Ka'ak and Ma'amoul Are the Sweets That Connect My Family Through Joy and Sorrow
The ritual of making, eating, and distributing ka'ak and ma'amoul are symbols of continuity and community across a wide swath of the Middle East. In my mixed Christian and Muslim family, it's an oasis of comfort, no matter what else is happening.
Every Eid, the women in my family gathered around low wooden tables in assembly line formation: one rolled date paste into balls, another portioned out dough, one stuffed a nut mixture into the mahlab-infused semolina dough, and another stuffed date paste into an aniseed- and nigella seed-flavored one. At the end of the assembly line sat the artists, the women and little girls with jagged-edged tweezers who made pretty patterns in the cakes before baking. It was a creative and meditative process to prepare the traditional ka'ak and ma'amoul. Even as we gossiped and teased, even as snarky remarks were tossed around as casually as the orange blossom water had been tossed into the pistachio stuffing, the amity of companionship was palpable.
Food may be a regional artifact that varies as much by geography as it does by religion, but when it comes to ka'ak and ma'amoul, the tradition is common amongst Arab Christians and Muslims alike, their presence a signal of a village and a people in celebration. While most expressions of festivity are canceled in times of mourning or disaster, ka'ak and ma'amoul somehow remain the exception. My grandmother always told us the story of her father's passing when we sat together to make these cookies:
"He died right before the Eid," she used to reminisce, "but my mother insisted we make ka'ak anyway because it would bring happiness to the children amidst the sadness."
Other people might not have found the will to do this, and that's ok, because it is common tradition for relatives and neighbors to pass out ka'ak from their own baking to anyone who has experienced loss, thus ensuring these sweet bites, packed gently in metal tins, are available in every home, regardless of circumstance.
Even in times of war, especially if it falls around a holiday, women rally round the process of ka'ak making, insisting that simple joy will not be taken from them even as many other things are. That's what Laila El-Haddad, a Palestinian journalist from Gaza and co-author of The Gaza Kitchen, explained over the phone recently. "For years, we endured our situation by immersing ourselves in cooking, in our routines and the things we could control."
Perhaps it is this immersion in the mundane that makes ka'ak preparation appealing in times of heightened emotion or, that the process of making ka'ak is as much about comfort as it is about celebration. Or maybe they are a thread that links past generations to current and future ones, keeping our traditions alive. Their preparation is a small act of resistance in the face of oppression or an exercise in predictability amidst a world that can only guarantee uncertainty. Whatever the reason is, the practice has survived millennia, and seems to be holding its ground.
The custom of making these sweet cakes to commemorate holidays is thought to date back to ancient Egypt where evidence of them is found in hieroglyphic etchings inside tombs and houses of worship. Today, they are most often made to commemorate Eid for Muslims and Easter for Christians, both holidays celebrated after a period of fasting. The recipes vary from country to country, even from family to family, but the spirit of them all is quite similar: a buttery dough, usually with semolina, encasing a very sweet stuffing, usually of dates or nuts. In Egypt it's called kahk, in the Levant it's either ka'ak or ma'amoul, in Iraq it's kleicha, in Algeria dzeeriyat and in Tunisia maqroot. But no matter, for a sweet stuffed miniature cake by any name would still taste as sweet.
I grew up in an interfaith household with a Muslim mother and a Christian father. We celebrated Christmas and Easter as well as Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adha. This meant double the gifts for Christmas, double the money for Eid, and double the days off from school. More importantly, it meant double the amount of time we had ka'ak or ma'amoul at home. What fascinated me most was seeing the numerous varieties that existed in my family alone. I have a soft spot for a specific Palestinian variety where the dough is spiced with anise, fennel and nigella seeds and the date filling kissed with cinnamon. We used to shape it into rings, the size of a bracelet, and use the cap of a Bic pen to make two holes where the ends met to secure them tightly. They looked like a coiled gold snake bangle.
Today, my daughters use chopsticks instead of a pen cover to make these holes, a utensil my grandmother probably would not even recognize. But just as we sat in her kitchen every year, listening to different stories from her life, my daughters gather round me as I recount stories to weave my past into their present, no matter how delicate the thread.
Will our seasonal forays into the world of ka'ak-making provide the same scaffolding to my daughters as they build lives inevitably different from the one I had growing up? Will they one day keep the tradition alive in their own way? Will ka'ak and ma'amoul still smell of home to them and wrap them in the warmth of family and community even if the slow past of multiple generations of women under the same roof and around large platters of sweets has all but slipped away? I certainly hope they will. Because unlike the arbitrary finger of fate, which this year dealt us all a cruel hand in more ways than one, gathering together, making and designing ka'ak and ma'amoul offers a sense of community and ritual. Just like the date glimpsed beneath the surface of the semolina hints at the sweetness within, so too the persistence of this tradition offers a glimpse of hope and continuity through life's unpredictable journey.