Eight-thousand years ago, long before Nileside pyramids, the sphinx, Pharaoh-kings and the fetching Cleopatra, all Egyptians were totally dependent upon the Nile River. It was their only source of water, food and transportation. Contrast this with the glitz of the river’s luxurious riverboats of the 21st century with posh suites, discotheques and snaky belly dancers serving a robust tourist economy. Egypt and its Nile has come a long, long way.
Located on North African coast bordering the Sea, Egypt lies between Libya and the Gaza Strip. The Lotus-shaped Nile River flows north, up the middle of Egypt. The fertile Delta at the Mediterranean’s edge represents the flower, and the stem portion of the lotus proceeds south for over 4000 miles, the longest river in the world.
Each year, as the banks rose, the water would fill the man-made canals and basins nourishing the earth for that year’s crops. Without it, Egyptians would never have been able to settle in this rainless region.
Egypt’s mighty Nile, and efforts to conquor for it, brought her a melting-pot history, her cooking using foreign influence around local ingredients. This resulted in dishes modified by Greek, Turkish, Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian traditions. For instance, the Arabs introduced Persian-style dishes such as meat stews calling for fruit. The Turks’ many new dishes, included filo pastry and many sweet items. Nonetheless, dishes were simple and hearty, made with naturally ripened fruits and veggies, seasoned with fresh spice. With no sugar, they used honey and fruit juices for a sweetener. No food is especially hot; however food in the south is more African and thus zestier.
Meat is a luxury and used in small amounts, cooked with vegetables and served over rice. Every part of the animal is utilized, including dung and horns. The Nile supplied a constant influx of fish year ‘round. They salted it for storage or dried it in the sun. Egyptians raised flocks of geese, and these supplied eggs, meat and fat. The Nile enabled them to raise cotton, rice, corn, wheat, beans, fruits, barley, emmer wheat, beans, chickpeas and flax. Fruits in this climate were figs, dates, pomegranates and grapes. They domesticated cattle, water buffalo, sheep and goats.
In buffet fashion, they placed all foods on the table at one time. If no silverware was set, they use bread to eat with. Leaving some food on the plate is considered polite. Diets for ordinary days begin with a light breakfast of beans or bean cakes, eggs or pickles, cheeses and jams. They eat a large, starchy lunch between 2 and 5, followed by siesta. British-style tea is at 5 or 6, then a light supper, often lunch leftovers, comes in late evening.
Egypt’s early, basic foods were bread (flatbread) and beer made from their main crops of wheat and barley. They used unbaked bread dough for making beer, and they added dates to improve the taste. Beer-making was so important, early scribes created an extra hieroglyph for “brewer.”
Egyptians were referred to as “The Bread Eaters.” They baked about fifty different kinds. Most common is pita bread made with light or dark flours. Sacred animals, even cats and wasps, were offered bread to eat. Much bread was buried with royalty.
The Egyptian people were some of the first to support the notion foods could increase health. Martin Elkort in his book, The Secret Life of Food, says, “In 1550 BC, an Egyptian medical papyrus advised using certain foods to cure illness, notably onions and garlic. Some Egyptians worshipped onions and swore oaths on them.”
Torly: a mixed-vegetable casserole with lamb or beef, onions, potatoes, beans and peas.
Kakh: cookies filled with nuts and covered with sugar powder. (eaten on Eid all-Fitr, at the festival of Breaking of the Fast following Ramadan.
Kosheri: lentils and rice topped with fried onion with a layer of elbow macaroni and spicy tomato sauce
Kebab: season chunks of lamb in onion, marjoriam and lemon juice, roast on spit over fire.
Kufta: ground lamb flavored with spices and onions, rolled into long, narrow patties and roasted like Kebab.
Hamaam: pigeon with rice and fruit stuffing, grilled. Stuffed with seasoned rice and grilled. (National delicacy, and every village has its pigeon tower)
Iahlma, meat soup; khudaar, vegetable soup; samak, fish soup