Bread and rice for the Eid

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 11 Jun 2024

People often indulge in festive versions of essential staples for the Eid Al-Adha, in this case bread and rice.

main

 

It is the moment for fatta and roukak in Egypt this week, which marks the Muslim pilgrimage season of Eid Al-Adha, observed with the slaughter of sheep or other livestock.

Fatta is a multi-layered dish that starts with toasted, sometimes fried, shreds of bread and white rice mixed together with veal or beef broth with a garlic-base sauce on top. It is served either with boiled meat or boiled and fried meat.

Roukak is made of layers of hard, thin bread, most often round, lightly dipped in meat broth and placed on top of each other in a tray with a filling of spicy minced meat.

While these are festive dishes for many occasions, they are particularly associated with Eid Al-Adha and Coptic Easter at the end of two months of lent. Fatta and boiled meat are also an essential form of charity in Egypt.

Both dishes are associated with Egyptian cuisine. Roukak is unmatched in other Arab cuisines, except for recent attempts to replace the thin layers of roukak with layers of goulash, the latter being traditionally used in many forms of baklava. Fatta, a mélange, is not only found in Egyptian cuisine. However, the carbohydrates in the Egyptian recipe are unique.

According to Magy Habib, a food anthropologist and host of the podcast Al-Akl Hekkaya Tawila (Food is a Long Story), “it is not surprising that Egyptians, who have a very long association with bread and also a keen taste for rice, should bring both items together when they make fatta.

Habib said that there is more than one kind of the dish, including summer molokhiya fatta, where the rice and bread are softened with molokhiya rather than broth and with fried chicken served too. In some recipes, fatta is served with a thick fried garlic dressing mixed with tomato sauce on top.

“All these varieties have some geographical background, and the debate on their origin is not settled,” Habib said. “What is certain is that the core of fatta is rice and bread. The meat cubes are usually served separately as they are more expensive and the filling part is the bread not the meat.”

The same concept of more bread and less meat is also the case for roukak. According to Samia, a cleaning lady in Cairo, over the past few years and with the soaring prices of food in general, the amount of minced meat in roukak has declined significantly. While this is not to the liking of Samia’s three children, the delicious soft-on-the-inside-and-crunchy-on-the-outside roukak is sufficient compensation.

 “Bread is the essential staple to satisfy people’s hunger” for all Egyptians, Habib said. “It is the staple for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It is an essential to eat with fuul and taamiya, and it is an essential to eat with cooked vegetables for lunch and cheese or honey for dinner,” she added.

There is a reason, she argued, why it is only in Egypt that bread is called eish (life).

Habib said that the fact that poorer people might have to have more bread to compensate for the lack of vegetables or meat does not change the fact that people in general “love bread”.

 “It is not that Egyptians are the only people who enjoy a warm and freshly baked loaf of bread, but this is particularly the case in Egypt, given the many different types of bread there are,” she said.

Bread leftovers, Habib said, are often used to make simple, nourishing meals when toasted and mixed with meat and honey. According to Nermine Hanno, presenter of a cooking programme on the Egyptian CBC Channel, it is hard to think of a governorate in Egypt where bread, particularly “traditional baladi bread,” is not served as part of a sweet recipe. In one Alexandrian recipe, for example, bread shreds are fried in ghee and then mixed with milk, sugar, and some anis to produce a sweet pudding.

Hanno said that these simple and inexpensive recipes are nourishing and delightful. She added that the traditional way of preparing bread by mixing the flour with water and leaving it to mix overnight was always meant to limit the amount of gluten in the bread due to the slow fermentation process.

Unfortunately, she added, this method is not as widely used as it once was, “although in some Upper Egyptian villages on the eve of 16 June people start to mix the flour with water and to leave it overnight before they bake it in the morning.”

There are over 20 types of bread made in Egypt, according to food anthropologists, depending on the area. For the most part, in rural areas the bread is baked at home. Some home-baked breads can last for weeks if properly dried. In the big cities, especially Cairo and Alexandria, people have been introduced to different types of foreign bread, especially pitta bread (eish shami — in reference to people from the Levant) and pain viennois and soft bread rolls.

Croissants, brioche, and pretzels are common in economically advantaged neighbourhoods with significant European communities, like in Alexandria. Today, there are a lot more varieties of bread that are sold in high-end bakeries or packed on supermarket shelves.

There are now also different types of rice, including basmati rice that has become quite fashionable.

Over the past few years, some supermarkets have been selling brown rice, japonica rice, and golden basmati rice. Rice companies have also been coming up with easy-to-cook types of rice, including rice with vermicelli, oriental rice with dried fruit and nuts, and even the rice used to make stuffed vegetables.

“Rice is a staple for the people of the Delta, and this is where it is most cultivated. Bread is a lot more essential in Upper Egypt, where wheat and corn are mostly grown,” Habib said. Like bread, rice has sweet recipes, including for rice pudding.

Habib said that acquired tastes are a factor in food consumption, though the most essential factor is availability. The price of any foodstuff is a factor in its availability and consequently in its place in a diet.

“This is why people in Upper Egypt use freek [wheat harvested while still green] for making stuffed pigeons, while in the Delta they use rice,” she said. It is also why more and more people have been using the subsidised baladi bread, simply because it is a lot less expensive than the unsubsidised version and other types of bread.

“People might not always like it, but this bread is much healthier than the packed bread that is unhealthy and often very expensive,” she said. However, the element of convenience that comes from being able to buy everything from a supermarket is also relevant to the question of availability.

PRICES: According to government figures, around 90 per cent of overall rice cultivation in Egypt is centred in the Delta.

Egypt produces a little under four million tons of white rice a year, which has traditionally made the country self-sufficient with a margin for exports. However, given the fact that rice is a high-water consumption crop and Egypt has been facing increasing water deficiency problems, there has been a trend towards decreasing the overall amount of rice cultivation.

Meanwhile, over 90 per cent of wheat cultivation in the country is in Upper Egypt. There are three types of wheat that have been traditionally cultivated, one that produces the right type of flour for bread, another that produces the right type of flour for macaroni, and a third, very much on the decline, that is practically gluten free.

Overall, Egypt produces around 10 million tons of wheat annually. This falls 50 per cent short of the country’s consumption of wheat, both for bread and for macaroni, yet wheat is another staple of the Egyptian cuisine.

To compensate for the deficiency, the country has become dependent on wheat imports. According to a former official at the Ministry of Culture, the imports are based on criteria such as stable relations with the exporting country to secure stable supplies and possibly preferential prices and reasonable geographical proximity to cut the cost of transport and import prices.

 

“This means that we have been for the most part importing wheat of lesser quality than we produce,” the ex-official said. He added that at times of tough budgetary constraints, consecutive governments have had to accept compromises on quality.

Most imported wheat goes to make the subsidised bread that the government has been providing since the turn of the 20th century to compensate for malnutrition in the poorer segments of society. However, for the majority of Egyptians, it is the wheat-based bread and the white Egyptian rice that are the favourites.  

According to the 2021 book Eish Merahrah, referring to a flat bread made of maize and fenugreek, a little under 60 per cent of the Egyptian population lives in rural areas, where people would rather eat maize-based bread than subsidised wheat bread. If they eat subsidised bread, they will never serve it to guests.

CHOICES: Since the government started its policy of devaluing the currency in the autumn of 2016, the prices of foodstuffs have been rising. Last month, the government decided to increase the price of a subsidised loaf of bread from five piastres per loaf to 20 piastres.

Mohamed Ramadan, co-editor of the 2021 book and a senior researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a NGO, argued that despite the recent increase, it is still possible for one person to get five loaves of bread for a pound, “when in reality there is not that much else that a pound can buy today.”

“In absolute terms, the rise is a huge jump, especially as it comes after repeated declines in the weight of a loaf of bread, but the bread still remains the most affordable food that one can get,” he stated.

Salem, a driver who works for a state-owned bank, said that the increasing prices of the soft bread that he used to buy for his children’s school sandwiches are now so high that he has had to revert to subsidised baladi bread.

“Last year, the children did not like it. But this year, there were more and more children who were going to school with sandwiches in baladi bread and it is becoming less and less annoying for the kids,” he added.

Prior to the recent increase in the price of subsidised bread, inevitably coupled with an increase in the prices of all other types of bread, the Eish Merahrah researcher found that on average a middle to lower-middle class Egyptian family spends no less than LE220 on bread on a monthly basis.

By the standard of 2021 prices and wages, this was more than 10 per cent of the overall minimum wage.

The researcher found that despite the subsidies system that covers no less than 70 million people, or roughly two thirds of the population, on average an Egyptian family spends close to 13 per cent of its total income on food.

Economic researcher Mohamed Gad notes that government statistics reveal that food bills consume most of the income of poorer families. With the waves of devaluation, these families, making up 13 per cent of the population, are buying less and less food every year and this means less choice.

“It is clear that carbohydrates are becoming more and more dominant in the diet of many people as most other items have become more expensive,” he said.

This is not just true of meat, but it is also true of the prices of some basic fruit and vegetables. “Meanwhile, the government has not been expanding the subsidies package —not just in view of the increasing food prices and the declining purchasing power of the pound, but also in view of the fact that Egypt has around 4.5 million people under the poverty line and some 30 million people around the poverty line.”

Ramadan said that the centrality of bread to the diet of most Egyptians is important given that it is a high-calorie food. “Most Egyptians get around one third of their overall intake of calories from bread,” he said. Another significant segment of calories comes from rice and macaroni, which are also available at subsidised prices, again, quality aside.

In total, the government allocates LE135 billion to food subsidies each year, of which LE98 billion goes to bread subsidies.

According to the Global Hunger Index for 2023, Egypt ranks 57 among 125 countries, with a 12.8 hunger level. This is moderate and declining if compared to the figures for 2015 or 2000. However, as several physicians argue, the issue is not about hunger or no hunger, but is rather about the quality of food. The excessive consumption of carbohydrates in Egypt, they say, cannot be exempted from blame for stunting among children, obesity, and anemia among both children and adults, and diabetes among adults.

Food security for all citizens, according to Article 79 of the constitution is the direct responsibility of the government. Ramadan argued that it would not be impossible for the government to better meet this responsibility and provide people with better food varieties.

“We need to diversify more and offer people subsidised fruit and vegetables and other forms of carbohydrates such as potatoes for example,” he said. “This should reduce our wheat imports bill and improve the food basket of most citizens. It is not an impossible mission.”

One trouble is that the expansion of cultivating fruit and vegetables was designed to expand the volume of exports. According to government figures, in 2023 Egypt managed to secure a 144 per cent increase in its overall exports of fruit and vegetables.

Meanwhile, according to Eish Marahrah, due to its increased dependence on imported varieties of seeds at the expense of local varieties, Egypt’s fruit and vegetable production has become a lot more expensive with the devaluation of the local currency. The book notes that in view of its 2017 decision to join the International Union for the Protection of new Varieties of Plants (UPOV), Egypt is not allowed to work on creating its own varieties from imported seeds.

According to Ahmed, co-owner of a small farm in the Delta, joining the UPOV was the second-worst mistake to be made after the mid-1990s decision to replace local seeds with imported ones under the guise of increasing productivity.

“We could have worked on improving the productivity of our local seeds, not just of fruits and vegetables, but also of wheat and rice, and we could have had food self-sufficiency,” Ahmed said. However, “since we decided to grow less wheat and more strawberries on the assumption that we would be able to buy wheat as we expanded our exports of strawberries, we have been on the wrong path,” he added.

“The problems we are having today in terms of food sufficiency, food quality, and food prices have their origins in the policies of the 1990s, which were designed to serve the interests of the big landowners, the owners of fruit and vegetables processing factories, and businesses engaged in fruit and vegetables exports,” Ahmed stated.

 It will take a radical change of policy to reverse this trend, he added.

According to Iman, a Cairo housewife who was buying 2 kg of meat from an army-run outlet, “increasingly, good food is becoming only for special occasions, like the Eid and Ramadan.”

Without the subsidies system and the outlets run by the army and the police that provide foodstuffs at a limited profit margin, “even of a lesser quality but certainly more affordable,” it would have been impossible to make ends meet, she concluded.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: