Chef and food ethnography researcher Magi Habib cooking traditional keshk. photo by amira noshokaty
Ala El-Nar, the latest series from the Khazana School of Heritage, explores Egyptian heritage food, crops, and traditions. The series launched on 17 June at the House of Egyptian Architecture, in collaboration with the Bee Cultural Club of Built Environment Education.
The evening began with an intriguing online presentation by heritage researcher Osama Ghazali on wild edible plants in Egypt and their local knowledge, distribution, and usage patterns.
Ghazali, formerly the director of the gabal elba protectorate and a winner of the Synergos Social Innovator Award (Pioneer of Egypt Programme) in 2013, is known for his work on Egypt's heritage food and handicrafts. He also founded Konoz Yadawya, an online platform for Egyptian handicrafts.
During his presentation, Ghazali noted that Egypt has 2,250 varieties of wild plants, excluding crops. The type of food and its variations throughout Egypt are influenced by bio-geographical factors. For instance, the classic porridge in the south of the Eastern Desert is made with shawash herb, while in Siwa it is based on dates and called date porridge. In Nubia, it is based on helba fenugreek, and in Upper Egypt, it is based on molasses.
Ghazali commented that "using these plants has benefits on both an individual level - such as discovering natural energy drinks and the nutritional value of national dishes - and a national scale, where it can be an excellent economic opportunity as Egypt has already documented 550 herbal medicines."
After the informative presentation, renowned chef and food anthropology researcher Magi Habib conducted a live cooking session of Keshk, "a traditional milk-based porridge that dates back to ancient Egypt."
Habib explained to the audience that "Keshk, although eaten in other countries, is an ancient Egyptian dish mentioned in papers dating back to the 5th century and used as a remedy in the 9th century. It also appears in Egyptian cookbooks from the 14th century, and there is a folk story of it being offered to King Ahmose before fighting the Hyksos. While the story's validity is uncertain, its existence indicates the dish's significance to the Egyptian nation."
In modern Egypt, Keshk is divided into two types: Saaid and Falahi, also known as Keshk Almaz. However, they are essentially the same dish, with the only difference being that Keshk Falahi or Almaz is a quicker version of the recipe, while Upper Egypt still uses the original recipe that requires months of preparation.
According to Habib, Keshk was mentioned in 19th-century ethnographic studies of Egypt.
"At that time in Cairo, a woman who had just given birth would send a plate of Keshk to her neighbours and friends on the sixth day after labour, inviting them to attend the Soboa or 7-day celebration of the newborn." Additionally, if a child is underweight or thin and delicate, the mother or a lady neighbour would take them to the Nile on the first day of the flood, give them dates and kKeshk balls, and throw them into the river while asking God for strength. They would then bathe the child in Nile water.
She then demonstrated the traditional preparation of Keshk.
The authentic preparation of Keshk involves harvesting wheat, washing it, boiling it, and drying it on the rooftops. After breaking it down and washing it again, they add summer milk and ferment it with salt for five months. The mixture is formed into small balls and dried in the sun. To use it, the balls are melted with butter and milk, sometimes with chicken, and topped with caramelized onions.
This process is a communal affair, with the whole village participating and enjoying singing and fun.