It is a very busy evening for the upscale Maadi grocery shop on the weekend separating the beginning of the New Year and the advent of Coptic Christmas that Egypt celebrates on 7 January.
Nevine, a housewife in her late 40s, is going through her shopping list. She is done with the meat, the poultry and the pastas. It is now time to go through the cheese section and then to leave the grocery shop to the patisserie to order cakes and cookies.
“Cheese is essential on my dinner table for Christmas. I get a wide range. I love cheese and I observe the fast, but also my children and my husband — who do not observe the fast — are always delighted to indulge in the cheese platter that I put on the table. It is a particular element of my table that is also appreciated by my brother and sisters and their spouses and children,” Nevine said.
The devout Copts of Egypt observe an over 50-day fast before they celebrate Christmas on 7 January. Unlike lent, for this fast they are allowed to eat fish but they have to refrain from dairy, poultry and meat.
For Christmas dinner, which traditionally takes place after the end of midnight service, they are allowed to indulge.
“Well, we don’t necessarily wait until the end of the full [Christmas] mass. This used to be the case before, but it has been changing a lot,” Nevine added.
During the life of her parents, both very observing Coptic Orthodox, Nevine and her siblings “would not have even entertained the thought” of sitting down to the Christmas dinner before the early hours of 7 January. They had to attend the full mass and then go home for the dinner.
“Things change a bit with times; today we start a bit earlier and in fact we have a very different menu for our Christmas dinner,” she added.
‘Before’ – which is until the late 1980s – Nevine’s family would have “the very traditional Christmas dinner that almost everyone had.”
“It was essentially about fattah (a layered mix of rice, toasted slices of baladi bread, dipped in meat broth and splashed with fried garlic) and meat which was either simply boiled or boiled and then fried in ghee,” she recalled.
A few years down the road, by the mid-1990s, Nevine saw her mother adding a rich dessert, “usually a fruit or chocolate cake. And she would always put some kahk el-Eid,” — Egyptian style Christmas cookies filled with Turkish delight, processed dates or nuts and coated with powdered sugar.
Then, the dinner menu expanded to include favourite dishes of family members that were not allowed during the fast, including macarona béchamel (a derivative of lasagna with thick white sauce), fried chicken and chicken soup with fried orzo.
“Things change; the very menus change and evolve. When we were young, chicken would be generally boiled and fried or grilled or roasted. Today, we have endless chicken recipes, including Chinese ones,” Nevine said.
She was actually planning chicken with soy sauce and noodles for her dinner table this Christmas.
Nadia, a Coptic lady in her late 60s from the more traditional Zeytoun neighbourhood, acknowledges the changes in the Christmas dinner menu. Nadia and her husband and children still attend the Christmas mass until the very end. However, what they eat for dinner is not confined to fattah and meat.
“We have been watching TV and learning new recipes and doing them – especially to please the children and the grandchildren,” Nadia said.
Nadia’s Christmas dinner does not have a cheese platter or assorted gateaux soirees; and they have no room for recipes of Chinese cuisine. However, they have place for saniyet kobeiba (baked minced meat and cracked wheat), potatoes stuffed with minced meat and topped with béchamel and mahshi fetaryi (vegetables stuffed with rice and minced meat and cooked with ghee). For dessert, Nadia usually gets rice pudding from her Muslim neighbour.
“It is a tradition in our apartment building. The Muslims give the Christians rice pudding for the feast and we offer them fried fish for the second day of Eid after Ramadan (the Muslim fasting month) because they don’t traditionally eat fish in Ramadan,” she said.
The changes in the components of Christmas dinner also been a function of waves of migration Copts embarked upon since the late 1960s. Those who went to live in North America or Europe have been coming back with their recipes when they visit for the holidays.
Hoda, a resident of Heliopolis in her early 70s, has seen her Christmas dinner table feature stuffed baked turkey and apple pies since Hany, her brother, who had lived in the US for close to 40 years, came back with his wife to retire in Egypt.
“Our Christmas dinner was never very traditional because we in Heliopolis have lived for long with Christians from the Levant, and also with Europeans. So for us it was never really fattah and boiled fried meat. There was always kobeiba and zucchini with béchamel and there was always a chocolate cake from Groppi (an old Heliopolis patisserie),” Hoda recalled.
Now, Hoda and her family go for the Christmas dinner at her brother’s. “So there is really everything; it is quite diverse now for us,” she added.
“But in the 1950s, as today, we always had a real lovely banquet for Christmas. That is the tradition that we have always observed, and we still do,” Hoda said.
Feasting banquets have always been an Egyptian tradition since the times of the Pharaohs, according to an article published by Salima Ikram in the most recent issue of RAWI, Egypt’s heritage review.
Writing under the title of “Abundant delicacies and flowing wine,” Ikram described how banquets in ancient Egypt celebrated a variety of occasions, including religious festivals, “with lavish and sometimes special menus.”
“Entire oxen were roasted together with ducks, geese, pigeons and various other foul,” Ikram wrote.
According to Ikram, “stews of meat were cooked and different types of bread accompanied by a profusion of fresh vegetables and fruits … Cakes and confectioneries using dates and honey, as sweetening agents, were also served.”
“Sometimes fish was served, baked, boiled or grilled – but rarely, as it was considered more of everyday food not fit for special occasions,” she wrote.
Ikram added that pigs would not necessarily appear on banquet menus given that they were considered to be a lesser status meat in ancient Egypt.
According to a separate article by Cornelia Roner in the same issue of RAWI, the status of pigs changed during the Greco-Roman period, as the new residents of the country introduced their culture, foods and recipes. “A recipe of pork from the era shows the use of a wide variety of herbs and spices,” Roner added.
“In a period of changing fashion and traditions, food trends in Egypt mirrored diverse influences around the Mediterranean,” Roner wrote.
Roner added that olive oil found its way next to traditional oils extracted from radish and sesame.
Wine — red and white — found a more prominent place on the tables of Egyptians during the Greco-Roman period, as they slowly took over from beer, the more common drink for most Egyptians, including during festive banquets.
With the Arab conquest, Nawal Nasrallah wrote in a subsequent article in RAWI’s issue dedicated to "Egypt’s culinary history,” that it was a new gastronomic phase.
“The Arab conquest of Egypt played a major role in adding to its already abundant harvests by introducing important crops such as rice, sugarcane and citrus fruits,” Nasrallah wrote.
She added that along with the new crops, the Arab conquest brought new recipes, as Egypt was “gradually becoming home to Turks, Kurds, Moroccans, Sudanese, Persians, Iraqis and more.”
This, Nasrallah reminded, was what brought dishes like Moroccan Kouskous or a Kurdish recipe for a whole lamb roast to the Medieval Egyptian cookbook.
And food continued to travel to Egypt, and so did recipes, according to an article by Alan Mekihail in same issue of RAWI.
By the mid-15th century, Mekhail wrote, Egypt came to have crops that came from the New World. This included corn, tomatoes and potatoes, and of course new recipes came along.
RAWI’s issue on Egypt’s culinary history qualifies the 19th century as definitive in the history of Egyptian cuisine, “as waves of Syrio-Lebanese migration began, particularly with the persecution of Christians in Ottoman Syria.”
The arrival of waves of Greeks and Italians, who came looking for better economic prospects, and of Armenians who were escaping the genocide in the early 20th century, added to the multiplicities of cuisine of Egypt, the editors of RAWI remind.
“Cities turned into cosmopolitan hubs with people of multiple ethnic and religious backgrounds living together in the same buildings,” the editors write. “Egyptian families would send over a plate of ashoura, kahk or bisara and likely get back some Greek fasolada or perhaps artichokes with fava beans – a popular dish during Jewish Passover and Coptic Lent,” the issue added.
While Levantine, Greek and Italian culinary culture were most influential with “regular Egyptians,” French culture was to have “a greater effect with the Turko-Circassian ruling class and Egyptian notables.”
These influences would continue throughout the 19th and early decades of the 20th century until the later introduction of canned and frozen foods, both local and imported, that allowed for yet another wave of culinary innovation and diversity.
“Oh absolutely; this is how I am planning my mushroom, walnut and parmesan salad, my steamed Brussels sprouts and homemade pecan pie for the dinner on Monday night,” Nevine said.
“Of course, we have our local varieties of mushrooms. But in some supermarkets we get imported ones too, and the pecans are imported. The world is changing and so are our menus. Especially those that we cook for special occasions where family and friends get together,” she added.