Historical pleasures of Egyptian cuisine

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 30 Apr 2024

Food historian Mennat-Allah Al-Dorry explains the origins of Egyptian Lent and Easter recipes and their place in the wider development of the country’s cuisine to Dina Ezzat.

origins of Egyptian Lent and Easter recipes
origins of Egyptian Lent and Easter recipes


“We know that the ancient Egyptians had fermented fish, but we don’t know for sure if this was exactly the kind of feseekh [a modern kind of fermented fish] that people eat for the Sham Al-Nassim holidays in Egypt today. We don’t have that kind of evidence.”

This is how food historian and chair of Coptic Studies at the American University in Cairo (AUC) Mennat-Allah Al-Dorry summarised her take on the widely assumed belief that feseekh, salted and fermented fish, goes back to ancient Egyptian times.

“We know that the ancient Egyptians had salted fish, and we know that there were sauces used to ferment fish in Graeco-Roman times, but the oldest mention of the word feseekh as such comes from the 17th century,” Al-Dorry said. 

At that time, feseekh was associated with rural areas, and the references made can be rather condescending. However, “we know that the ancient Egyptians had a lot of fish, essentially Nilotic fish,” she added.

The same thing applies to fava beans. “Again, we have always heard that the ancient Egyptians ate fava beans, but we do not have the archaeological evidence for it,” Al-Dorry said. “Apart from the lack of strong evidence, we don’t know how the beans were cooked and why and how their consumption expanded during Graeco-Roman times,” she added.

Nevertheless, there is still proof that what most Egyptians eat today is in part similar to what the ancient Egyptians consumed. “There was always bread, lentils, vegetables, fruit, cheese and beer,” she said. The staples of the Egyptian diet, she noted, have certainly evolved over time, but the essential traits of Egyptian cuisine that have given it its specific identity have almost always been there.

 “We know, and there is evidence, that the ancient Egyptians counted on wheat and barley to produce some food staples. We know that they had dairy products, including cheese,” she said.

Overall, Al-Dorry is cautious about saying what Egyptians have been eating through the ages. “We cannot say anything with a high degree of confidence without sufficient [archeological] evidence, and we have more evidence for some eras than for others,” she said. 

She added that archaeologists have evidence about what the ancient Egyptians used to eat during the New Kingdom and more on what they ate during Graeco-Roman times. There is ample evidence from the beginning of the Fatimid Dynasty at the very end of the 10th century of the dietary choices of Egyptians in different parts of the country and on different occasions, including Lent and other fasting seasons for Copts and later also for Muslims.

Meanwhile, she said that the entry of the Abrahamic religions into Egypt, especially Christianity and Islam, did not revolutionise the way the Egyptians ate, either in the first century CE with the arrival of Christianity or during the Arab conquest of Egypt in the seventh century and the arrival of Islam.

“We know that during their many fasting seasons, including Lent, the Egyptians used to have a lot more vegan recipes, but we cannot say that these were a direct byproduct of the spread of Christianity across Egypt,” Al-Dorry said. 

“During the fourth and fifth centuries CE, the foods that were produced by the expanding monasteries in Egypt did not strictly cater for the Copts but were also served to the non-Christian community.”

Al-Dorry cautioned against “over-generalisations about the Coptic diet.” The Coptic monasteries “were important food producers for their communities,” she said, but they also produced food for the country as a whole and for people who were not necessarily Copts. 

As a result, the monasteries started to become economic units. While Copts often consumed pork, the leaders of the monasteries in the third and fourth centuries declined to eat it.

FOODSTUFFS: Al-Dorry said that there is no evidence “at all” for the association between the introduction of bissara, a fava-bean creamy dip that is widely consumed during Coptic Lent, and the introduction of Christianity in Egypt. 

She added that there is an understanding that bissara is a Coptic word that means cooked beans, but there is not enough knowledge as to whether this recipe was present in Egypt under a different name prior to Coptic times.

She said that it might be going too far to assume that the introduction of shalawlaw into Egypt came with the introduction of Christianity. This is a cold and vegan recipe of the very popular Egyptian dish molokhiya (jute leaves). It is a well-known dish, especially in Upper Egypt where the majority of Egyptian Copts live, and it is often eaten during the two-week fast that leads to Assumption, which is celebrated in Egypt in mid-August. 

“The first firm evidence of molokhiya in Egypt dates back to the 11th century,” Al-Dorry said. Prior to this, there is an account of an Alexandrian who decried the use of the Zodiac calendar. “He found it incompatible with the creed,” she said. What was taken for molokhiya might have actually been malachai, another edible green leaf.

Archaeologists are still looking for solid evidence that the ancient Egyptians ate fava beans, she said. With no written menus surviving from ancient Egyptian times, it is hard to know how they cooked their food and what they ate.

It is impossible to claim complete clarity about the origins and associations of all the recipes that are known today and that have some ancient Egyptian base, she said. Moreover, it is hard to claim that the ancient Egyptian cuisine was one thing, because some dishes were geography-based and what was eaten in one part of the country was not necessarily a staple in another.

There is “much that is being revisited and needs further investigation,” she said.

While it is an established fact that after the Arab conquest of Egypt during the seventh century, more and more Copts tended to concentrate in Upper Egyptian villages. Whether or not this conquest and the slow and then rapid spread of Islam in Egypt came with significant differences in the dietary choices of Muslim Egyptians, who mostly lived in the Delta at the time, and the Copts, who were more common in Upper Egypt, is not known. 

“It is not clear how the Delta and Upper Egypt differed after the Islamic conquest,” she said.

However, it is clear that after the conquest of Egypt by Arab Muslims, the country became a part of a wider Muslim ummah, which meant that more trade routes were added to the existing ones and were later used to introduce long-present dishes like koshari. More roads meant more traders passing through Egypt.

This also meant the introduction of more recipes into Egyptian menus, though it is not clear how the new recipes were cooked in the Egyptian kitchens of the time. “Most of the time, all recipes get adapted to new circumstances… with perhaps different spices or some other ingredients being improvised,” Al-Dorry said.

With the passing of time, Cairo, established during Fatimid rule in the 10th century as the capital of Egypt and the centre of many trades, became more exposed to more new items. “More and more people were spending more and more time in Cairo, and this [eventually] changed some of the features of the Cairo cuisine,” she added.

Fatimid times saw a huge expansion in trade, which meant the introduction of many new products and eventually “a culinary revolution” in Egypt. “The obvious thing was the widespread use of sugar, and the subsequent introduction of a diversity of [sweets], particularly for celebrations” and religious occasions that were marked with a lot of grandeur.

While the later Mameluke era was a time of splendid architecture, it was also a time for culinary splendours as well. It was in the 14th century that Egypt produced its first cookery book The Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table

With over 800 recipes for dishes, digestives, refreshing beverages and more, this volume is much more than a cookbook. It is testimony to the glamour of Cairo at the time, a city that was home to people of many backgrounds, with each group bringing something to the table.

OTTOMANS: The idea that the Ottomans revolutionised Egyptian cuisine after their invasion of the country in the 16th century is overstated, Al-Dorry said. 

“It makes it very easy to argue that the Egyptian cuisine had an independent identity from the Ottoman cuisine,” despite the influences of the latter. She noted that the Mamelukes introduced a lot of spices into Egypt, while the Ottomans included a lot of vegetarian ingredients.

It was the later rule of Mohamed Ali at the beginning of the 19th century that was “an important step,” given the entry of several new food items that became very popular, including tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers, Al-Dorry said.

It is also hard to claim that Islam brought major changes to Egyptian kitchens. The one thing, Al-Dorry said, that Islam did have an impact on was the making of wine, given the restrictions imposed by Islam on the consumption of alcohol. “Every now and then, there would be a decree to prohibit the making of wine. It would be observed for a decade or so, and then it would pick up again,” she said.

While not compatible in range or quality to its beer, Al-Dorry said, Egypt has a tradition of making wine that goes back to ancient Egypt. 

“When the Greeks came to Egypt, they did not like the quality of the grapes used for making wine, and they introduced their own varieties to improve the quality of the wine,” she added. However, with the repeated orders that prohibited the making of wine during the Muslim rule of the country, the quality of the wine was also on the decline.

It is hard to understate the impact that the Arab Muslim conquest of Egypt and the sequel of Muslim dynasties in the country meant for Egyptian dietary choices, both in terms of the ingredients, given the new trade routes, the new pilgrimage routes, and the introduction of new crops, and the evolution of cooking techniques. 

She said that in rural areas, the Egyptians always used the kanoun, a sort of clay oven, while in Cairo people used communal ovens prior to the introduction of home stoves in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Street food, Al-Dorry argued, is a different story, whether it be the food that was offered by the rich to the poor for charity, “such as thee mawaid al-rahman,” or charity tables, that appeared for the first time in Ramadan during Fatimid times or simply the food that people cooked and sold on the street as a business.

“Some things change, and others stay,” she said. “Up until now, it is not uncommon to be in Khan [Al-Khalili] and to see someone walking around with a big tray, on top of which there will be several clay baking dishes that carry the names of local merchants who get their lunch prepared for them,” she added.

However, for Al-Dorry, it is a question of what has remained and what has not among the recipes associated with the Muslim dynasties in Egypt. This is a complicated question that relates to things like the evolution of the recipes, the availability of certain ingredients, given the possible changes of crops, changing preferences, and changing traditions.

Some of the larger changes were introduced as a result of the European influence that first came through the Egyptian aristocracy and then trickled down. “There were many foreign communities in Egypt in the 19th century, and of course they all had influences,” she said. 

Then there was the introduction of popular foods such as chicken pané, macaroni à la béchamel, and pommes frites.

Globalisation has brought sushi and smoked salmon from Japan and Scandinavia, although not necessarily beyond Cairo and other big cities. However, for Egypt, globalisation has a long history, given the many influences that came to the country at several historic junctures, including during Graeco-Roman times and with the introduction of Islam, Al-Dorry concluded.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: