kunafa. Then pour the syrup over, and serve.

Many a housewife, however, take issue with Ali. Samiha Shaher, for example, prefers the thick-thread kunafa, which her grandmother used to use. The oldest man in the kunafa business, haj Mohamed El-Sherif, agrees. "The threads of the kunafa shouldn't be too thin, otherwise it will burn," explains the 72-year-old whose grandfather was known as sheikh al-kanafaniya (the king of the kunafa -makers).

Standing in his shop in Darb Al-Ahmar, which is said to be the oldest in the city, El- Sherif goes on to point out that "Ramadan is the time when the kunafa -maker really flourishes. Then making the pastry becomes an almost artistic process."

To cook the perfect kunafa, El-Sherif says that the strands, sugar and ghee must first be mixed thoroughly, so that the dough is ready to absorb the honey that will be added later.

He should know. El-Sherif recalls the days when Egypt's royal family and most of the country's aristocracy would send their cooks to his store to buy their kunafa from his grandfather. It is this pride in tradition that has made El-Sherif hold on to his little brick oven in the face of electric devices. "Every year I would help my father renovate the oven," he recounts.

Is this why his kunafa tastes so special? While El-Sherif is not prepared to divulge his secrets, he does tell us that, "some people use only oil, water and salt in the dough, while others use milk and ghee as well. The result is a clear difference in the taste."

In conclusion, haj Arafa confided his favourite personal kunafa recipe to Al-Ahram Weekly, and so we are able to share it with you. Cut the raw kunafa into small pieces, mix it with hot butter and fry it for two minutes. Then put the hot kunafa into small dishes and add powdered sugar and clotted cream. Serve hot.