Egypt’s bread of life

Aziza Sami , Tuesday 16 Jan 2024

The love of baladi bread, Egypt’s traditional staff of life

Baladi bread
photos: Engy Eleslamboly

 

Ten loaves of baladi bread, aish baladi, sat on the kitchen shelf, their round and bran-speckled faces looking upwards. Three were heated quickly on the flame of the stove such that they “barely touch the fire,” as my mother said.

They were then placed in a chequered napkin and put on the breakfast table. The remaining seven loaves were shoved into a tin bread bin with a dome-shaped lid. They would be eaten during the course of the day, with the bread bin being replenished the next morning.

These are my earliest memories of Egypt’s traditional baladi bread, and this is when at the age of eight my love for this most quintessential of all breads began.

Baladi bread was served at practically every meal. At breakfast it accompanied fuul (stewed fava beans) drizzled with olive oil, along with fried or boiled eggs and cheese. It was eaten with tehina and molasses, the latter at one time procured in urns from Qena in Upper Egypt but now store-bought.

At lunch, baladi bread was a versatile accompaniment for every dish: it was dipped into molokhiya (green mallow) or cut up into little triangles to mop up sauce and gravy from plates.  Supper included loaves of baladi bread packed with white baramili (barrel-ripened) cheese along with arugula, a taste to die for.

Every day, the baladi bread would be delivered fresh and warm from the oven from the Cairo district of Boulaq Abul-Ela that was ten minutes from our house. It did not need to be put in the fridge or freezer or for labels to be scrutinised for expiry dates or assurances that the product was preservative-free. Baladi bread is best when baked and eaten on the same day.

There are many kinds of local bread in Egypt, including the farmer’s flat bread of the Nile Delta and the corn and maize bataw of Upper Egypt that is strewn with grains of fenugreek. These breads may be made with different mixtures of corn, maize, or wheat.

But baladi bread is the predominantly whole-wheat bread baked in the ovens of Cairo and elsewhere and subsidised by the government because it is the mainstay for all Egyptians.  

If I had to choose one kind of bread to eat every day, it would be baladi bread that would emerge triumphant, as it is perfect in texture as well as in taste with its mixture of flour and bran that is not too fibrous and not too white.

Baladi bread is also often recommended by doctors and nutritionists as being ideal because of its moderate calorie content and low glycemic load that will stave off hunger while keeping blood sugar levels in check.

My passion for baladi bread has remained unabated, surviving adolescent obsessions with weight loss and fitness and fuelled by a never-ending interest in the nutritional value of different kinds of food.

When I travel, if the journey abroad is a long one, then the food that I miss the most is baladi bread. My friends who have family and acquaintances living abroad also tell me that it is always baladi bread that tops the list of foods sorely missed by their loved ones and eagerly requested as gifts from back home.

The Internet is replete with recipes for baking baladi bread at home, using essentially wheat flour, bran, yeast, water and salt, all in the right mix. Many of these recipes claim to yield results that are just like the baladi bread baked in the neighbourhood oven, and they might well be right.

However, I personally feel that nothing compares to the baladi bread baked in an oven nestled in an alleyway in Cairo.

A cousin of mine shares the passion for baladi bread. He once told me something that I have never forgotten: “the recipe for baladi bread seems simple, but it defies imitation. It is so uniquely Cairene and so Egyptian that it needs to become accredited globally, and patented”.

No trivial statement this, coming from someone who is a scientist with invention patents to his name, and who is a graduate of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

In the ovens of Cairo, day in and day out the bakers work, with never a day off, often working more than one shift in order to meet the demand.

The bread is sold at the oven and also transported from it to nearby corners and neighbourhoods by young men on bicycles balancing trays of piping hot bread on their heads as they navigate the city’s traffic with proverbial dexterity.

I like to think of the wheat that is used for the flour for baladi bread as having been cultivated along the banks of the Nile. It is there that the first known traces of sourdough bread were discovered in ancient tombs. But this is a romantic fantasy, and I know it.

The reality is that the old and embattled soil by the banks of the Nile can no longer produce enough wheat in a country that is the world’s biggest importer of the crop. Wheat is also home-grown in large tracts of newly cultivated land amid once arid deserts in a bid to meet the magnitude of the demand.

But the notion that our daily baladi bread is baked with wheat grown in ancient soil appeals to me, and I steadfastly hold on to it because of the sense of well-being that it gives me.  

Baladi bread is so called in order to distinguish it from other breads that are imported and foreign. The same thing is true of other things dubbed baladi by Egyptians, referring to all that is native and often pertaining to what is eaten, worn, and lived with.

The baladi bread of my childhood has not changed much over the years, except for the periodic increases in price that have been few and far between and navigated by the government with discretion.

Egyptians call bread aish, a word that in Arabic means “life.” It is only in Egypt that bread is alluded to in this way and where the more usual word of khobz is not so widely used despite its being the regular Arabic word for bread.

I look at a loaf of baladi bread with its brown wholesome face and see in it a hero and a catalyst of great events. In 1977, food riots erupted because of threatened increases in the price of food and specifically of bread in what were known at the time as the “bread riots.”

In 2011, the profound symbolism of bread featured in the slogan of “aish, freedom, and dignity.” 

Modest, unassuming, and indispensable, Egypt’s baladi bread is the king of all breads. And when it comes to taste, nothing can top it.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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