Ramadan, the ninth month of the Hijiri calendar, is the month for fasting for Muslims. Fasting in Ramadan is one of the Pillars of Faith. The benefits of which are given in the Qur’an, “O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you so that you may be more able to guard against evil.” (Qur’an 3:184) The faithful abstain from eating and drinking between dawn and sunset. The month of Ramadan, especially when in the summer with the long days and heat, is met with unhesitating and heightened anticipation.
One of the pleasurable anticipations of Ramadan season are the morsels of sweets, lightly spiced with cardamom and dipped in syrup, pancakes stuffed with cheese or nuts, or the the Ramadan favorite, Kunafa—layers, top and bottom, of buttery, crunchy shredded wheat stuffed with white goat cheese and soaked in lemon sugar syrup.
“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.”
(Al-Ahram 14 – 20 October 2004)
These are what sweet dreams and stories are made of…but to satisfy a sweet tooth, there is a beginning. In the case of kunafa, its travel to sweetness begins with the spinning of shredded wheat…
Before modernization, to make shredded wheat the process began with the dough dispersed through a sieve and cooked on a hot copper tray that was heated by a wood or coal oven set beneath the tray. Today, the process of making shredded wheat uses electricity and a mechanical oven that resembles a rotating tray-like skillet. The dough is much like a pancake batter. The equipment used to cook the dough is a hot iron that rotates while the dough is released through a metal funnel similar to a sieve. The kunafa threads emerge onto the iron tray that functions like a skillet. One rotation of the tray and the baker retrieves the strands. The sieve is adjusted for different widths of the thread.
Kunafa is sold throughout the year but during the month of Ramadan the demand triples. Kunafa ovens can be found throughout Cairo particularly in Darb Ahmar and Sayyida Zeinab and on Ahmed Maher Street. People buy the raw shredded wheat from the stores and make their own sweet dishes at home.
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