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Preserving a bitter-sweet trade
Published in The Egyptian Gazette on 16 - 08 - 2010

CAIRO--Reda, 28, is happily preparing to make his konafa (a thin, thread-like pastry that forms the basis of the dessert of the same name, which is in high demand in Egypt during the holy fasting month of Ramadan).
It's tiring work, because he's fasting and he has to cook his konafa at a high temperature, despite the heat of summer.
The scene of a kanafani (konafa maker) circling his hands like the hands of a clock as he prepares his konafa is a typical sight in Ramadan in Cairo's populous urban districts.
As well as konafa, kanafanis prepare qatayef (another delicious pastry used as a Ramadan dessert), selling them wholesale to bakeries or straight to housewives.
Nowadays, this tradition of hand-made konafa has gone into decline. Due to the lack of professionals who can do this job, many shop owners or kanafanis now depend on machines to make konafa instead of doing it in the traditional baladi way.
"Since it needs hard work, few men today are specialised in making konafa by hand," says 28-year-old Reda, who learned the skill from his father, adding that the necessary equipment costs about LE500.
"In addition to the hard work needed for making it the baladi or manual way, the kanafanis have to be very skilful. If they're not professional, their konafa may turn out as a big mess," he adds.
“I was born in el-Haraz village near Shebeen el-Qanater, north of Cairo,” Reda continues, explaining that he picked up the tricks of the trade from his fellow villagers, who all know how to make konafa, qatayef and other pastries.
He adds that most of the shop owners who sell pizzas, konafa, qatayef and other pastries come from Shubra el-Kheima, north of Cairo, which is famous for this trade.
"Because of the time and physical effort involved to produce hand-made baladi konafa, the owners of the konafa shops depend on machines for cooking and shaping the dough like thin strands of hair," says Reda, whose famous konafa shop is located in Heliopolis, northeastern Cairo.
"My customers fully trust the konafa I bake, as they know its ingredients are only flour, milk and salt. I love to be a professional, a master of my trade, only making something of a high quality. Since I use good-quality ingredients like class A flour, my product is always in high demand," he told the Egyptian Mail proudly.
The price of flour has gone up to LE4,200 per tonne, while the price of a kilo of konafa may vary from LE8 to LE12, according to the district. ($1= LE5.6)
"Egyptians' average food consumption increases during the holy month of Ramadan by between 50 to 100 per cent, depending on the family,” says Heba Abdel-Salem, a professor of home economics.
Egyptians spend LE200 billion on food every year, with 15 per cent of that in the holy fasting month alone …quot; this means that Egyptians spend LE30 billion in Ramadan, according to the Cabinet's Information and Decision-making Support Centre (IDSC).
Prior to Ramadan, many kanafanis in Egypt begin preparing plenty of konafa and qatayef to cope with the imminent high demand.
Reda says that the high price of flour might mean the price of the konafa going up again, but this will not stop shop owners from using high-quality flour to ensure a good-quality product.
Of course, he'd like to be able to reduce the price, in order to attract more customers.
"In Ramadan, many customers want to buy my pastries every day, so the konafa must be fresh," Reda stresses.
According to historian Essam Abdel-Raouf, the tradition of making konafa started around year 58 in the Hijra calendar (early eighth century AD), when the Damascus-based Muslim ruler Mu'aweya Bin Abi Sufeyan complained of fatigue and dizziness during Ramadan.
He was advised to eat konafa, because it is full of rich, nutritious ingredients like nuts and raisins.
"Others followed the leader's example, and the Ramadan/konafa connection was born. The Fatimids introduced konafa to Egypt when they came to power in Egypt in 358 Hijra [early 11th century AD].
“The Fatimids are credited for introducing several types of dessert to Egypt, and for starting the tradition of serving specific dessert dishes on certain religious occasions, such as Moulid el-Nabi [the Prophet Mohamed's Birthday]," explains Abdel-Raouf.

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