Monday,20 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1157, (18 - 24 July 2013)
Monday,20 November, 2017
Issue 1157, (18 - 24 July 2013)

Ahram Weekly

The making of keshk

Photographer Sherif Sonbol tracks down the fascinating rituals of cooking keshk, a ubiquitous Ramadan dish steeped in tradition

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Keshk is a favourite with Cairenes in Ramadan. Restaurants all over the city include the traditional Egyptian dish on their menus for Iftar, the break-fast meal at sunset. Modern day keshk is a thick greyish soup with a pudding-like consistency made by boiling flour, yoghurt and chicken soup, with slices of chicken breast inside and garnished with fried onions. In one word: delicious.
For me, keshk is an entirely different affair. I remember when I was much younger, relatives from Upper Egypt would visit carrying baskets of two main items: Battau bread (aish merahrah) and keshk. The latter were small, grey, uneven, hard clumps with a bitter taste. Aish merahrah were huge rounds of thin and crispy bread. I loved the bread and made fun of the pebbly keshk.
Eventually, both foods almost disappeared from my life. No more visitors came to visit and, like all the good old traditions, they slowly became extinct.
Recently, I decided to explore the possibilities of unearthing the two foods once again. I called friends and asked if they knew someone who still made them. People promised to ask around, but I never received any word, till finally, my friend Sinout Shenouda called his cousin who works in Beni Sweif and arranged a visit to Deir Al-Maymoun village. I had been to that village a few years back, because it was the birthplace and home of St Anthony, the great monk who was the father of Monasticism in the world.
There, I met Liza Mahrous, who was born in Deir Al-Maymoun village in January 1939. She seemed a healthy, strong and very kind woman. Liza explained that when people used to cook in copper pans, everyone’s health was excellent and nobody ever complained of aches and pains like nowadays. “We used to hear the street vendor roaming the streets yelling ‘I can shine your copper.’ We never used to hear anyone yelling that their feet hurt. Nobody complained of feet pain. Copper was great,” she reminisced nostalgically.
Asking her about aish merahrah, she said: “We used to make it, but the dabsh [animals] knocked the oven down.”
Curiosity got the better of me and I asked her how much her jewellery endowment was when she got married.
“Ah, I did not get jewels. My parents received money and spent it to buy my furniture and all the other things. They received LE50 (the rough equivalent of $10,000 now). Other girls were getting around LE10 or even LE20,” she said.
“My house was built from hard stones. The river reached the village and we used to bring sand from the mountain on donkeys and cover the water. There was no cement when the house was built. Cement is better than stone, because when you add floors it does not fall down. My house is only two floors high, and the water keeps eating at the stones. When it gets very weak, we replace it,” she said.
According to Mahrous, keshk is made by grinding wheat first. “We used to grind wheat into desheesh, using a deshdashah, which is two stones on top of each other used for grinding. But these deshdashahs are not available anymore except in one or two houses. Now we use electronic machines.” I made a note to go out with Milad, my new local friend, to search for a deshdashah.
“As for the milk,” continued Mahrous, “We put it in a sheep-skin bag and then someone blows in it.” She hung a skin bag onto three sticks, then she sat on the floor and started to blow. I felt sorry for her having to blow into the large bag by herself and asked Milad to help. They both smiled and so did the women in the house. “The breath,” Mahrous said. “What breath?” I asked. “The sheep skin recognises the breath that blows into it the first time, and the same breath has to blow into it always, otherwise it cracks and the milk spills,” she said. After that she tied the bag and started to shake it in a repetitive motion for almost half an hour. Finally, she opened it and poured the milk out, removing a large piece of fresh, delicious butter from inside. I had heard about this procedure from a few people of the older generation, but had never witnessed it. My first reaction was: I hate having high cholesterol.
One of the neighbours appeared carrying some aish merahrah and offered it to us. She said that it had been bought from another village, as the cows had destroyed their bread oven. Then she went and brought a big stick, like the ones they use in fights, and, although I had been thoroughly welcomed and well received, I could not move my eyes away from the woman and her stick. She put the stick aside and arranged three big blocks of stones and built a little fireplace. I used to hear about al-kanoun, which is a very basic oven, but I never thought it was this simple to build. I still wondered about the stick. She placed some cobs of corn in al-kanoun and set the fire. She brought a large pot and boiled the milk, then added the grinded wheat and, finally, brought the stick and used it as a giant spoon to stir the components in the pot.
I have to confess that, over the years, I had seen some interesting attempts at cooking keshk in a few places, but they all seemed so phony now after witnessing such a genuinely elaborate display of culinary tradition and expertise.
A while later, they gave the concoction to Liza again. She was an expert at cutting the huge dough into small pieces and putting it on top of wheat straws to dry. We all climbed onto the roof for this last step. It has to dry in the sun. I felt sorry I was going to miss their nighttime gathering as they guarded this from the cats, singing and telling stories.
Milad and I set off to search for a deshdashah. He took me on a little walk to another house, where the lady who received us was also very kind, smilingly allowing us to take our photos. The mill was too heavy and she bowed down to move it to where I wanted, but I refused to let her move this weight. I bowed down to carry it, and felt suddenly embarrassed thinking I might not succeed. Thankfully, I was able to move it. She sat down in front of an old mud oven and started to grind the wheat. Her daughter was watching and discussing what we were doing, while the mother seemed excited about the photo session. After I finished, the daughter asked if I wanted to shoot the oven behind and the mother smiled knowingly and said, “Oh, he moved the mill to be able to include it in the background.”

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