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Egyptian Food and Cooking

by Diana Viola with Elinoar Moore

May I walk every day unceasingly on the banks of my water, may my soul rest on the branches of the trees which I have planted, may I refresh myself in the shadow of my sycamore.

Egyptian tomb inscription, ca. 1400 BCE

At the crossroads of Asia and Africa, the river Nile snakes through parched desert lands. On the fertile banks of the mighty Nile early man grew the foods that nourished the most advanced of ancient civilizations - The Egyptian. The Nile was the lifeblood of the people. It served as a means of transportation and a source of food from fishing, but the river was also crucial to agriculture.

From the fragile remnants of papyrus, the records of a civilization, we can glean some data about early Egyptian food. Written in Coptic, Greek, Demotic Egyptian, one page of papyrus might hold a list of foods put on board a ship - wine, bread, pickled fish, honey, and vinegar.  Another might contain a written record of a lawsuit, written in the name of a honey-seller. We are on our way to discovery, but it is the sealed tombs of the dead that will reveal most.

 

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Tombs and Pyramids

The Egyptian attitude to the afterlife is unique in that they view the deceased as beginning a journey outward. In their tombs, devoted to aid the departed on his journey, we are able to reconstruct aspects of daily life and the food of Egypt. Mummification preserved the deceased, and as long as the mummy existed, it was given its portion of furniture, statues, paintings and food for its 'eternal home.' Pottery vessels were used for food offerings which were sealed into the tombs, preserving the foods. The tombs were filled with hieroglyphics and with drawings that often represent agricultural practices, butchering methods, any aspect of daily life.

Add to these sources the chronicles of the Greek Herodotus of Halicarnassus (484 B.C. - 418 B.C.) whose work on natural history amplifies other sources. Herodotus tells us : "Quails, ducks and smaller birds are salted and eaten uncooked; all other kinds of birds, as well as fish, excepting those that are sacred to the Egyptians, are eaten roasted or boiled." Later he says,"the pig is accounted by the Egyptians an abominable animal; and first, if any of them in passing by touch a pig, he goes into the river and dips himself forthwith in the water together with his garments."

We know that barley and emmer, a type of wheat, grew extensively and barley provided the source to make beer. Egyptian farmers kept poultry, (ducks and geese) and raised cattle and goats for milk. Meat came from sheep, pigs and cows, and fish came from the Nile. Vegetables supplemented the diet.

Egyptians liked strong-tasting vegetables such as garlic and onions. They thought these were good for the health. They also ate peas and beans, lettuce, cucumbers, and leeks. Vegetables were often served with an oil and vinegar dressing. Figs, dates, pomegranates and grapes were the only fruits that could be grown in the hot climate. The rich could afford to make wine from their grapes. Baskets of figs have been found in Egyptian tombs.

Having a wide range of food, the poor Egyptian ate a fairly healthy diet including vegetables, fruit and fish. Poultry was mostly roasted for the table, but meat was mainly the privilege of the rich. Seasonings included: salt, pepper, cumin, coriander, sesame, dill, fennel, fenugreek and assorted seeds. The priests who performed the sacrifice of animals to the gods, were probably the only ones to eat beef.

Tomb paintings show hundreds of scenes that depict meat being boiled, while fowl are depicted as roasted. How pork fit into the diet is a mystery. At archeological sites, bones have been unearthed, by the Egyptians generally abstained, believing the vast amount of fat to cause leprosy.

Ancient Egyptian Agriculture

Every year in the heat of summer, the great Nile flooded, spreading over the valleys on its sides. When the water receded, it left behind rich earth deposits swept down from the Ethiopian plateau, a fertile planting ground for the food in the Egyptian diet. Pliny recorded ancient methods of Nile farming. The technique was "to begin sowing after the subsidence of the Nile and then drive swine over the ground, pressing down the damp soil with their footprints." In November they sowed the land, then reaped the harvest in April. The land was so fertile that it was even possible to grow two crops a year. Today the flow of the Nile, the world's longest river, is regulated by the Aswan High Dam.

Bread and Baking in Egypt

Bread was the staple food of most Egyptians. By the 12th century in Egypt, there were bread stalls in the larger villages. Though the poor ate mostly flatbread, the rich had a choice of almost forty types of breads and pastries.

The mainstay of Egyptian diets, aysh (bread) comes in several forms. The most common is a pita type made either with refined white flour called aysh shami, or with coarse, whole wheat, aysh baladi. Stuffed with any of several fillings, it becomes the Egyptian sandwich. Aysh shams is bread made from leavened dough allowed to rise in the sun, while plain aysh comes in long, skinny, French-style loaves.

Egypt's remarkable records tell us that bread was made in more than thirty different shapes. They included the flat, round loaf now commonly called pita, still a staple food in Egypt. Sweetened doughs or cakes, treasured as food for the gods, were devised by combining honey, dates and other fruits, spices, and nuts with the dough, which was baked in the shapes of animals and birds. Since there was no sugar, honey was used as a sweetener by the rich, and poor people used dates and fruit juices.

Beer in Egypt

Beer was the national drink, made from the crops of barley. To improve the taste the Egyptians would add spices and it was usually stored in labeled clay jars. Wine for the upper classes was made from local vineyards. After the harvest was gathered, the workers would tread the grapes, and the juice collected . Other wines were made from pomegranates or plums. The Egyptian's basic food and drink, bread and beer, were made from the main crops they grew, wheat and barley. It is speculated that the Egyptians were the first to discover leavened bread. Though undetermined, we can imagine a piece of what we call 'starte'r falling into fresh dough.

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Beans in Egypt

Along with aysh, the native bean supplies most of Egypt's people with their daily rations. Ful can be cooked several ways: in ful midamess, the whole beans are boiled, with vegetables if desired, and then mashed with onions, tomatoes, and spices.

This mixture is often served with an egg for breakfast, without the egg for other meals . A similar sauce, cooked down into a paste and stuffed into aysh baladi, is the filling for the sandwiches sold on the street. Alternatively, ful beans are soaked, minced, mixed with spices, formed into patties (called ta'miyya in Cairo and falaafil in Alexandria), and deep-fried. These patties, garnished with tomatoes, lettuce, and tahina sauce, are stuffed into aysh and sold on the street.

 

Aspects of Cooking in Egypt

Egyptian food was cooked in simple clay pots, using wooden utensils and stored in jars. Fish and meat had to be especially prepared for storage. One common method, evidenced in frescoes, was salting. Another was hanging the fish in the sun to bake them dry. Egypt developed a thriving trade in dried and salted fish.

In ordinary families the cooking was done by the housewife, but larger households employed servants to work in the kitchen and a chef - usually a man - to do the cooking. The Egyptians had ovens, and knew how to boil roast, and fry food. There were few kitchen tools: pestles, mortars, and sieves. Archaeologists have unearthed early mortars with rubbing stones that would probably have been use to separate the chaff from the grain.

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Egyptian Foods and Recipes

Ancient Roots - Today's Egyptian Food

The variety of Egyptian recipes is extensive, and utilizes many types of food. With a history of foreign trade, of invasions and the domination of other cultures, (Roman, Greek, Arab among them) Egypt has adopted many ways of preparing food. The influences came mainly from Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Palestine, and other Mediterranean countries, but even those were modified in Egypt to a great extent, adapting them to suit Egyptian customs, and tastes to make these foods uniquely Egyptian. The dishes are simple and hearty, made with naturally ripened fruits and vegetables and seasoned with fresh spices. The food in the south, closely linked to North African cuisine, is zestier than that found in the north, but neither is especially hot.

But we must remember that the early Egyptians were accomplished agriculturists. They cultivated pistachios, pine nuts, almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts, still popular food today. From their orchards came apples, apricots, grapes, melons, quinces, and pomegranates. To this day, Egyptians love vegetables. Ancient gardens featured lettuce, peas, cucumbers, beets, beans, herbs, and greens. Pharaohs thought of mushrooms as a special delicacy.

Egyptian cuisine is known for flavor and its use of fresh ingredients. The staple in every Arab's diet is a bread called Aish (means life), which is a darker form of the Pita bread in the Greek culture. Fava beans are also important in the diet. At an Arab meal, one would expect to have a soup, meat, vegetable stew, bread, salad, and rice or pasta. Their desserts aren't rich like those of many other Arab countries, similar cuisine as it is and most dishes have the same name all over the middle east, mostly fruit is served after a meal. Egypt's cuisine includes bean stew and falafel with veal, lamb and pigeon which is also popular.

Specific Foods

Boiled cabbage was eaten before drinking bouts to prevent getting drunk. Herodotus records that the slaves who built the Great Pyramid at Giza were kept going on "radishes, onions, and leeks," three of the world's oldest vegetables.

Molokhiyya is a leafy, green, summer vegetable. A traditional dish in Egypt and Sudam, some people believe it originated among Egyptians during the time of the Pharaohs. Others believe that it was first prepared by ancient Jews. Molokhia is nutritious soup made from a type of greens, known as molokhiyya or Jew's mallow (also called Nalta jute, Tussa jute, Corchorus olitorius), which is found throughout and in other Arab countries with the same climate as well as in Israel. Dried or frozen molokhiyya greens may be obtained from Middle Eastern stores worldwide. Consumption of molokhia was banned (along with a great many other things) during the reign of the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim (c.1000 AD). In addition to molokhiyya, the Egyptians make a variety of meat (lahhma), vegetable (khudaar), and fish (samak) soups known collectively as shurbah, and all are delicious.

Rice (ruzz)is often varied by cooking it with nuts, onions, vegetables, or small amounts of meat. Egyptians stuff green vegetables with mixtures of rice. wara' enab, for example, is made form boiled grape leaves filled with small amounts of spiced rice with or without ground meat.

Potatoes (bataatis) are usually fried but can also be boiled or stuffed.

Salads (salata) can be made of greens, tomatoes, potatoes, or eggs, as well as with beans and yogurt.

Yogurt (laban zabadi) is fresh and unflavored; you can sweeten if you wish with honey, jams, preserves, or mint. It rests easy on an upset stomach.

Rice and bread form the bulk of Egyptian main courses, which may be served either as lunch or dinner. For most Egyptians, meat is a luxury used in small amounts, cooked with vegetables, and served with or over rice.

The Egyptian way of making kebabs is to season chunks of lamb in onion, marjoram, and lemon juice and then roast them on a spit over an open fire. Kufta is ground lamb flavored with spices and onions which is rolled into long narrow "meatballs" and roasted like kebab. Pork is considered unclean by Muslims, but is readily available, as is beef.

Pigeons (hamaam) are raised throughout Egypt, and when stuffed with seasoned rice and grilled, constitute a national delicacy. If you visiting Egypt, beware: local restaurants sometimes serve the heads buried in the stuffing.

Egyptians serve both freshwater and seagoing fish under the general term of samak. The best fish seem to be near the coasts (ocean variety) or in Aswan, where they are caught from Lake Nasser. As well as the common bass and sole, there are shrimp, squid, scallops, and eel. The latter, a white meat with a delicate salmon flavoring, can be bought on the street already deep-fried.

Native cheese (gibna) comes in two varieties: gibna beida, similar to feta, and gibna rumy, a sharp, hard, pale yellow cheese. These are the ones normally used in salads and sandwiches.

Egyptian desserts of pastry or puddings are usually drenched in honey syrup. Baklava (filo dough, honey, and nuts) is one of the less sweet; fatir are pancakes stuffed with everything from eggs to apricots, and basbousa, quite sweet, is made of semolina pastry soaked in honey and topped with hazelnuts.

Bbouzat haleeb or ice cream is a totally different experience from the rich American ice cream. Its quite light and gummy in texture. It actually stretches a bit as you spoon it. Misika (Arabic gum) and shalab (an extract from the tubers of orchids) can be found in most Mid-Eastern markets

Umm ali is another national dish of Egypt, and is a raisin cake soaked in milk and served hot. Kanafa is a dish of batter "strings" fried on a hot grill and stuffed with nuts, meats, or sweets. Egyptian rice pudding is called mahallabiyya and is served topped with pistachios. French-style pastries are called gatoux. Most homes and places serve fresh fruits for desserts, and it makes a perfect, light conclusion to most meals.

Although Turkish coffee has a reputation for being tart, its actual flavor depends on the mix of beans used in the grind. The larger the percentage of Arabica, the sweeter and more chocolate flavor. Ahwa comes in several versions: ahwa sada is black, ahwa ariha is lightly sweetened with sugar, ahwa mazboot is moderately sweetened, and ahwaziyada is very sweet. You must specify the amount of sugar at the time you order, for it's sweetened in the pot. Ahwa is never served with cream.

 

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