Egyptian cuisine: roots in an ancient past

Murals and bas-reliefs, some dating from as long ago as 3000 BC, provide a good idea of the foods enjoyed by ancient Egyptians.  

Paintings adorning the Tombs of the Nobles in Luxor depict subjects bearing gifts of wheat, grapes and jars of honey to the Pharaoh  Carvings on the temple erected to Hathor, the Cow Goddess worshipped at Dendera and on monuments at Edfu and Kom Ombo in Upper Egypt, indicate that ducks were highly prized. 

Servants offering jars of honey to the Pharaoh, mural Luxor

Paintings adorning the Tombs of the Nobles in Luxor depict subjects bearing gifts of wheat, grapes and jars of honey to the Pharoah. Carvings on the temple erected to Hathor, the Cow Goddess worshipped at Dendera and on monuments at Edfu and Kom Ombo in Upper Egypt indicate that ducks were highly prized.

Bas-relief of ducks, Kom Ombo, Upper Egypt

Foods still enjoyed in Egypt have changed little in essence. Small farms in the lush belt of irrigated land along the Nile river grow cereals, sugarcane, okra, chickpeas, tomatoes and the spinach-like vegetable forming the base of melokhia, a rich green soup of silken texture enjoying as widespread popularity in Pharaoanic times as it does today.

Ducks are kept by every rural household, pigeons flutter in and out of storied lofts, water buffalo provide creamy milk and in millions of villages women continue to bake unleavened bread in dome-shaped ovens unchanged over centuries. 

In common with other countries in the Middle East, bread is eaten with every meal. Vendors riding bicycles with wicker baskets filled with aish – the popular flat bread – balanced on their heads, are a common sight. 

While melokhia and foule medamis, a brown bean gruel are synonomous with Egypt, there is no classic national dish of main course proportions equal to say mensaf , the classic lamb and rice dish in Jordan or khouzi, a variation on the theme in Saudi Arabia. And while local food tends to be  plain in comparison with the rich cuisine of the Levant, it is healthy and wholesome.

Wholesome plate of typical mezze

Early-rising visitors anywhere in Egypt will  find the streets already crowded with people clamouring to buy foule, a cheap, filling breakfast dish for millions.  Roadside vendors ladle it out of  huge silver idras  cooking pots onto an enamel plate or maybe just a folded newspage to be eaten mopped up with unleavened bread. Egyptians carry with them a nostalgia  for foule far beyond their shores and it is seen simmering away in places such as Jeddah, Muscat and Abu Dhabi, wherever there are migrant workers. 

Other people line up in front of  falafel stands where cooks feverishly grind dried broad beans into a puree and adding chopped onion, parsley, cumin, coriander and salt, shape it into patties and fry it in sizzling pans of oil to be eaten plain, or with a tahina dip made from toasted sesame seeds.

Street-stall frying falafel

Poultry is prized, either grilled or barbequed on  a rotisserie and eaten with  potato chips, or the short grain rice cultivated  in the delta. Farroog mashsi  a more elaborate Nubian recipe calls for chicken to be stuffed with the chopped giblets, liver and burghul. Many fellaheen keep ducks as well as pigeons both for  eggs and to fatten for the  pot. The long avenue leading out to Giza from central Cairo is renowned for its roast pigeon restaurants. 

Lamb is the usual meat of choice with local, non-fatty young lamb preferred to mutton. Charcoal-grilled lamb kebabs, or sharwarma turning against an electric grill are a common sight in countless pavement cafes in Cairo, Minya, Aswan and Alexandria. 

A table of traditional Egyptian food by the Nile in Luxor

Fatta  lamb and bread soup made from cubes of meat, ghee and rice, the flavour heightened by a generous pinch each of salt, pepper, cumin and  paprika is often made when many guests are expected. Bamia  lamb and okra casserole is very popular. 

Fish including mullet, cod and various reef fish, grilled or cooked as kebabs are  eaten by  coastal communities. The road leading down to the Nile in the delta town of Rosetta is lined with small stalls cooking fish kebabs. Port Suez has some old and reputed fish restaurants while lobster and prawns feature on hotel menus in the Red Sea resorts.

Crabs on sale in Rosetta, Nile delta

The bountiful Nile yields several varieties of fish of which tilapia, a rapid breeding species of perch is most familiar. Bolty another member of the perch family and the plump karmoot catfish are other  popular freshwater species. 

Less well off families may only eat from the abundance of  locally grown vegetables. A desultory stroll through any souq reveals piles of glossy purple egg-plants, heaps of emerald green courgettes,  pyramids of blush red peppers and mountains of flaky white onions along with rows of sun ripened fruits. The main meal of the day usually ends with fruit, commonly bananas, oranges or dates but also grapes from Assiut in Middle Egypt, guavas and pomegranates. 

Fruit-stall in Luxor

Sweetmeats such as knaffeh  cream cheese slice,  basbousa  semolina cake, and lokum Turkish Delight are served on special occasions. Umm Ali is a delicious creamy pudding, almost like a rich English bread and butter custard,  and said to come from the kitchens of Mughal India. 

Tea  brewed strong with lots of sugar added is Egypt`s favourite beverage usually taken with a shisha or water-pipe over a game of backgammon or dominoes.  

Street stall serving foule to a boy in Luxor


About Travels with My Hat

Australian photojournalist and author. Used London as a base for nearly forty years while freelancing in the Middle East, Arabian peninsular, Africa and South Asia. Have written and illustrated more than a dozen books and travel guides. Operates a well regarded religious images stock photo library: Live in Leura in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney.
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One Response to Egyptian cuisine: roots in an ancient past

  1. Colleen O'Brien says:

    All looks and sounds delicious.
    New format is crisp and fresh, makes one’s mouth water…….

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