FOOD FROM EGYPT
Fresh fluid milk is rarely used except occasionally in cooking. Some goat’s milk is used but cow and buffalo milk are preferred. In the cities milk is sold from door to door and is always boiled before using. A variety of milk products are available in cities — pasteurized milk, condensed milk, butter, and cheeses. Yogurt, but primarily mish, is the rural staple. Mish (seasoned with red peppers and fenugreek) is considered peasant food, but is also much enjoyed by upper classes. A dried paste of soured milk blended with flour and seasonings, such as red peppers, is called kishk and is commonly cooked with water and eaten as the evening meal at rural tables with corn bread, onions, and sweet tea.
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
Fruits are generally produced in small quantities and enjoyed mainly by the upper classes. In rural areas, seasonal fruits such as guavas, figs, and dates are used. Though quantity is limited, there is a wide range of tropical and subtropical fruits produced with peaches, pears, citrus fruits, and apricots being the most important. In addition, there are crops of apples, loquats, cherries, nectarines, plums, and quinces. Egypt ranks high in world production of dates, and there are also large crops of citrus fruits. (Portoqal are oranges, and limes are called leimoon.) Smaller crops of olives, bananas, pomegranates, grapes, and mangoes are also grown.
Onions and leeks are the most popular vegetable crops, dating from ancient times, and used year round by all classes. Tomatoes are plentiful but eaten cooked rather than fresh. Other vegetables are consumed in very limited amounts in rural diets and only used seasonally on urban tables. Okra, potato, eggplant, cauliflower, cabbage, and spinach are other staple crops.
In cooler months, wild and cultivated leafy vegetables are eaten by all, but special favorites in the spring are the tender seeds and leaves of chickpeas and broad beans. Millokhia (spelled in various ways), is a green similar to spinach but with the gelatinous qualities of okra, and is especially popular in a classic soup of the same name which is based on chicken stock flavored with tomato paste, garlic, coriander, and pepper.
Occasionally radishes, carrots, lettuce, purslane, cucumbers, and even tomatoes are eaten raw as a side dish. Where storage is available some vegetables may be pickled in brine or vinegar during season: carrots, turnips, radishes, tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet peppers. Okra and millokhia are the only two that may be stored and preserved in a dried state for later use in soups, sauces, and slow-cooked casserole-type dishes.
MEATS AND ALTERNATES
Meats are not a frequent part of the Egyptian diet. When they are used, meats and fish are most often well seasoned and eaten mostly as part of a dish with legumes or cereal grains. Muslims not only do not eat pork but also prefer meats that have been ritually slaughtered (halal). Beef, lamb, kid, commercially raised rabbits, and even camel may be used by them as well. Traditionally, chickens are allowed to forage, which makes their meat stringy and tough and their egg production low. Most popular of all fowl are pigeons. Since young squabs are a special delicacy, pigeon nesting is encouraged everywhere.
Legumes are universally popular. Two classic Egyptian dishes: ful (slow-simmered beans) and tamiya (fried bean patties), are a popular dish at home and frequently purchased from vendors or eaten in restaurants. Lentils, chickpeas, broad beans, horse beans, vechling or the prass peas, and moki or lima beans are all used in soups and thick or thin stews. Sometimes they are mixed with meats or vegetables, and always they are well seasoned.
Because of its perishability, fish is used where caught. Bouri is a form of mullet fish most used: fessikh is salted bouri. Small amounts of almonds, pistachios, and pecans are grown. They are used mainly as snacks or in rich desserts and pastries. Pine nuts may be used in some meat/vegetable dishes, or sometimes served with rice.
BREADS AND GRAINS
Corn, wheat, barley, rice, sorghum, and millet are the cereal crops produced in Egypt. Baladi is the wheat indigenous to the land, while lindi is a variety from India that has better baking qualities.
Bread is the most important staple for all classes and the poorer the family, the greater the ratio of bread consumed to other foods. Wheat breads are considered the finest, and bettai or bettawa is the classic Arabian bread leavened with yeast and baked in a fourteen-inch flat circle. The fellaheen make their breads from corn, millet, or sorghum (depending upon area) and spice it liberally with fenugreek. On special feast days they may add wheat to their usual breads to make them more festive.
Rural delta communities use corn as the staple, with only occasional use of wheat and rice. Rural southern Egyptians make breads from millet or sorghum with some wheat flour added. In common to all breads of rural areas is the sweet and fragrant taste of fenugreek.
Rice, burgul, and couscous form the main ingreclients of many festive dishes and are often used as stuffings (well seasoned) for meats, poultry, including pigeons, and vegetables. Burgul is a nutritious wholegrain prepared from boiled, dried, and cracked wheat. It can be purchased from fine to coarse and has many uses. Cooked it can be used in many ways as rice; uncooked it is used by soaking first, then it may he combined with chopped vegetables and dressed with oil and seasonings. (See Lebanese; Syrian.) Another very similar grain dish is farik or fireek, which is made from green wheat.
Couscous is the favored dish all over North Africa, especially in Morocco. (See Moroccan.) Rural Egyptian families prepare it because it is economical and satisfying. Other Egyptians may make it as a sweet treat or dessert to be eaten with sugar and flecked with peanuts. Classic couscous is served with stewed meat and vegetables and a sidedish of very hot-seasoned sauce.
As if proof were needed that not a crumb of bread is wasted, witness esh es saraya, “Egyptian palace bread”: made with bread crumbs stirred into a heavy syrup then poured out to cool. When cut into triangles and served with whipped cream, the rich honey and butter from the syrup and the smooth delight of the cream fit the name.
Fool sudani (peanuts) and simsim (sesame seeds) rank as the important crops used especially for oil production. Cottonseed is the source for most of the vegetable oil consumed in Egypt. Butter is usually used in the form of samna or masli – clarified butter.
SWEETS AND SNACKS
Large quantities of sugar are consumed in the very sweet desserts and confections, the well-sweetened tea and coffee, and the many carbonated beverages that are enjoyed. The pastry of the Mediterranean – phyllo – makes its sweet appearance in pastry shops in the familiar array of honey or syrup-drenched sweets. Exquisite sugared confections are sometimes specially created for desserts, but only in well-to-do homes. Sugar-coated nuts and sweets like halwah, which is a confection made from ground nuts, sesame seeds, and sugar, are snacked on whenever possible.
The aromas wafting from the bazaars of Cairo and Alexandria form a rich, heady blend of henna, sandalwood, myrrh, camphor, opium, and hashish. The rich scents wafting from Egyptian cookery may include coriander, mint, cumin, cinnamon, and the rich warmth of buttery honey syrups. Regardless of class, two favorite seasonings used are fenugreek and sesame, both as seeds and oil. While all of these lend their flavors to various dishes and breads, the most-used blend is garlic and onions with tomato paste or tomato juice. Egyptians love the sharp pungency of garlic and onions. Conversely, they also love very sweet drinks and desserts. Delicate pastries and fruit desserts are frequently enhanced with nuts, butter, honey, and often rosewater or orange flower water.
Sweetened coffee is the mainstay of the urban Egyptian, while sweetened tea is the frequent refresher of the rural family. Both beverages are enjoyed after meals and often as a “pick-up,” or served just to express hospitality. Water is traditionally served with meals.
Soft drinks, carbonated beverages, and drinks made with prepared fruit syrups and plain water are used frequently. Meal beverages also include the following: erkesous, nonalcoholic beer flavored with anisette; tambrahandi, made from date palm juice; shaier, made from barley; soubya drink, made from fermented rice; lubki, a drink similar to ginger ale.