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Credit: Emmaline Zanelli
personal essay

Cream Rolls, Milk Fudge, and the Persistent Joy of Making Traditional Afghan Sweets for Eid al-Fitr

updated May 11, 2021
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Tomorrow is Eid al-Fitr, a day when Muslims around the world gather to celebrate the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting daily from sunrise to sunset. In both Muslim countries and diasporic communities, Eid is defined by a sense of shared joy. Traditionally, the day begins with an Eid prayer at the local mosque or at home with family and friends. Greetings of Eid Mubarak, or Happy Eid, are exchanged, and small gifts are given, especially to children. Families and loved ones visit one another and eat sweets, which symbolize the joy of the moment. 

But in our pandemic-gripped world, many of these traditions have been changed. The community events and visits with family and friends that characterize Eid will be limited to fewer and smaller gatherings, if any at all. Instead, the emphasis will be on the rituals that capture the spirit of the celebration without the large gatherings. For my family, this means a deeper appreciation for the role of food and food culture in our lives — especially traditional Afghan sweets. 

Through the many changes of this past year, and also through our path as immigrants, food has been a powerful constant for my family. We left Afghanistan in the late 80s, during the height of the Cold War, and settled in Australia. Cooking Afghan cuisine, which was both a passion and a talent for my mom, offered us a way to stay connected to our history and ancestry, while also contributing something significant to our new home. In 2009, we opened Parwana, our family-run restaurant in Adelaide, to share Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage and food traditions with a wider community. 

Credit: Emmaline Zanelli
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Over a decade later, we released our cookbook Parwana: Recipes and Stories from an Afghan Kitchen, which is all about the recipes passed down to my mother. It weaves together Afghanistan’s immense history with my own ancestry and migration story.  

The traditional sweets and desserts that we prepare for Eid are an important part of this cookbook, and like so much of Afghan food culture, gathering to make these sweets is as integral to the recipe as the ingredients and techniques. My mom and my eldest sister, Fatema, are the master sweets-makers. In the evenings leading up to Eid, my four sisters and I gather at my mom’s place to prepare the treats. We make Gosheh Fil (elephant’s ears), a thin, crumbly pastry topped with crushed pistachios and icing sugar; Shirpera, a nutty dessert that sits somewhere between a fudge and a nougat; and Cream Rolls, which are decadent cardamom-infused, cream-filled pastries. 

Credit: Emmaline Zanelli

We sip on cups of tea as we roll out the dough, make the cream fillings, crush spices, and mix the nutty batters together. While we cook, my mom will often share stories of growing up in Afghanistan in the 60s, where the sweet shops in Kabul were piled high with traditional treats during Eid — nougats, nutty biscuits, cream horns, and sticky pastries like the ones we prepare together in a country nearly 7,000 miles away. She says she can still smell the warm, sugary aroma that filled the streets. 

This year for Eid, after the morning prayers at home, I’m having a late breakfast with my parents, my sisters, six nieces and nephews, and our partners at Parwana. In addition to a traditional breakfast of tokhme banjanromi (Afghan-style eggs, made with an onion, garlic, and tomato base), fresh naans, a variety of cheeses and shir chai (a milk tea), we’ll also eat the sweets we made together, along with pots of tea. Over the next three days, we’ll put our everyday obligations on hold and spend time together. We’ll go for nature hikes, roller skate with the kids, picnic near the ocean, and keep eating until all the sweets are gone.

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The intoxicating aromas from the sweet shops of Afghanistan that washed over my mother as a small girl clung to her and followed her through the many seasons of her life – across time, distance, and circumstances — to this very moment, when they continue to wash over us all. The sweets weave together our childhood memories, ancestral traditions, and the flavors, ingredients, and rituals that define the spirit of who we are, despite the challenges.

Eid Mubarak from my family, to you and yours. May you too, inhale the enduring scent of sweetness, wherever you may be.