Medieval visitors to Egypt never failed to be captivated by the uniqueness of its agricultural landscape. The Nile, they said, flowed from paradise. The land itself, with its four seasons, was no less remarkable: summer, when the rising and flooding of Nile turned the land into a gleaming white pearl; autumn, when it looked like black musk, the receding water revealing black, fragrant soil; winter, when it shimmered emerald green with growing crops; and spring, the harvest season, when it gleamed like golden amber.
The Arab conquest of Egypt in 641 CE played a major role in adding to its already abundant harvests by introducing important crops such as rice, sugarcane, and citrus fruits. The lush, fertile lands along the Nile ensured favourable conditions for growing these migrant crops.
Besides crops, the Arab conquest also brought diversity of another sort to the region. With the successive caliphates and sultanates over the period of several centuries, Cairo established itself as um al-bilad (the ‘mother of all nations’). Its Arab Muslim and Coptic population was augmented as it became a cultural magnet and a haven for the surrounding regions and peoples of multiple nationalities and ethnicities, particularly after the attacks of the Mongols in western Asia. Egypt gradually became home to Turks, Kurds, Moroccans, Sudanese, Persians, Iraqis, and many more.
Such a colourful multiplicity inevitably enriched the local culinary repertoire of the region. This was, for instance, how we come to see a traditional Moroccan recipe for kuskusu in the fourteenth-century Egyptian cookbook Kanz al-Fawaʾid. A Kurdish recipe is given for a whole lamb roast and several for Persian and Byzantine pickles. Such varieties certainly suggest a colourful culinary atmosphere, where people enjoyed each other’s foods and had an appetite for the novel and unusual.
Trade with the surrounding regions, especially the Levant, was also quite active. Products imported from that region included walnuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, apples, quinces, and pears. Egypt, on the other hand, exported to the countries surrounding the Mediterranean its surplus of local products such as samak qadid (salt-cured fish); ḥalum cheese; a local variety of sugarless taffy made with germinated wheat called nayda; oils of seeds of radish and turnip; pulses; and refined sugar. Importation of spices and other aromatics from India and beyond was carried out for centuries (1181–1484 CE) by a prosperous group of Egyptian merchants, called Karimi. Their economic activities were mostly conducted via Yemen, their supply centre, and the Mediterranean countries.
A Culture of Food
In times of stability, Cairo was a thriving urban centre. Medieval histories left us lavish accounts of the luxurious lives the ruling classes and the elites led. At the same time, we are told that the poor among the populace did not go hungry because bread was cheap and plentiful. Interestingly, an unexpected place for the poor to get nutritious and delicious food was when they fell ill and stayed at the bimaristan (hospital). Meat, mainly poultry, fruit, and medication were generously offered free to them. There are stories that some of them even faked illness just for the food.
There were also times when the people were offered palace food. During the times of the Tulunids, the kitchens of Emir Ibn Ṭulun (d. 884 CE) daily prepared carry-out meals in pottery vessels, each containing a meat dish, breads, and dessert. The palace doors would be thrown open, and everybody was welcome. Anecdotes also recount how the harem cooks used to sell what was left of the food they cooked. It might not have been in perfect condition, such as a chicken perhaps missing a leg or its breast, or the remaining chunks of a roasted lamb, but it was good food, cheap, plentiful, and always available. We are told that if someone had unexpected guests, he would immediately go to the harem gates and buy this food, the likes of which he could not have cooked, or afforded, in the first place.
‘Whether motivated by health concerns or otherwise, aphrodisiac recipes were in great demand, and Kanz al-Fawaʾid offered them in profusion.’
The Fatimid simaṭs were formal grand feasts. To celebrate a religious festival, for instance, a magnificent simaṭ would be arranged for the caliph and his entourage. It would be loaded with breads, grilled lambs, poultry, and much more, until the food was the height of a tall man. Timed with the arrival of the caliph to start the feast, was the entrance of two huge sugar palaces, which were carried along the streets that led to the palace for the congregated public to feast their eyes on. The sugar palaces, beautifully gilded with gold paper and bedecked with sugar figurines arranged in rows, would be placed at both ends of the simaṭ. For their entertainment, the guests would be watching a contest between two soldiers known for their fathomless appetites, each devouring one grilled lamb, ten sweetened chickens, and a ten-pound platter of halva. What was left of the food, which would still be plenty, would then be taken out for the public to devour.
Their simaṭs for solemn religious commemorations, however, were a different story. For the Fatimids, who were Shiites in the midst of a majority Sunni Muslim populace, the tenth day of Muḥarram (ʿAshura) was just such as an occasion. A modest simaṭ was offered in a sombre manner in a humble place. For this occasion, everybody was invited. The food consisted of bowls of cheese, plain yoghurt, barley bread deliberately made to look dark, and pickles. These were followed with lentil soups and porridges. Bowls of honey ended the meal.
Several anecdotes survive regarding kings and sultans who were either gourmet cooks or gluttons. Al-Malik al-ʿAdil (d. 1218), youngest brother of Salah al-Din, for instance, was known for his gluttony. He ate like a horse and ended his meals with a pound of sugar halva as a digestive. Of the Mamluks, Sultan al-Ṣaliḥ Ṣaliḥ (d. 1354) once treated his mother, Qutlubak and a group of close friends to a lavish banquet. He wrapped an apron around his waist, cooked all the food, and then spread the table with the dishes himself.
Among the layers of social classes in medieval Egypt, the culinary distinctions were not perceived through the varieties of the dishes offered as much as the quality of these dishes. Ibn Shahin al-Ẓahiri (1468 CE), for instance, enumerates 54 varieties of dishes in his Zubdat Kashf al-Mamalik, which were usually cooked for the palace and other banquets. There are recipes in Kanz al-Fawaʾid for most of the listed dishes, including even ones that were commonly considered the humble fare of the common people, such as bamya (okra), molokheyya (Jew’s mallow), and ful (fava beans).
The commoners, we are told, had little meat but consumed a lot of the cheaper dallinas (river mussels), ṣir (anchovies), ḥalum cheese, and bread. They had nayda for dessert and snacked on roasted chickpeas. When the Nile flooded, they caught and cooked dormice, which they considered a delicacy.
Provisions and Pastimes
Historian al-Maqrizi’s described many of Cairo’s markets in great detail (see box) but one of his fondest memories is of one destroyed by a massive fire in the spring of 1354 CE. The charming market was made up of a stretch of twenty establishments aligned on both sides of the street selling the popular foamy drink called fuqqa‘. The stores were built of colourful marble with fountains that sprayed water on the marble where the sealed fuqqa‘ jars were arranged.
This market was one of many frequented by Cairene shoppers. They were so crowded people needed to learn ways to manoeuvre through the flow. The largest was al-Qaṣaba, which in its heyday contained 12,000 stalls, brimming with shoppers and countless varieties of food and drink. There was also the confectioners’ market, which, according to al-Maqrizi, was most the fun to frequent.
For their quick daily shopping, people did not need to go to the big markets as each neighbourhood had its own small shops, as well as a public bath and a bakery. As al-Maqrizi reports, Cairenes used to throw out one thousand dinars-worth of disposable items daily in the trash and at the dumpster mounds outside the city. These items included earthenware bowls used for yoghurt and cheese and to serve food to diners at cookshops and food stalls as well as whatever paper and thread the grocers used to wrap the purchased goods.
A vital aspect of the food culture that evolved in Egypt at the time was the development of an active system for market inspection with regulations involving proper handling of food and detecting cheaters and adulterators. Personal hygiene was emphasized. The kneaders in particular were required to shave the hair on their hands and wear clothes with tight-fitting sleeves. They had to cover their mouths and noses with face mufflers lest they should sneeze or cough, and their saliva and mucus would end up in the dough. They also had to wear headbands lest their sweat fall into the dough. During the daytime, they had to have people next to them with hand fans to shoo the flies away.
Most city dwellers depended on the services offered by the food markets, either partially or entirely. For those who had small kitchens, the preference perhaps was to put the dish together in a ṭajin pot and send it to the furn for cooking. Otherwise, there always was the sharaʾiḥi, the professional cook who cooked dishes with the needed ingredients brought to him by his customers. As for those who lived in rented units in the multi-storeyed housing complexes characteristic of the living conditions of low-income people, their only option was to avail themselves of the services offered by a great variety of cookshops and stalls. There were haraʾisiyyin (porridge-makers), shawwaʾin (grillers), qallaʾin (fryers of meat and fish and zalabiya or syrupy fritters), and many more. Apart from the high cost of fuel, fear of causing fires in the chronically congested city centres was a major factor for such conditions.
In the Kitchen
Cooking in one’s own kitchen in the medieval Egyptian urban centres largely took place in the well-off households or those in the suburbs, where the kitchens were well equipped, and a good supply of clean water was available.
The medieval cookbook, Kanz al-Fawaʾid fī Tanwiʿ al-Mawaʾid with over 820 recipes, suggests household conditions where many hands were put to work to prepare dishes that often required various chores such as pounding, sifting, mashing, stirring, squeezing, taking care of the fire, and so on. Good cooking required the use of several types of knives: a cleaver for splitting the bones, a strong one for disjointing the meat, a thin and very sharp one for slicing it, and a separate knife and board for cutting onion and garlic.
For cooking and baking purposes, stoves were used along with a tannur and/or furn built outside the kitchen. The tannur was an immobile open-topped, bell-shaped clay oven. Besides baking flatbreads by sticking them to its heated inner sides, it was also used for roasting meat or simmering pots of beans in its residual heat. The furn was a brick dome oven, with a frontal opening and a flat floor, fuelled from a separate compartment underneath it. Alternatively, fuel was burnt on the oven floor itself, and when heated, the ashes were removed, and baking commenced. It was used for baking bread and trays of biscuits as well as for other, simpler tasks. The neighbourhood furn was also used particularly for fish.
Spices and herbs were used in all the dishes, each of which required its own set of seasonings. What attracts the attention, however, is the use of mastic gum in all the meat dishes. The rationale for this culinary practice, which is indeed uniquely Egyptian, may be attributable to the strong gamey smell of the local meats, and the power of mastic to dispel putridity for which Egypt was known due to the nature of its air and climate, as postulated by the physicians of the time.
Besides the familiar dishes, some of the recipes were preparations of travellers’ provisions, such as the beverage sukkar wa laymun (sugar and lemon). Some recipes were intended to comfort the sick, others were cures for nausea, and some were digestives. These were also the responsibility of the household cook. Like the rest of the medieval Islamic world around them, the Egyptians believed in the healing power of foodstuffs, which is based on the Galenic theory. Simply put, the key to enjoying good health was in keeping the bodily humours balanced, neither too much nor too little. Cases of imbalance were treated with counterbalancing foodstuffs. For instance, a feverish person was comforted with foods containing gourd because it had cold properties.
There are also in Kanz al-Fawaʾid some repeated claims of aphrodisiac dishes to promote and invigorate bah (coitus). This should also be expected since one of the tenets of the Galenic theory mentioned above was that the well-being of this aspect of the bodily functions was deemed essential for the welfare of the entire body. At any rate, whether motivated by health concerns or otherwise, such recipes were in great demand, and Kanz al-Fawaʾid offered them in profusion.
In addition, an essential regimen required for the maintenance of one’s well-being was personal hygiene. In Kanz al-Fawaʾid, there are recipes and recommendations for good-quality khilal (toothpicks) and cleansing aromatic handwashing preparations of ushnan and soap. Add to these the numerous aromatic preparations ranging from perfumed oils and powders to fumigating incense, pills to sweeten the breath, distilled waters, and deodorants. Perfumes were valued not merely for their pleasant scents, but also for their therapeutic and cleansing properties, such as purging the air, clearing the head, and improving one’s mood. And for playing tricks. A recipe, for instance, instructs its user to prepare at home a piece of cotton saturated with musk and rosewater, and then, it continues,
‘When you go to the bath with whomever you wish, once you get there, put this piece of cotton in the way of the water pouring into the tub. Put a piece of wood crosswise to keep the cotton from falling. The entire water [in the tub] will smell as if it were pure rosewater, and whoever takes water from this tub for his bath will not doubt that it is rosewater.’
That a complex and sophisticated cuisine emerged in medieval Egypt is nowhere more apparent than in the anonymous Kanz al-Fawaʾid. It is by far the only surviving cookbook from medieval Egypt and the last major cookbook from the Arab-Islamic region before the Ottomans rose to power and the limelight shifted to Istanbuli and Western cuisines.
The Egyptian culinary heritage, nonetheless, persisted. For example, a simple wooden blender called mifrak, mentioned in one of the recipes in Kanz al-Fawaʾid, is still used today in southern Egypt and Sudan to blend wika (okra) dishes and whip the traditional stew of molokheyya. Its history can be traced even further back: a similar tool belonging to the Graeco-Roman Period has been excavated in Egypt. But perhaps nothing emblematizes the longevity of Egyptian cuisine more brilliantly than the traditional dishes we still enjoy to this day, such as molokheyya, ful, bamya, qulqas, beverages like subya, and many more.
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Nawal Nasrallah is an award-winning independent scholar, specialized in Middle Eastern cuisine. She has published extensively on the history of Arab food, including the English translations of medieval Arabic cookbooks, Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchens (Brill 2007) and Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table (Brill, 2018).