FOOD AND CULTURE IN EGYPT
Sphinx, pyramids, pharaohs, and mummies all evoke vivid images of ancient Egypt. But so should a sip of cool frothy beer or a bite of warm crusty bread, because both are credited to the inventive genius of ancient Egyptians: an unnamed brewer and an equally obscure baker. Perhaps it is from the land of Egypt that the expression “the sands of time” originates. It would be entirely appropriate. The study of Egyptology and the science of archeology have discovered keys to the ancient civilization under layers of dry sand. It is one thing to read about the histories of ancient peoples, it is another to view actual implements, original writings, artifacts, clothing, and even dried foods that were part of everyday life thousands of years ago. Credit must be given to the exceptionally dry climate of Upper Egypt (Southern) and the ease with which excavations may be made in sand.
Considered to be the direct living descendants of the ancient Egyptians are a group of present-day Egyptian Christians known as Copts. They clung to their faith even though in the 600s C.E. almost all Egyptians embraced Islam under the powerful influence of the Ayyubids, who established Egypt as the political and cultural center of the Islamic world. Although the overwhelming population of Egypt is Arabic, other groups, including Bedouins, Turks, Greeks, Syrians, French, Italians, and British, remain in Egypt as historical footprints of past conquests and foreign dominations.
Those influences have for the most part blended into general Egyptian culture but some threads are evident in the country’s food styles. Excavations have yielded foods and writings about the foods that graced ancient Egyptian tables: leeks, onions, and okra; the large flat round yeast breads that are a staple of the Middle East even today; cakes rich with honey and dates; fool or ful – slow-simmered beans; and tamiya, seasoned mashed bean patties, deep-fried. Even though thousands of years old, each is a part of Egyptian gastronomy today.
The processed burgul, used in many dishes, is likely of Syrian origin, but Greek and Turkish influence is evident in the following: meushti, stuffed vegetables; shourba, egg yolks laced with lemon juice and whisked into clear soup stock; and the many varieties of honey-drenched and nut-studded pastries made with phyllo dough. A popular classic Bedouin dish of lamb and rice, called mansat, is also much enjoyed on Egyptian tables. It is served over layers of carefully baked wholewheat sheets called shrak. Couscous is a Moroccan staple used in Egypt more as a dessert than an entree.
History credits both Arab civilization and the spread of Islam with bringing coffee to the tables of the world as a stimulant, refresher, and symbol of hospitality. Thought to have originated in Upper Ethiopia and Egypt, from an area called Kaffa, the Arabs first brewed coffee for use as an energizer and stimulant. Gradually the Greek and Roman Bacchic culture (so called because Bacchus was the god of wine and wine was their favorite beverage) was uprooted together with their vineyards as the Arab world spread its influence, and coffee came to be known as “the wine of Islam.” It was not until the 1500s that coffee lost its exclusivity as its fame and aroma spread over Europe and, for many people, coffeehouses became their second homes. Coffee’s importance never waned in Egypt. So important is the role of this beverage that people commonly have the name of their favorite coffeehouse inscribed on their business cards.
But of prime importance in Egypt and the Middle East is the oldest liquid of all – water. Egypt has been described as “a long fertile valley surrounded by desert.” Only to the extent that water can be encouraged for irrigation can food be provided. Newer systems of canals and dams are helping to increase agricultural output and lessen the country’s age-old dependency on the Nile Rivers annual flooding. More than 60 percent of the population is engaged in agriculture with the principal crop of cotton yielding not only high-quality fiber but also cottonseed oil used in cooking.
Berseem, the Egyptian clover, is used as a rotation crop for fodder to feed cattle, sheep, goats, and chickens as well as pigs, though pork is consumed only by the Copt community as the Muslims do not use it. The milk produced by these animals is used for yogurt and many types of cheeses. The gentle gamoosa (water buffalo) provides milk and is a dependable beast of burden and may even live with humble families as the winter heating unit. Donkeys are the preferred beasts of burden.
While upper-class Egyptians converse in Arabic, French, and English and enjoy a cosmopolitan lifestyle, the fellaheen (peasants) continue a way of life that has not changed in centuries. Working in fields with their gamoosa, they tend crops, vineyards, and orchards, and care for their animals and poultry but seldom eat what they produce. Meat, poultry, and eggs, as well as most vegetables and fruits, are sold. The fellaheen’s staples are bread, onions, legumes, and copious drinks of very sweet tea. Their main protein source other than grains and legumes is mish, a white skim milk cheese stored in earthen-ware jars to ripen.
No one has torn down sphinx or pyramids in order to erect skyscrapers in Egypt. But today, modern skyscrapers, towering balconied condominiums, and bustling suburban streets hum with activity with-in sight of the ancient windswept pyramids of the pharaohs. Yet, Egypt remains, as always, a land and a people quietly aware of their ancient roots but absorbed in their daily tasks, all carried out with typical Mediterranean disdain for time, bustle, or punctuality. There must always be time for a sip and a chat.