Food Culture and Tradition

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Egyptian Meals, Customs and Foods Commonly Used


The abundance of gracious words, multiple cups of coffee, and a proliferation of heaped dishes that are all so typical of the unfailing Arabian hospitality can he explained in one word – shaban, meaning total satisfaction. The shaban of the guest is the joy of the host and nothing is spared to achieve this. Age, place, or wealth mean nothing. The best of what is available is proffered to the guest, and in great quantity.

Guests are seldom surprised by unusual foods. Age-old traditions of food preparation, serving, and eating are well enshrined in Arab hospitality. City dwellers often prefer to take their meals in shaded courtyards during very hot weather. But whether indoors or out, the ritual is the same. Diners seat themselves informally on layered carpets while platters of food are placed on low wooden tables within easy reach. There are no individual plates, no cutlery Foods are traditionally eaten with the fingers of the right hand only or are deftly scooped up with broken pieces of flat Arabic bread (from that big fourteen-inch flat circle mentioned above). Just in case there are some sticky fingers, bowls or brass jars filled with scented water are passed by servants between courses.

The quantity and variety of foods is further enhanced by the tradition of combining foods according to each diners pleasure. Perhaps the eating is so enjoyable because there is always a different combination to taste.

Because the sheer quantity of foods offered is an important part of hospitality, some special dinners have as many as forty varied dishes, each one heaped and garnished in lavish display. Water or some form of light drink will be served with the meal. Sweet honey desserts might conclude a special meal, but fruits are the usual dessert. Small cups of Turkish-type black sweetened coffee and the smoking of the narghile or hookah (water pipe) may he an after-dinner pleasure for some.
Hospitality is consistent, but foodstuffs may vary considerably. The humble home of the Iellaheen, often shared by the family’s animals, may be able to offer only bread, mish, and sweetened tea. A few dishes based largely on legumes, and occasional soups or vegetables, would he the only addition to the daily fare. Conversely, urban homes may rival the sophistication of gourmets anywhere with the exotica of typical Middle East specialties.

Morning begins very’ early for the fellaheen with a light breakfast of ful, bread, olives, mish, and sweet tea. In some areas local fruits may be eaten in season accompanying the bread and tea. Urban breakfasts are identical but coffee substitutes for tea.

The (ellaheen’s lunch will be a repeat of the earlier meal while dinner may include a legume-based soup (e.g. thick lentil soup) or kishk cooked with water. Olives with fresh onions and bread will complete the meal, while cups of sweet tea will be sipped to satiety.

There is usually not a great variety of foods in the peasant’s meals but the staple legumes are pre-pared in many different ways and the adroit use of pungent and hot seasonings, along with the generous consumption of bread and tea, provides variety and satisfaction. Dried boiled legumes can he served as soup or stew, or drained and served as a “salad.” Sometimes mashed cooked legumes are heaped in a mound and served with small amounts of meats or vegetables. Or they may be deep-fried in patties called tamiya. Ful nabit is yet another main dish prepared from sprouted beans.
Urban lunches also favor dishes prepared from legumes that are often eaten in restaurants. Dinners in upper-class homes feature all courses on the table at once and diners casually select each course to their own taste: a soup (eaten with a spoon), a legume dish, stuffed vegetables, couscous with meats and hot sauce, a plentiful supply of breads, and finally, fruits, followed by coffee.

Snack foods abound on city streets and even along roadsides, and again the favorites reflect the Egyptian love of legumes: ful medamis, simmered seasoned beans served with olive oil and lemon juice; tamiya, fried bean patties served with spicy-hot sauces; kushari, pasta, rice, and lentils topped with spicy tomato sauce and flecks of crisp browned onions. Vendors of sweet confections vie with those selling fresh fruits, toasted nuts, and crispy seeds. Coffeehouses locate themselves conveniently too. And at any time of the day, sweetened cola and other carbonated drinks, as well as fruit mixtures, are avail-able to slake the thirst.

Foods Commonly Used

Although there is a marked difference between the foods of the upper classes and the fellaheen, the general Egyptian fare is vegetarian. Even the wealthy serve meat only once or twice a week, while the poorest taste meat only on special occasions. Bread is the staple of all classes, from the leavened wheat breads of the upper class to the fellaheen’s staple of unleavened corn breads flavored with fenugreek (similar in taste to anise). Meat, fish, legumes, and dairy products are a part of urban diets; skim milk cheese and legumes are the most important protein foods for the fellaheen, who supplement their diet with onions, tomatoes, and wild greens as well as very small amounts of local fruit. The wealthy consume fruits and vegetables according to taste. Tea is the rural drink, coffee is the urban drink, and all groups consume sweetened carbonated drinks.

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