Protecting Egypt’s culinary heritage

Mai Samih , Monday 7 Aug 2023

Thousands of years before cookbooks were written elsewhere in the world, the ancient Egyptians were documenting recipes on the walls of tombs, like the one found in the tomb of Rekhmi Ra, a minister, that depicted the stages of preparing tiger nut cake.




The recipe dates back to the New Kingdom, according to a book by US author Cathy K Kaufman called Cooking in Ancient Civilizations.

During the last century, Egypt witnessed a revolution in what could be called the art of cooking because of star cook Nazira Nicola (1902-1992), later known as Abla Nazira, and her famous cookbook that she co-authored with Bahiya Othman called Osoul Al-Tahi: Al-Nazari wal-Amali (Cooking Basics: Theory and Practice), later called simply Kitab Abla Nazira (Abla Nazira’s Book).

This was first published in 1941 and was considered a reference for Egyptian food for the years to come.

While archaeological findings and cookbooks are important parts of documenting Egypt’s culinary heritage, it is also important to register traditional Egyptian dishes on the UN cultural agency UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List in order to make sure that they are protected.

Three popular Egyptian dishes have been in danger of being claimed by others, including taameya (fried crushed fava beans, green onions, garlic, parsley, and coriander), molokheya (a green soup prepared with garlic and coriander) and koshari (a dish made with rice, lentils, spaghetti, chili red sauce, fried onions, and garlic).  

As a result, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) in partnership with UNESCO, the National Research Centre (NRC), the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Education, the Egyptian Cultural Heritage Organisation, and the National Institute of Nutrition started an initiative called Tableyat Masr (the Egyptian Table).

The NMEC is also working on inscribing traditional Egyptian dishes on the UNESCO List. 


“One of the most famous Egyptian dishes that other nations are attempting to inscribe is taameya. We also want to register besara [a traditional Egyptian dish made of dried fava beans and green onions] and koshari,” said co-coordinator of Tableyat Masr Sahar Abdel-Rahman.

“We wanted to revitalise traditional dishes as some young people, especially new mothers, may not be familiar with the types of food that we have inherited from our mothers and grandmothers, not to mention the recipes for them.”

 “So, my colleagues in the team and I came up with the idea of organising lectures,” she said, adding that these covered the origins of Egyptian dishes and stories about them.

“Executive Chairman of the NMEC Ahmed Ghoneim agreed to the idea, but said that we should turn it into an initiative to revive the Egyptian culinary heritage more generally. So, we started to plan talking points in this regard,” Abdel-Rahman said.

These had included an economic axis to tackle the wave of high prices after the Russian-Ukrainian war and an Egyptian one to protect Egyptian cuisine by registering it on the UNESCO List.

It is important for Egyptian children to become familiar with Egyptian cuisine, Abdel-Rahman said. “We started to think of a name for the initiative and found that Tableya was the most suitable, as it is the Arabic word for the round dinner table used in rural areas around which members of the family gather to have their meals.

“In addition to this, in the ancient Egyptian language a circle is the symbol of eternity as it neither has a beginning nor an end. If a family sits around a round table, it means that they will stay together for eternity,” she said.

Marian Adel, responsible for compiling the scientific information for the initiative, agreed, and added that another problem has been the changing ingredients of the traditional Egyptian foods that may have been cooked for thousands of years.

The fava beans in a besara recipe from the pre-Dynastic period of ancient Egypt would be different to the beans found in the tombs of the Fifth Dynasty, for example, she said, adding that they have tried to track down modern ingredients that resemble the ancient ones.


RESEARCH PHASES: The initiative has been composed of many phases, the first being an introductory one in which they organised a workshop for young people called the “Egyptian Little Chefs”.

Young people were taught how to make ancient Egyptian recipes from the Middle Kingdom, as well as more modern ones from the Islamic era and the modern age.

“We started by teaching children to make a dish that resembles the modern sadd al-hanak [a dessert made of milk, butter, flour, and sugar]. The ancient Egyptians made the same recipe using flour mixed with honey and fat,” Abdel-Rahman said.

Academics working for the Nutritional Research Centre (NRC) conducted field trips to most of the governorates to write about the traditional foods found there. This will also help in the initiative to inscribe traditional Egyptian foods on the UNESCO List.

“To be able to inscribe Egyptian foods on the UNESCO List, you have to compile a large number of foods and point to features that are specifically Egyptian,” she said. “Intangible heritage includes things like customs, traditions and practices, including the culinary arts. If these things are not preserved, they will be subject to extinction.”

Sabah Amin, in charge of the Egyptian culinary file at UNESCO, said that she is often asked when showing visitors the bread displayed at the NMEC whether there are other Egyptian foods that she would recommend for inscription.

“We are currently working to complete the Egyptian culinary heritage file to present it to UNESCO,” Amin said. “It includes the recipes, the methods, and the history of these dishes. This will also help to market Egyptian cuisine and make it better known internationally.”

According to the UNESCO website, the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage meets on an annual basis to evaluate the nominations proposed by Member States and to decide whether or not to inscribe these cultural practices and expressions on the list.

A country that wants to inscribe an aspect of its heritage, like a food dish, must submit it by March to the committee and the information required in their files must be completed by September.

Some of the conditions include the idea that an element is in urgent need of safeguarding because it is at risk despite the efforts of the community, group, or state concerned or that it is facing grave threats as a result of which it cannot be expected to survive without immediate safeguarding. It must be practised within the territory of the state that wants to inscribe it and by many citizens of that state.