As an Egyptian, food is everything. You bring a plate of konafa to your aunt’s house when she invites you for a feast of hammam mahshi and rokak. You meet your friends over kushari on a late night. You have fuul and taameya with your family for breakfast on a Friday morning. It’s fair to say that no Egyptian interaction happens without the necessary involvement of food, and it’s not light food – Egyptian food will have you full for the whole day. Teta (grandma) will not have you leave her house without eating everything on your plate and more. Don’t forget dessert! Umm ali will fill you up till the end of the night.
Bread, one of the simplest global foods, is one of Egypt’s unique specialties. Egyptian expats abroad often miss this specialty since it’s rarely made anywhere outside Egypt. It may be compared to pita bread, but it’s nowhere near as light and delicious as the Egyptian eesh balady. The look and taste of this bread differs depending on where you are in Egypt, but it can be distinguished with the golden brown spots. The Arabic word eesh which is uniquely used only by Egyptian Arabs and means “life”. In Egypt, bread means life, both in Egyptian cuisine and in politics. If anything, bread is symbolic. In the 2011 revolution in Cairo, one of the most popular chants was “Eesh, hooreya, aadala egtemayah” which translates to “bread, freedom, social equality,” so it’s safe to say that bread is both an emotional and physical necessity for all Egyptians.
What’s interesting about Egyptian food is that a large amount of it is vegetarian, mostly to minimize the cost of food in a country with widespread poverty. An example of one of the cheapest and most popular foods in the country is koshari. Koshari is known as the poor man’s dish, since it’s one of the cheapest dishes in the country. It’s a dish made of rice, macaroni, lentils, and tomato sauce. It’s served with crispy fried onion as well as chickpeas and is often spicy. Koshari generally costs 10-20 EGP or $0.60 to $1.21 USD. It’s known that it goes back to pre-Islamic Cairo, when Christian Egyptians would eat it at Lent. It’s said that Koshari was actually passed down through Indians serving in the imperial British forces as well as Italians who lived in Egypt at the time. Needless to say, the Italian contribution to koshari was the pasta, which adds to the variety of carbs in the dish. The Indian contribution, however, comes from another meal called kitchari, which consisted of beans, rice and spices. The word kitchari means “a mix of things” in Hindi – a phrase true to the dish’s structure. While the origins of the dish aren’t purely belonging to the land of the Pharaohs, it all came together in it and is now the national dish of Egypt.
Another Egyptian household essential is molokheya. Let’s be honest, Molokheya isn’t the most visually interesting dish this country has to offer, but it’s one of the most delicious. The closest thing molokheya looks like is green soup – but that’s not doing the dish justice at all. It’s made from molokheya leaves, chicken stock, and spices and it’s eaten with rice or for dipping with bread. It’s even rumored that Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, the Fatimat ruler of Egypt, liked the molokheya leaf so much he banned the country from eating it, some others say he banned it because it was an aphrodisiac.
While there’s an endless list of local Egyptian food that you shouldn’t miss while you’re in the country, from the classic fuul and taameya (java beans and falafel) to mahshi waraa’ enab (stuffed vine leaves), my personal favorite – it’s time to focus on our final piece of the meal, dessert. The dessert on tonight’s menu is umm Ali, a dish literally meaning “Ali’s Mother.” Umm Ali is a delicious dessert with another strange history. The story of “Shagaret El Dorr” is a known tale across decades of Egyptian history. She was the second wife of the ruler of the Ayyubid Dynasty in the 1100s. After the ruler died, Shagaret El Dorr arranged to kill the first wife, Umm Ali, after a jealous dispute on whose son should succeed the late ruler. After this evil queen of sorts killed Umm Ali, she asked her cooks to create an incredibly delicious dish to celebrate — the result was cut up bread blended with a ton of sugar, raisins and pistachios with milk or cream poured over it, baked till golden brown. After finding out this story, it’ll be a little uneasy eating my next dish of umm Ali, I guess at least they remembered her name labeling the dish!
Food is an essential component of life, but for Egyptians, it’s a lifestyle and a delicious one at that.
Do you have a favorite dish from Egypt? Or a favorite country for food?