At the heart of a busy commercial street in the east Cairo area of Al-Rehab, Mazen is busy packing typical Aleppo cookies -‘maamoul’ and ‘ghouribah’ - for the feast that comes at the end of Ramadan.
Baked and filled, with generous portions of high quality green pistachios as becoming of an Aleppo patisserie tradition, the maamoul and gouribah that Mazen is packing are small and very fine.
Next to Mazen, at a store called Salloura, a couple of colleagues are even busier – they are selling to keen and queuing Egyptian and Syrian customers what is probably their last purchases of the typical Ramadan desserts: tamriayh with pistachio (a dough of thick and sweet dates covered with an almost equally thick layer of pistachios), harrissah with almonds (which is a less greasy version of the Egyptian basboussa, made of semolina flour and ghee), kounafa with nuts (which is also different from the typical Egyptian version as the nuts are the topping rather than filling of the kounafa) and baklava turkie.
(The last, baklava turkie, is a traditional Turkish baklava that a typical Aleppo sweet maker would say it is one that Syrians acquired from the Turks in return for endless recipes of sweets that were transferred from Syria, particularly Aleppo, to Istanbul during the Ottoman rule of the country in the 19th century.)
The Salloura family is perhaps one of the oldest name in the tradition of sweets making in Aleppo, and during the past five years, with the armed conflict wrecking the historic city, it has been finding its way in Istanbul, Cairo and elsewhere after close to two-centuries of established business across Syria.
“It is such a delight to have them here – for us Salloura is almost a synonym to sweets – in Ramdan as for eid, but also throughout the year because for a typical Syrian family sweets are never confined to these two occasions,” said Mayssa, a customer who had just picked up two bags – one of harrissa and halwa al-jubn (sweet cheese), and one of maamoul.
For some of the Egyptian residents of Al-Rehab, Salloura has become the inevitable destination to buy sweets.
Throughout the fasting month, said Dalia, she has made regular visits to the very small but perfectly tidy and efficiently run store to buy her sweets.
“You don’t have the chic packing and ribbons and bags that you would get in the typical four star or five star patisserie in Cairo but I can promise you that you get a much higher quality of oriental sweets that are very neat and clean,” Dalia said.
Salloura, which also has an operation in 6 October, yet a larger hub for the Syrian presence in Cairo, is perhaps one of the most successful businesses of Syrian delights in the capital.
Photo : courtesy of Salloura
It is certainly one of the bigger operations – with a large and established tradition and continuous desire to expand.
There are however other no less successful operations for which customers queue up for their sweets before Iftar and for their cookies before Eid.
Mamlaket Al-Halwyat at the heart of Nasr City - off Mostafa Al-Nahhas Street, is certainly another worthwhile sweets destination.
Photo : courtesy of Mamlaket Alhalwyat
Operated by yet another well-established Aleppo name in the business of sweet making, Al-Kadi, Mamlaket Al-Halwyat has been finding its in-roads across the Egyptian tables not just with the traditional well-made Aleppo items like warbat (triangle shapped kounafa units filled with nuts or with pistachios), mabroumah (kounafa rolls filled with pistachios) and kolwashkor (squares of goulash filled with pistachios) but also by customizing some of the most popular Ramadan and Eid desserts in Egypt like kattayef – filled with nuts or with cream – and traditional Egyptian Eid cookies powdered with fine sugar.
“I think after two centuries of coming and going from Syria, and for that matter Lebanon, to Egypt, it has become very different to say that this is exclusively Syrian or Egyptian, because in Syria too we have kattayef; they also have it in Lebanon – maybe not as accentuated as you have them here in Egypt,” said Ramy El-Kady, the manager of Mamlekat Al-Halwyat.
The differences are essentially in the details of the recipes: “When you add rose water to the semolina flower and whey you don’t or how much sugar you use to fix the syrup for your kounafa and when you mix cream with nuts and when you don’t."
El Kady crew
Afamia El-Sham, in Maadi, had gone further by introducing the inevitable Egyptian craze of kounafa with mango, chocolate spread and red velvet – along with a traditional ballouriyah (half-baked kounafa with pistachios) and asswer (miniature kounafa rolls with nuts) and by introducing the traditional variety of Eid cookies, according to the traditional Egyptian recipes.
According to El-Kady, however, ultimately what is common is the widespread desire for Syrian sweets. “This precisely the reason why our Egyptian clients have been open to some of the items that are not traditionally at high consumption here”.
He added that the details of the same recipes would also differ from Aleppo to Damascus.
In Cairo, three names of Damascene origin have been able to attract growing clientele: Afamia El-Sham in Maadi, Masa in Zamalek, and Arazak El-Sham in Nasr City.
Like Salloura and El-Kady's operations, these three sweetmakers had started their businesses in the span of the past five years – with growing success and also with diverse services that go beyond the sweets to include the typical Syrian halwa. “Made with Egyptian ingredients , Syrian recipes and Syrian hands,” as Mazen of Salloura put it, these stores also offer Syrian traditional dishes, including the fattah of Damascus and kibbeh of Aleppo, and a diverse selection of cheese.
“When I first started, I was thinking more of providing for the Syrians living in the neighbourhood the kind of food that they would miss, either by having it made here or by bringing whatever could be brought from home,” said Ali of Arazk El-Sham.
The success of the operations that have incorporated sweets with shawarma sandwiches or with fried kibbah , like Mamlekat Al-Halwyat and Salloura, or with more sophisticated Syrian dishes like shkriyah (lamb cooked with onions and yogurt and served with rice) offered by Masa, or the incredible diversity of Syrian cuisine served at Maadi's Afamia El-Sham, prompted Ali to venture into the sweets market.
“Traditionally, I am not into the sweets business; I am more of the dairies business side but I noticed that the stores selling sweets were having good success so I decided to introduce a sweets service exclusively for Ramadan and Eid,” Ali said. He added, “and it has been going very well”.
According to Ahmed, the manager of Masa, “There is an incredible appeal of Syrian sweets – I would say much more than the Syrian food in general – among Egyptians."
“When it comes to Egyptian clients I am selling more sweets than anything else,” Ahmed added.
“It is a long history that bring the two peoples together after all, and food is widely shared across Al-Mashrek with Egypt,” Ahmed said.
“I think it also has to be said that traditionally, Egyptians have proven to be very open to accommodate and customize recipes coming not just from Al-Mashrek but rather from all across the Mediterranean,” said Hala Barakat, a environment and gastronomy researcher.
“The question is about the cultural and environmental integration – in the sense that the items that are compatible with the overwhelming taste, the Egyptian ways of cooking and baking and also the ingredients that are readily available in the Egyptian market – without having to be imported,” Barakat explained.
Whatever is integrated, she said, is what lives on – even if it is eventually subject to some changes that are prompted by variables like the prices of certain ingredients in local markets.
“Otherwise it is mostly items that are brought to the market to the consumption of particular communities – this is why I think that what is left of the many sweet and sour items that were brought to Cairo during the wave of Iraqi refugees between 2003 and 2006 is not very [significant today],” she argued.
Today in Al-Rehab, Nasr City and 6 October that saw the largest clusters of Iraqis, there are still a few places that sell Iraqi foods – but mostly breads, especially the two most popular versions in Egypt: samoun and tanour.
And in Nasr City and Al-Rehab, venue to the presence of many Palestinian families who came to Egypt with a second wave of refugees, mostly from Iraq and Kuwait in the wake of the Gulf War in 1990 and the second war in Iraq, there are still a few restaurants that sell falfel made of homous and nabulsi kounafa (kounafa filled with cheese) served very warm with sugar and rose water syrup.
The survival of certain recipes is not just about the appeal taste and availability of ingredients but also about whether or not the know-how of the cooking and baking, with all the small tips and tricks included, are properly passed on to Egyptians.
“I am sure that when the Syrian plight ends and they start to go back, most of these stores will be closed – except for some, like the case of Iraqi refugees, who might decide to stay on or to keep a branch of their business,” said Barakat.
“But I also think that only some of the many new recipes would stay on at a large scale while the rest would be gone,” she added.