A look back at the rural roots of many of the dishes we consider quintessentially Egyptian.
A common question for any professional chef is ‘What do you like to eat?’ Most expect a response namedropping expensive ingredients, but the reality is usually much more modest: Eggs, rice, bread … These are the staples we grew up eating around a tableyya with our extended families during the late twentieth century. We connected over meals long before we connected on Facebook and fondly remember the dishes of our grandmothers and what eating in rural Egypt was like during a time when even electricity was a novelty.
Farm to Table
The rural food culture is inextricably tied to the economics of these areas. Typically, rural Egyptians clustered in households centred around the largest land-owning families. Working the fields, building homes, and providing leadership were the purview of the male members of the household; but the day-to-day production, preparation, and organization of the various foodstuffs fell to the women of the house, specifically the matriarch of the extended family. Decisions on what to procure and what to distribute rested solely with her, giving her considerable influence over the prosperity of the family and the elevation of its status within the wider community.
Every week, the families in a village would gather to display their surplus wares in the market. Farmers’ markets in trendy urban centres try to emulate the original village markets, but to begin with, the exchange of currency for goods was uncommon. Families bartered with one another—a bushel of corn for a jar of ghee, a basket of fresh cucumbers for a bunch of spring onions. Even young children would purchase their sweets by bartering a single ear of corn for a piece of Turkish delight.
Egyptians eat bread with a side of food, not the other way around.’ Dr. H. Hassan Wassef, Food Habits of Egyptians.
Farmers’ markets were usually held mid-week and offered only what was seasonal and local—if no cucumbers had been harvested that week, then no cucumbers were to be found. The butcher only made his wares available on certain days as well, announcing a fresh supply of meat by hanging the carcass outside his shop and generally providing only the most basic cuts: cubed beef and offal such as liver, kidneys, lungs, and brain. Nothing went to waste. In areas served by the larger tributaries and estuaries of the Nile, fishermen made brisk trade on market days, usually offering freshwater fish like arameet (catfish) or bolti (Nile tilapia).
These markets were the main source of commercially available foodstuffs, and as such, had a direct impact on what was on the menu for the coming week. Not everything was procured at the market, however, and self-sufficiency was the sign of a well-run household. Rural households depended on two sources for their food supply: what came directly from the land (khair al-ard or ‘bounty of the land’) and what came from the animals they tended (khair al-dar or ‘bounty of the house’).
‘Khair al-Ard, Khair al-Dar’
To this day, buffalo remain a primary source of milk for Egyptians. Buffalo milk is used to make yoghurt; qareesh (cottage cheese) from which mish (pickled, fermented cheese) is made; and butter and ghee (samna), which is a clarified form of the butter. The leftover milk solids—called morta—are added to the mish and other dishes as a flavour enhancer. Samna is used as the main cooking fat in all rural cooking and even today is highly prized for its richness and the authentic Egyptian flavour it imparts on the most familiar of Egyptian dishes. One of the most loved rural dishes, popular even among cosmopolitan Cairene families, is fiteer mishaltit, a pastry made with copious amounts of samna between paper thin layers of dough. It is eaten with boiled geese or duck, or at breakfast, with honey, cheese, molasses, or fresh cream.
Chickens are prized for the eggs they produce, which are often baked in the dying embers of the house stove or fried in samna and buried in a dish of rice eaten as a main course (roz mogamba). Pigeons are raised in the larger houses and well fed for the inevitable day when they will be cooked and served to commemorate a special occasion, such as a family member returning from long travel or to welcome guests into the home. Almost all the preparations of the bird involve stuffing with either par-cooked rice, tomatoes, and its offal; with fireek (roasted, cracked green wheat); or with chickpeas. The bird is then fried in samna and roasted in the oven until fully cooked. The stuffing and flavourings differ from region to region, but the technique remains the same. Typically, the entire pigeon is eaten from head to tail as leftovers are considered an insult to the host.
A wide variety of crops is grown on the land, and it is common for large family houses to have their own vegetable plot. Cucumbers, bell peppers, tomatoes, and courgettes are grown and cooked for the daily meals, but it is the onion and members of its family—leeks, garlic, and spring onions—that are the primary components in many classic Egyptian dishes. Over the past 200 years these have been joined by tomatoes, potatoes, fresh coriander leaves, parsley, and dill as well as spices such as cumin and coriander seeds to create the distinctive mix and flavour of our country.
Herbs and leafy greens weren’t abundant, and as such, not used as widely as they are today. With a few exceptions, such as regla (purslane) and go‘ded (hare’s lettuce), wild grown weeds and plants were used to enhance the culinary variety available. Such greens were either eaten raw or cooked together with molokheyya or spinach.
Some houses have a grapevine, grown both for its leaves—pickled and stuffed—and its fruit served throughout the day as a snack or dessert. Others may have date, mango, or lime trees. Fruit is often the only dessert on offer. Rice pudding and mehalabeyya (milk pudding) are also consumed, but in general, desserts are considered a luxury. For children, there is sadd al-hanak (mouth stuffers), which consists of honey, ground flour and samna cooked to a thick dough and eaten.
Once known as the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, the Nile Delta is fertile land for many grains, legumes, and pulses. With such diversity, rural Egyptians used wheat, corn, chickpeas, lentils, fava beans, and more in a variety of ways to enhance the flavour and improve the nutritional value of their meals. Ful (fava beans), in particular, has been a staple of the Egyptian diet since the Middle Ages, with the typical ful mudammas (stewed fava beans) anchoring breakfast tables across Egypt.
Wheat was the cornerstone of the Egyptian diet, often ground whole to produce unrefined whole-wheat flour used in a wide variety of regional breads, such as the shamsi bread of southern Egypt and sabbawi, which is similar to a crepe fried in samna. The wheat is also harvested while green and roasted before being rubbed vigorously to produce the highly nutritious fireek. Often the bread, leavened with a sourdough culture or with fermented buttermilk, is fortified with buckwheat, sorghum, or fenugreek, giving rural bread its distinctive flavours.
Corn is grown as livestock feed for chickens and other birds but is also used to make flour from which sweetened cakes may be made or to thicken puddings like mehalabeyya. Roasted corn is enjoyed on its own or rubbed and pounded to make fireek al-dora, an additional starch dish for the table. The leftover corn cobs were further dried and used as a fuel source when needed.
Today it is unfathomable that any Egyptian dish would be served without rice. Rice is prepared by toasting vermicelli in ghee to which onion and a broth may be added. Another well-loved preparation is akin to that of a baked risotto: Rice is cooked with grated tomato, onion, and other seasonings before being submerged in milk, topped with fresh cream, and baked in the oven. The resulting dish, roz mo‘ammar, is a delicacy. It can also be referred to as roz dass, meaning that a protein component was buried in the rice as it cooked.
Anatomy of a Rural Family Meal
Families typically ate breakfast and early dinner together around a low circular table called the tableyya, with lunch served to the men in their fields at midday. Meals consisted of a plate of khudra or mixed fresh herbs, lettuces, leeks, or turnips. Washed and barely trimmed, these brought freshness, texture, and seasonality to the table. A bowl of seasoning would typically be on the table, usually salt mixed with black cumin and occasionally sesame seeds to be sprinkled on the food as needed. A dish of some kind of strong pickle was also ubiquitous, be it mish (pickled white cheese), preserved lemons, or torshi, homemade carrot, beet, or radish pickles. Bread was indispensable and there could be several varieties, either leavened or unleavened, including battaw, roqaq and other varieties fortified with whole wheat, sorghum, barley, melilot or sweet clover (handa’ou’), corn, or buckwheat depending on geography and season. A simple and fortifying soup or broth made from the cooking liquor of the boiled protein (meat or poultry) was often combined with different breads as a fattah or bread soaked in broth. Protein was not always part of the meal. Instead, a variety of vegetable stews held pride of place alongside different cooked grains and legumes. When animal protein was available, it was up to the head of the family to carve and distribute the portions.
A Disappearing Heritage
Today, these traditions continue, albeit influenced by centuries of colonial influence and wider globalization and commerce. Foreign sauces like béchamel and preparations such as deep-fried chicken have found a place on Egyptian tables, both urban and rural, but we doubt the rich vegetable stews and aged cheeses of the countryside will ever disappear entirely.
Our cultural identity has not yet been divorced from the soil upon which our feet stand. Subconsciously, we still enjoy a particular mix and style of eating that remains quintessentially Egyptian. As professional chefs, there are lessons for us to learn. Seasonality, minimal food waste, and a deep connection to the soil are all things we have in our cultural DNA.
Who would send that back to the kitchen?
Some of the most drastic changes in Egyptian food culture begin to take place.
When Khedive Ismail’s palace chef retired, he shared his rich repertoire of recipes in a book. These are not for the kitchen novices out there!
Between the Arab Agricultural Revolution and the Columbian Exchange, Cairene cuisine reaches its zenith and carries the torch from Abbasid Baghdad.
The world's oldest cookbook and an ancient papyrus preserving Egyptian recipes.
Two rare surviving recipes from ancient Egypt.
Whether from modern convenience, shifting trends, or climate change, traditional food in Egypt is facing many threats to its survival.
Moustafa Elrefaey is the executive chef and cofounder of Zooba Home Grown. He is an active member with Slow Food International and winner of the Falafel Festival in London 2016. His culinary philosophy and passion reflect the growing trend towards a healthier and natural lifestyle.
Wesam Masoud is one of Egypt’s most recognizable chefs, known for his idiosyncratic style and his of championing social issues such as reducing food waste and celebrating Egyptian food culture through its diversity and historical significance. He currently hosts a show entitled ‘Matbakh 101’ on CBC Sofra.