Changing seasons, changing habits

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 28 Mar 2023

Globalisation and devaluation have been having a strong impact on the tastes and brewing and roasting in Egypt.

Ramadan Vibes
photos credits to sherif sonbol


With the advent of Ramadan, Wael, the owner of an on-the-go tea and coffee service, is all set for one of his high seasons of the year, with extra boxes of dust black teabags, some fresh peppermint, which he only uses this month instead of mint teabags, and sachets of instant coffee, including those with latte or cappuccino flavouring.

“These are the staples of our business, but for Ramadan we remove the hot chocolate sachets and the anise and cinnamon or ginger drinks, which are strictly winter drinks,” Wael said.

For the past three years, Wael has been running a small business serving warm drinks in paper cups to go. He bought a small used car and filled its trunk with boxes of tea and instant coffee bags and packs of sugar and started selling on-the-go drinks as people then were avoiding cafès because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The business started well, and a year down the road he expanded the variety of drinks on offer beyond black tea and instant coffee.

“Tea is the number one drink we sell,” Wael said, noting that his clients were often asking for different varieties. As a result, he introduced anise, cinnamon, and mint teabags. Later, he included instant coffee sachets that include a mix of coffee, creamer, and sugar.

“They are very popular. I think many people are used to them at home and work. They have become an acquired taste for many,” he said.

“It is hard to say that anything beats tea, especially in the post-Iftar hours in Ramadan, not even [Turkish] coffee,” said Ahmed, a waiter at a café in Cairo. “Tea, regular black tea with three spoons of sugar per glass, is the thing we serve most every day, especially in Ramadan,” he added.

Some of Ahmed’s clients order teabags, but most still prefer loose tea, either served in a small tin teapot or koshari, where the loose tea is put in a glass and boiling water poured onto it. Sugar is either served on the side or put in the glass on the preference of the client. In months besides Ramadan, there is another morning staple of tea with milk and a late afternoon staple of black tea with fresh mint.

However, over the past decade his 30-year-old café has also had to introduce some new items, he said. Instant coffee was introduced as more and more clients were inquiring about instant coffee with milk, especially younger clients less faithful to “tea with milk with three spoonfuls of sugar followed by Turkish coffee in a glass cup also with extra sugar.”

Classic instant coffee was followed by other varieties of flavoured coffee and then green tea. “I remember when a client first inquired if we served green tea about 10 years ago. I thought he was referring to a brand. But now we serve green tea and green tea with mint,” Ahmed said.

“Today is not yesterday. Things change, but for today as for yesterday, black sweetened tea is still the number one drink.”

According to Ahmed Shiha, a member of the Importers Division at the Cairo Chamber of Commerce, tea is the number one drink in Egypt with coffee coming a close second. Egypt is a net importer of both tea and coffee, at roughly “80 per cent tea and 20 per cent coffee,” Shiha said.

According to 2022 figures, Egypt spent close to $285 million on tea imports and around $120 million on coffee imports in that year. This was mostly for tea and coffee packed in Egypt, with a margin for already packed tea and coffee that mostly comes from Europe.

Since the introduction of subsidised food in Egypt, tea and sugar have always been part of the package, but coffee has not. It is only during the past few years that individuals have been able to choose between tea and instant coffee in ration books.

According to Hassan, head of a store that provides the allowances, “it is perhaps only two out of every 10 people who get instant coffee only and not tea. Most people will just get tea or a mix of tea and instant coffee,” he said.

According to two leading importers speaking on condition of anonymity, these figures could be higher if Egypt were to opt for higher-quality imports of tea and coffee. “It so happens that most Egyptians prefer dark tea, and this makes it easier because this is imported from Kenya at cheaper prices and cheaper transport costs than the higher-quality leaf tea coming from Sri Lanka,” one importer said.

He also said that for the most part people in Egypt tend to consume loose tea. “In most parts of the country, tea is mixed with sugar and boiled with water before being served dark and sweet. Leaf tea does not fit this method,” he said. “Teabags are mostly consumed in big cities like Cairo and Alexandria,” he added, saying that loose tea could account for close to 90 per cent of overall consumption in Egypt.

Waiters in some Cairo cafès say that when they were first introduced in Egypt it was unfashionable to serve teabags because they were not considered to contain quality tea.

According to an executive at a leading coffee business, until 10 years ago coffee was also just about Turkish coffee and instant coffee. Later, “we also had to meet the demand and provide grain coffee for filter coffee and the espresso varieties that were becoming fashionable,” he said.

 This segment of the market expanded significantly after the November 2016 devaluation of the pound that made the prices of imports higher. This forced many to opt for local alternatives. “We also had to accommodate the impacts of successive devaluations on the soaring prices of coffee capsules that were becoming off limits for a large segment of the population who had already invested in buying coffee machines at home,” he said.

DRINKS WITH HISTORY: According to Mohamed Afifi, a professor of history in Cairo, coffee was introduced into Egypt two centuries earlier than tea.

“By the 17th century, coffee was well known in Egypt, while tea had to wait until a few years after the British occupation in the late 19th century to be established in the country,” Afifi said.

Coffee was first introduced in Sufi circles as it allowed them to stay awake for the zikr, or praise of the Almighty. “Initially, coffee, or qahwa as it is called in Arabic, was prohibited by some Muslim ulamas [scholars] because it was perceived as interfering with the cognitive functions. In fact, qahwa is one of the old names of alcohol,” he added.

By the 18th century, the debate over the prohibition of this dark and rather bitter drink was settled and it evolved into being a mainstream drink for which maqahi (cafès) were started.

“Owing to its position on the trade routes, Cairo became a central point for the coffee trade in the 18th century,” Afifi said. “But after their occupation of Egypt, the British promoted tea over coffee because it was they who were in control of the tea trade owing to their occupation of India and other countries where tea was grown.”

 “By this time Egypt had its first Western-style cafès in which tea was more served than coffee. It took about a century for coffee in its Italian and French varieties to start gaining a place.”

Cappuccino and other types of Italian and French coffee have been served in some tea rooms and cafès in larger Egyptian cities that had large European communities for about a hundred years.  As of the early 19902, a leading world producer of instant coffee came to the Egyptian market with a strong promotion campaign that made its coffee a daily morning drink for many. However, it was only in the early 2000s that Western-style café chains started operating in Egypt, and these drinks became mainstream, especially in their on-the-go format which eventually found its way to coffee stalls at petrol stations.

“It is globalisation in no uncertain terms,” said Hala Barakat, a food heritage consultant. But the evolution of the consumption of food and drink has always been largely influenced by migration, trade routes, and pilgrimage roads.

For example, green tea has been known in some parts of Egypt like Siwa, Kerdassa, and Fayoum for much longer than the past 20 years when it became a fashionable drink promoting health-conscious nutrition. These areas are on pilgrimage roads from North Africa, where mint tea is the norm, she said.

As much as the European communities who came to live in Egypt in the 18th and 19th centuries left their imprint on the drinks consumed in the country, Egyptians coming back to live in Egypt after having grown up in the Gulf have also left their imprint.

This includes both the American-style coffee served in coffee chains in the Gulf and the karak tea, a deviation of Indian chai, or the qahwa arabi, the bitter boiled coffee with cardamom and cloves that is usually served with dried dates in the Gulf, Barakat said.

The overall changes in the style and level of consumption of coffee, tea, dates and nuts have been influenced by the impact of this segment of population as much as it has by the economic policies that ended the ban on imports in the mid-1970s and allowed for multinationals to operate in Egypt, she added.


NUTS AND DATES: “Up until the 1980s, dates and nuts were a Ramadan specialty in Egypt, but this is no longer the case. They have ceased to be a seasonal treat and become, at least for those who can afford them, simply part of a daily diet,” Barakat said.

According to one of the oldest importers of nuts and dates in Egypt, in the second half of the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Egypt considerably expanded its imports of nuts and dates and diversified their sources to include Turkey, a source of premium dried fruit and nuts, along with Syria that used to be the key source for the Egyptian market.

“There has also been a diversification of nuts, as we have moved from a limited selection of walnuts, hazelnuts, and almonds to many types of pistachios, including the premium types coming from Iran and the US, kaju nuts, now very popular in Egypt, and pecans,” he said.

“There has also been an expansion of imports of dried fruit that was simply unthinkable in the 1970s, as we got into importing dried berries, dried pineapples, and mangos, whereas before it was only dried figs, apricots, and prunes.”

In part, consumption has shifted from shelled to unshelled nuts. Pitted prunes and dates have become more fashionable. Sugar and chocolate-coated nuts have lost their association with baby and bridal showers. Khoshaf, or dried fruit and nuts soaked in condescended apricot, has also been falling out of fashion as a dish on Ramadan Iftar tables, as more and more people are opting for a few half-dried dates to reduce their sugar intake.

“Obviously, consumption is income-based, which means that this large variety is not for everyone, but ultimately there has been enough demand for these imports to be worthwhile to satisfy demand from individuals, patisseries, and factories producing vegan butter and milk to replace imported brands,” he said.

The successive devaluations that have caused the exchange rate to the dollar to increase five times in the span of seven years have led to a reduction in the purchasing power of some consumers. The recent shortage of foreign currency has also reduced imports to much lower rates than they were.

“But Ramadan is the king of all seasons, and I think that though people have been buying less and less, they are still trying to observe the traditions of the holy month,” he said.

Ibtisam, a Cairo housewife who has been shocked by the prices of yamish (nuts and dried fruit for Ramadan) at her local supermarket, decided to venture online and buy from a site managed by Syrian expatriates in Egypt.

She was satisfied with the quality and prices. “But, of course, I still had to buy less than my previous average,” she said.

Meanwhile, Mohsen, a civil servant, opted for shelled nuts “that were more restricted in selection and quantity.” Ragiah, a teacher, decided to drop all the dried fruit and nuts to opt for dried dates, raisins and peanuts instead. Dried dates, she said, would be served for Iftar and peanuts and dried raisins would be used as fillers for Ramadan delights.

She bought a kg of each from a dates festival that the Ministry of Agriculture organised in the last week of February to allow shoppers to buy these items at relatively cheap prices.

Egypt is a leading producer and exporter of dates. It produces around 2.5 million tons a year and exports a little under a quarter of this amount. It also imports some types of high-quality dates.

Egypt is also a producer and exporter of peanuts and has been venturing slowly into raisin production. While the prices of these items have increased, they still remain more affordable than other Ramadan yamish for those whose budgets have been strained by inflation and devaluation during the past year.

According to Rasha Ghali, head of marketing and communications at Abu Auf, a leading store selling nuts, dates, coffee and tea, most businesses have been trying to survive the recent economic hiccups through innovative ideas. “We are making smaller packs and are offering assorted selections that mix different categories of fruit and ground nuts together and different portions of dried fruit with crackers and warm drinks,” she said.

However, while Ramadan is the top season for the consumption of dates and nuts, it is no longer the one and only one or for high sales of tea and coffee. Christmas is proving to be another season associated with the high consumption of these items, she said.

This is perhaps part of the health-consciousness of many who opt for nuts and fruit as a partial or full replacement for otherwise rich desserts. The same thing could apply to the school year as more and more mothers fill their children’s lunch boxes with fruit and nut bars instead of chocolate.

Ghali believes that this new health consciousness increased during the Covid-19 pandemic, as more and more people got serious about being fit and healthy. “I cannot see it independently from the increasing number of gyms that have been opening,” she said.

She argued that more and more people, especially from the younger generation which is about two-thirds of the overall population of Egypt, would prefer to have an on-the-go coffee along with a small pack of nuts or dried fruit rather than indulge in a rich dessert.

The economic crisis is also playing a role in keeping the market going, as more and more people opt to buy coffee, tea, dates and nuts to have at home rather than go out for coffee or treats. It was the 2016 devaluation that prompted Abu Auf to opt for selling grain coffee over Turkish, American, and European-style drinks.

“It did very well,” she said. “For sure, the economic crisis has had an impact, but the changes in traditions have an impact too, as this is how the coffee and nuts business has been growing in Egypt.”

Perhaps as evidence of the solidity of the market, last July Agthia, a leading UAE-based food company, bought 60 per cent of Abu Auf less than 12 years after it was launched in 2010.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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