An Urban Satire on Peasant Life and Food from Seventeenth-century Egypt
Quhuf is the plural of qahf, literally “cranium”, but here, it also refers to the woollen cap typically worn by peasants. Hazz is to shake or to rattle, hence the rattling of the caps or heads, rendered by the translator as “brains confounded”.’
Al-Shirbini, a minor ‘alim or religious scholar, occasional preacher, and one-time weaver, is an obscure character who lived and worked in Damietta, one of the main cities of the Egyptian Delta, during the second half of the seventeenth century. He also lived in Cairo for some years where he studied at the school/mosque of al-Azhar. Little is known about him and his main claim on the historical record is the work under discussion, Brains Confounded By the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded.
The book was probably written in the 1680s and belongs to the genre of adab, the product of gatherings of local scholars and literati who exchanged and discussed texts and commentaries on religion, law, and literature. Al-Shirbini claimed this rural poetry was related to him: he quotes the ode line by line, and on each line, he writes lengthy disquisitions, tracing the meaning and etymology of words, digressing into related anecdotes, essays, and verses. The substance of the verses is primarily about food and drink items, wherein lies the interest of the work for our present pursuit.
Setting the Scene
Peasants in Ottoman Egypt cultivated smallholdings to which they were legally tied like serfs. Formally, the land belonged to the state and the peasant paid a tax/rent related to the volume or value of the harvest, but the state contracted the collection to a multazim, a tax farmer. Often these tax farmers assumed the position of landlord, sometimes hereditary, and had wide powers over the collection, including inflicting punishments for perceived infringements and under-payments. Abu Shaduf, the title character of the Ode, belonged to this beleaguered peasant class. Many of the Ode’s verses elaborate on these hardships and on the protagonist’s suffering, anxious anticipation, and occasional attempts to evade some of these exactions. Al-Shirbini, in his commentaries, remarks on the severity and misery of the peasant’s life, comparing it to that of the inhabitants of the city but without much sympathy. He considered these hardships a fact of nature, decreed and unchanging. He repeats his praise and thanks to God who had not created us—the readers—peasants. This is reminiscent of utterings in which men thank the lord for not having created them women.
A Parade of Food
Throughout the ode, Abu Shaduf enumerates and describes a veritable panoply of food items, ingredients, and dishes. Al-Shirbini takes these descriptions and comments on the crudity, dirt, and unhygienic nature of the peasant dishes. He then goes on to contrast them with the more refined urban versions of those foods, providing the reader with a glimpse into the kitchens of the upper classes as well as into those of the rural peasants he despised.
Milk and dairy
Milk is typically cow or buffalo. It is rarely mentioned as a fresh drink, always fermented and preserved, and often in combination with grain. Two such items are prominent in the verses: kishk and mish.
‘And nothing has demolished me after this and that * but kishk when it is ready to ladle.’ (331)
Kishk is a common Middle Eastern dish of grain or flour soaked with fermented milk, buttermilk, or yoghurt, formed into cakes, and dried.. Al-Shirbini explains how kishk is prepared properly by the people of the large villages by the Nile. He considers this excellent and healthy food quite different from how the people of the hamlets and marshes do it: ‘God spare you such disgusting sight!’ (335) The author proceeds to describe the way the dried kishk is cooked in different places. The people of the villages cook it with rice and fatty meats and sometimes with chicken or other fowl. In Damietta, they cook it with fat mullet. The refined people of Turkish descent make it into soup with rice, a garnish of fried greens and butter, and sometimes with mutton. This is in contrast with the (bad) cooking of the hamlets where their inferior kishk is cooked with dried fava beans. Barley bread and onions are added, and the dish is eaten hot in the morning then cold and dry at night. Al-Shirbini laments how unhealthy this is and how it leads to flatulence and worse!
The other common dairy item that meets with al-Shirbini’s disapproval is mish, defined by the author as ‘… blue skimmed-milk cheese that had been left to age till it becomes sharp and salty enough to cut the tail off a mouse, for this is the thing country people eat for lunch, and sometimes for dinner, too’ (361).
The vegetable most frequently mentioned is onion, green or dry, always as a garnish to dishes such as kishk, bisar, or lentils. Few other vegetables appear in the text, except for the frequent mention of molokheyya, used fresh or dried, always finely chopped. It has a distinctive bitter taste, and cooked in soups and stews, gives a viscous or mucilaginous texture—to its detractors, slimy—similar to okra (another favourite in the region). It is iconic to Egyptian food culture, both historically and at present, and features prominently in the Ode.
‘Happy is he who sees bisar come to him on the threshing floor * and bolts it, though he be by colic enfeebled.’ (346)
Bisar is frequently mentioned as a regular food, alongside lentils. The peasant version consists of dried molokheyya mixed with pounded, dried fava beans in an earthenware pot, covered in water, and placed in the oven. It is then dressed with a little sesame oil and garnished with chopped onion or coriander leaves. The author tells us that they eat this for lunch and dinner and during Ramadan nights.
Then, of course, he waxes poetic about the urban kind, ‘how delicious it is’: clean leaves, fresh or recently dried, stalks removed, chopped fine, cooked in pure, clean water in a well-covered tanjara rumi, a Turkish copper pot with a tight-fitting lid, heated over a fine wood fire (hatab rumi, Turkish again), until it reaches the right consistency before adding a garnish of garlic mixed with clarified butter and the fat from the tail of a sheep. It is seasoned with pepper and cumin (good for digestion); some may add some crushed beans or more fat and butter to soak into it; others use small mutton kebabs (jam‘ al-habayib, the gathering of the beloved). The refined Turks would cook the molokheyya as whole fresh leaves, combined with butter and meat or chicken. Today, molokheyya, where it is known in Turkey and the Arab Levant and Cyprus, is also cooked as whole leaves, like spinach or greens, unlike the Egyptian style of mincing it finely and cooking it in a broth.
The other green leaf mentioned as an item of both peasant and city food is khubayza, mallow, which is foraged wild from the edges of fields. It is cooked in water, dressed in sesame oil, and garnished with chopped onion and coriander.
Pulses and roots
Lentils, chickpeas, and fava, both fresh and dried, are staples and feature in many dishes. They are common to both urban and rural regions. As is the case today, ful (fava) was a regular daily food in al-Shirbini’s time. The most common appellation of a fava dish in modern times is ful midammis, slowly stewed dried ful garnished with oil or butter and any of a wide range of items: onions, cheese, eggs, seasoning—now typically shatta, a chilli sauce—and lemon juice.
‘And nothing has made me yearn like stewed beans and their smell! * Happy is he to whom comes a bowl with half a loaf.’ (341)
Anyone who has smelled dried fava cooking will recognise the allusion to the smell, which is strong and distinctive, and to many, appetising.
The only root vegetable mentioned is qulqas (taro) mentioned as a stew with beans or meat. Qulqas is still eaten, though not widely, in Egypt and much of the Middle East and Cyprus (kolokasi). The most common root today, the potato, arrived in the region much later, another import of the Columbian exchange.
Al-Shirbini provides an extensive treatise on the fish eaten at the time. His list includes mullet, seabream, and binni, a river fish which could be a variety of carp or barbell. Fish was considered with some trepidation, as it was delicate and ‘cold’ and ‘moist’ in the Galenic scheme. To adjust the humours, we are told, it should be cooked in clarified butter, onions, and hot spices: ‘They also increase sexual appetite’ (426). ‘Large fish are most nutritious when eaten with old wine and raisin and small fish when eaten with old wine and faludhaj (a sweet dish made with starch, sugar or honey, and almonds. The designation, Arabised Persian, occurs in old recipes, but is absent in modern usage. The specification of wine seems strange and the combination of fish with raisins, to my knowledge, only occurs in Sicilian cooking but is considered to be of Arab origin. Mullet is stuffed with onions and spices and eaten with fluffy rice. We are told that fish is also made with kishk and eaten with sticky rice. For the poor villagers, it would seem that fish came to them mostly by virtue of the waterways and tributaries which reached their hamlets.
‘Happy is he to whom mussels come, to his house * and who invites the people of the village and plays host.’ (366)
Al-Shirbini tells us that mussels are to be found on the seashore and in saltwater lakes. He explains what they are to his readers, which would suggest that they were not common. The word for mussels is um al-khulul, the mother of vinegars! Not only is this a strange name, but it is unusual in Egyptian shellfish vocabulary, which is predominantly derived from Greek and Italian names. The reference to vinegar, infers the author, is due to the use of a dressing of that material. We are told that the mollusc is removed from its shell, mixed with salt and vinegar, and eaten raw. Al-Shirbini is unsparing in his condemnation of this food, which he considered disgusting and only eaten by the degraded peasants.
‘Sometimes they take it out while still alive and knead it with salt and eat it, this making the most disgusting, vile and revolting dish—we seek shelter from it with God and give praise and thanks to him that we have never eaten it …’ (367)
It is the one food item of which Shirbini finds no superior version in the city.
‘Me, my wish is for a meal of fisikh first thing * I shall for ever weep for it and grieve.’ (416)
Fisikh is salted/rotted fish, usually mullet. The fish, in al-Shirbini’s account, not cleaned, are salted and layered in a barrel. They are then taken out, squeezed dry, and eaten with bread, lime juice, or vinegar, and frequently with chopped onions and garlic as well. Al-Shirbini is scathing about the horrible smell and disgusting rotten taste and marvels how the villagers, especially the women, find it such a delicacy. He does, however, praise an urban version, made with salted and dried mullet roe, which he considers a great delicacy. This is batarikh, which is known all over the Mediterranean and called variously boutargue, botarga, or poutargue in France and Italy, derived from the Greek word for eggs.
‘Happy is he who sees a casserole of fish in his little oven * though it be, my brothers, uncleaned!’ (425)
Shirbini explains that the poet’s casserole would have been mostly small fry and dogfish remaining in the ponds and holes after the retreat of the waters of the Nile. These would have been put in a casserole (tajin) with onions and linseed oil, cooked in the oven, then eaten with barley bread.
Meat and Poultry
Meat is hardly mentioned in connection with peasant food. Kebab and ‘fatty meats’ are mentioned in passing as an addition to other dishes in refined urban cooking. The meat product that recurs in accounts of peasant food is kirsha (tripe).
‘Happy is he who sees in the refuse dump tripes tossed away * even if the flies have settled on them in swarms!
If I saw them, I would take them all, boil them * and eat them with the undigested matter that is on them, and feel no revulsion.’ (432–433)
Apart from the disgusting image, the verse conveys a deep hunger for a rarely found element of animal flesh. Al-Shirbini tells us that tripe, usually from the slaughter of animals on the Feast of the Sacrifice, is carefully cleaned, even by the despised peasants, and then cooked with the offal, the head meat, and the trotters, a dish ‘they call jaghl maghl and hold in the highest esteem’ (435). And these delicacies are not shunned in the city, far from it. However, there, of course, they cook the same elements cleanly, add clarified butter and various spices, the head meat being ‘rolled in the clean, washed tripe’.
Chicken, like meat, is mentioned in passing as one of the luxurious additions to other dishes in the urban and Turkish repertoires. Pigeon, Egypt’s distinctive poultry to the present day, also makes an appearance in the Ode,
‘Happy is he who sees in the oven of his house casseroles * of squabs from the dovecote of Abu Sha`nif!’ (418)
Eggs are notable for their total absence from the text or commentary. This is puzzling for we know eggs to have been common items on Ottoman menus at least from the fourteenth century, and Ottoman styles spread to Egypt, at least for the elites of whom al-Shirbini writes with reverence.
Continuity & Contrast
In this parade of food landscapes in seventeenth-century Egypt, we may note a number of features that merit further comment. One such feature is the remarkable continuity of many food ingredients over the centuries to the present day. Main items that distinguish Egyptian food today were present then: ful, fava beans, especially in their stewed midammis form, molokheyya, pigeons, kishk, as well as the various grains and pulses, spices and condiments common to the region. A variety of fish and methods of fish cookery are listed, some of which survive in modern versions, while others are no longer common, even if known. Salted, preserved fish, fisikh and batarikh survive but are considered delicacies; stuffed mullet is even more unusual, and I have only heard of it from Iran and Turkey. Still, the continuity of items and methods is remarkable.
The main additions today are the imports of the Columbian exchange, principally the tomato and the potato, maize and haricot beans, as well as the chilli pepper. By the seventeenth century, some of these items must have been penetrating slowly into many regions.
The other remarkable feature is the seeming availability, however limited, of many of these ingredients to the peasants. We are familiar with food histories of Europe in which the peasantry seemed to have had a very limited diet until relatively recent times. The Egyptian peasant suffered equally from a limited and monotonous diet, confined, for the most part, to barley bread, onions, and pulses, which accounts for the deep longing of Abu Shaduf for other food items and explains his hunger for even the dirty, fly-infested tripe on the rubbish heap. Yet, a variety of food ingredients seems to have been known to the peasant, and occasionally consumed, in however a supposedly debased form. The food of the city and of the elite, reverentially lauded by al-Shirbini, seems to be distinguished primarily by the addition of spices, animal protein, and fatty ingredients: butter, fatty meat, kebab, and chicken.
We have accounts of food repertoires in rural and urban Egypt in the early nineteenth century, notably in the classic narratives of E.W. Lane, written in Egypt in the years 1833–35. Lane gives the following list of peasant food:
‘Their [the peasants] food chiefly consists of bread (made of millet or maize). Milk, new cheese, eggs, small salted fish, cucumbers and melons and gourds of a great variety of kinds, onions and leeks, beans, dates and pickles. … Rice is too dear to be an article of common food for the fellaheen [peasants], and flesh-meat they very seldom taste.’ (204)
In contrast, the table of the urban well-to-do classes featured a sophisticated variety of rich foods: yakhnee, a stew of meat and vegetables, stuffed vine-leaves, various salads and pickles, meats cooked in clarified butter, and sweets and fruit of great variety. ‘A boned fowl, stuffed with raisins, pistachio-nuts, crumbled bread, and parsley, is not an uncommon dish’(162), or even a whole lamb similarly stuffed.
We note that the contrast between city and country with regard to diet is much greater in Lane’s account than in al-Shirbini’s text. But this may be because al-Shirbini was considering urban food in relation to a register of ingredients eaten by peasants and missing out the elite foods that did not relate to that list. Al-Shirbini’s text provides us with a tantalizing glimpse both of the seventeenth-century Egyptian diet and of rural life and urban attitudes towards it, but it also leaves us with many questions that undoubtedly merit further exploration.
Hazz al-Quhuf, Yusuf Al-Shirbini’s Brains Confounded By the Ode of Abu Shaduf Expounded, translated and introduced by Humphrey Davis in two volumes: ‘I’ the original Arabic and ‘II’ the English translation, published by Uitgeverij Peeters en Department Oosterse Studies, Leuven 2007. All quotes here are from Volume II with page numbers.
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Sami Zubaida is Emeritus Professor of Politics and Sociology at Birkbeck, University of London, Fellow of Birkbeck College, Professorial Research Associate of the London Middle East Institute, and of the Food Studies Centre, both at SOAS. He has written and lectured widely on food history in the Middle East.