Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

Egyptian Domestic Life and Special Occasions


The Egyptian’s lifestyle and domestic facilities are sharply defined by class and gender. Modern ideas and technology have made great inroads in the educational, economic, and agricultural spheres, but the roles of male and female have changed little from ancient times. Upper-class women enjoy higher education and the help of servants but seldom accompany their husbands to restaurants or coffee-houses. Class is synonymous with wealth: servants, appliances, and the hand labor of many Muslim wives in a household (Muslim law allows a man four wives) indicate a family’s status. Fellaheen conditions parallel those of many in subsistence economies, where most perishable foods are neither preserved nor stored but are consumed locally and seasonally as they are available. For this reason starvation may result when crops are poor.


Since the majority of Egyptians are of Arabic origin (the Ayyubid, Muslim sect), Muslim feast days and fast days rule the Egyptian calendar. The small group of Egyptian Christians (about one and a half million) dating their lineage to the ancients celebrate Christian festivals. Proportionately smaller groups include Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and Jews.

Feast days for the .fellaheen are marked whenever possible with the inclusion of meat, which is usually ritually slaughtered with ceremony fitting the occasion. The meat itself may be chicken, lamb, water buffalo (although rarely because the animal is more valued for work and for milk), and occasionally even a “very old camel – so tough it must be stewed for days before it can be eaten …” Since wheat breads are considered of the finest quality, the inclusion of even some wheat flour into the daily bread is considered a treat for many fellaheen.

For many, however, special feast days are marked not only by visits from friends and relatives, but also by long days of preparation of the specialty dishes. These include feta, a classic holiday dish of layered bread, rice, and meats all moistened with rich garlic-flavored broth; esh es saraya, the rich sweet made from bread crumbs, honey, and butter, and served with ishta (whipped cream); heaping platters of mehshi, seasonal vegetables (e.g. eggplants, zucchini, peppers) stuffed with savory rice and meat mixtures; and variations of garnished sweetened couscous. The most dramatic dish of all, worthy of any festive occasion, is ferakh bel borghul. This is prepared by stuffing chickens with farik, or rice, then poaching them to tenderness and browning them to crispness and finally cooking them inside a boned turkey or lamb. With great ceremony the chickens are extracted as the awesome piece de resistance, then carved in small pieces for the diners.

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