Egypt’s ancient foods endure

| April 3, 2018 | 0 Comments
Margaret Dickenson's Egyptian-inspired Kunafa with Cream Filling. (Photo: Larry Dickenson)

Margaret Dickenson’s Egyptian-inspired Kunafa with Cream Filling. (Photo: Larry Dickenson)

Since the beginning of civilization, a major influence on Egypt’s food history has been the River Nile. Archeologists have revealed through rock drawings that when the Sahara Desert was a green and fertile savannah, nomads hunted wildlife and herdsmen raised cattle in the western desert as early as 8000 BC. For 4,000 years, the way of life of these early populations did not change.
However, with the climate becoming progressively more arid in the growing regions of the desert, the nomadic inhabitants migrated towards the Nile Valley where annual flooding of the River Nile, with the rich thick silt and mud, fertilized the land. With water from the Nile to irrigate crops, ancient Egyptians were able to grow plenty of food.
The most important crop, wheat, was ground into flour for making bread. Everyone — rich or poor — ate bread and that tradition continues today. Barley, the second most important crop, enabled the production of beer, which was widely consumed by Egyptians at that time because access to fresh water proved difficult. For some, easy access to fresh water remains a problem today.
Excavations indicate that the fertile flood plains were the natural sites for settlements. Rapidly, a well-advanced culture featuring mud brick houses, craftsmen’s shops and rudimentary temples took hold. Indeed, the water and soils of the Nile Valley were the key to the evolution of a complex civilization. By 3000 BC, the Nile sustained a dense, stable agricultural society that produced surpluses and progressively allowed for socio-economic advancement. Over time, this culture saw many important historical achievements, including the development of an amazing system of canals that enabled water from the Nile to extend well beyond its banks and fertilize and irrigate farmland. Other achievements included the world’s first form of writing — hieroglyphics — and the world’s first nation state.

A traditional Egyptian lunch the Dickensons enjoyed in Cairo. (Photo: Larry Dickenson)

A traditional Egyptian lunch the Dickensons enjoyed in Cairo. (Photo: Larry Dickenson)

Foods of ancient Egypt
Much has been learned from hieroglyphic records inscribed on papyrus about daily life and the remarkable agricultural practices of ancient Egyptians. Besides wheat and barley, they grew a variety of produce that included onions, garlic, lettuce, mallow (a leafy green), green onions, radishes, cucumbers, cabbage, turnips, artichokes, chickpeas, lentils, broad beans, olives and rice. They also cultivated melons, plums, grapes, figs and dates, principally for desserts; however, grapes, plums and pomegranates also figured into wine production. Farmers raised cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, ducks, geese and pigeons. They caught fish and preserved it by salting with salt extracted from seawater before sun drying it. Salted dried fish, called fasieekh, remains a popular meal in Egypt, particularly at Easter, says Hala Youssef, wife of Egyptian Ambassador Motaz Mounir Zahran. Egyptians kept bees for honey and pressed sesame seeds for cooking oil.
The area around the Nile offered an abundance of wildlife. Wealthy Egyptians took pleasure in hunting — particularly deer — and dining on game. As well, they ate fish from the Nile, beef, goat and a variety of poultry and birds, including crane and heron. Less affluent Egyptians cooked poultry and fish, but rarely red meat. Red meat, poultry and fish tended to be boiled or roasted. Seasonings such as salt, pepper, cumin, aniseed, fenugreek, licorice, dill and coriander boosted the flavour of foods.
In ancient Egypt, special importance was given to the kitchen. Located furthest from a home’s entrance, it had a roof made of branches and hay — which offered shade from the sun and ventilation — a corner, clay-covered baking oven with shelves designed to place earthenware containers at various levels, and a large mortar and pestle. Fearing drought and famine, early Egyptians prudently stored a significant amount of grain, preserved meats and fish as well as beer and wine, the latter in specially glazed pots.
Well-preserved wall paintings and carvings discovered in temples and tombs and dating back thousands of years, portray ancient Egyptians enjoying extravagant feasts with a wide variety of foods representing everything that was available, plus stews served with abundant quantities of broth. Many of these foods and dishes remain staples in Egyptians’ diets today. It appears that, historically, the wealthy enjoyed breakfast, a bigger lunch and an evening dinner, while most of the population was likely limited to a breakfast of only bread and then an early afternoon main meal accompanied by bread and beans.

Preserving ancient food culture
Pharaonic Egypt was rich in agricultural produce, but limited by an inadequate base of resources, especially timber, and was forced to trade with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern neighbours. As a result, ancient Egypt’s unique cuisine was first influenced thousands of years ago by Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Ottomans (from modern-day Turkey). More recently, foods of other Middle Eastern Arabs — namely the Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians — plus some European foods, have found their way into the Egyptian diet. None the less, Egyptian cuisine continues to preserve its uniqueness, favouring earthy pulses, vegetables, affordable meats, poultry, fish, hearty stews and the use of spices, as well as simmering and grilling techniques, to infuse dishes with flavours. After thousands of years, bread and rice have endured as staple foods while cooked creamy fava beans, known as ful medames or simply ful, and a spinach-like soup made with mucilaginous green mallow leaves known as molokiva, remain as popular today as they did in banquet scenes on Pharaonic tombs.
Ai’iish or aish, the Arabic word for bread, means life. The most common type is pita made with whole wheat or sometimes white flour, yeast, water and salt. Whole-wheat pita is called ai’iish baladi — baladi meaning “of the country” — while white flour pita is referred to as ai’iish shami because shami means white. Government subsidies continue to make this bread available to all. Ai’iish (baladi and shami) ranks as a national dish. Throughout Egypt, long, skinny French-style loaves are also widely consumed as bread accompanies most meals. Other national dishes include tahina, a sesame seed paste; kebab, grilled lamb pieces; koshari, a hearty macaroni dish; falafel, small highly spiced, deep-fried croquettes of ground fava beans and herbs rolled in sesame seeds; and ful.
As a traditional food, Egyptians eat ful at home and at street stalls, but some of the best ful comes from vast pots crammed into the depths of colourful carts on wheels. For low-income people, ful continues to be an inexpensive protein-rich and carbohydrate-rich meal. In Cairo alone, several thousand such carts appear in the same location every day and hungry customers wait their turn. Ful is served with vegetables or salad on the side. Some prefer it stuffed in pita while others treat it as a dip to be scooped up with pita. Youssef enthusiastically points out that even Cairo’s “smart set” views ful as trendy, buying it at luxury outlets and topping it with pickles, onions and lemon.
Favourite dishes
Among the many traditional dishes and specialties, koshari remains at the top of the list. Regarded as a poor man’s feast, appeasing hunger for hours, this rich hearty combination of macaroni, white rice and brown lentils topped with onions and a spicy tomato sauce has long been part of Egypt’s identity.
Since ancient times, Egyptians have enjoyed fish, known as samak, from the Nile, and today their fish comes more from the shallow coastal waters of the Mediterranean, Red Sea and Lake Nasser. Seafood options include shrimp, scallops, squid, crab and eel. A favourite choice to this day is sayyaddia, whole fried fish such as sole, flounder, trout or bass, served with lemon and what Youssef refers to as “fish rice,” made by first caramelizing onions, adding water, cumin and a touch of tomato sauce and finally rice. At Easter, Egyptians consume the smoky flesh of fresh herring cooked over a fire until the skin crackles. Due to modern day food safety concerns, specialists prepare the unusual ancient Egyptian specialty known as fasieekh. Dried salted fermented fish is now preserved in thick glass jars and is available in supermarkets, to be enjoyed with bread and onions as well as arugula to balance the salt.
Egyptians have always thought of meat as a luxury, so they serve small amounts, combining it with rice and vegetables or including it in soups and stews. Historically, they prefer chicken, lamb, mutton and, for some, veal. They rarely eat beef, but full-flavoured kamounia — cubes of stewing beef cooked with cumin and Egyptian tomato sauce, then topped with green onions — can be classified as another favourite. A time-honoured traditional delicacy continues to be hamaam, a dish made from the pigeons that are raised throughout the country in tall clay towers. Egyptians primarily stuff pigeon with seasoned rice — although in villages, cracked wheat remains the preferred stuffing — fry them in butter or grill them. Youssef notes that “Arabs come to Egypt to eat pigeon as no other Arab country prepares this culinary treat.”
Traditional desserts, other than the wide range of fresh fruit from dates, figs and plums to melons, pomegranate and citrus fruits, tend to be sweet, sticky and delicious. Om Ali or “Mother of Ali,” a warm bread and pastry pudding covered with milk, sugar, nuts and raisins, is Egypt’s best dessert, followed by the nut- layered and honey-soaked phyllo pastry known as baklava, and a cheese, custard or nut-filled, butter-drenched shredded pastry called kunafa. Other specialties include basbousa, a syrupy, cream-filled semolina cake and atayef, deep-fried, nut-stuffed pancakes drenched in sugar syrup.
Many meals and menus start with mezza. Youssef notes that mezza in a traditional Egyptian meal consists principally of green salad, pickles and cucumbers with yogurt served at the beginning of the meal. However, over time, Egyptians have also enthusiastically adopted into their food culture the Lebanese-style mezza, which offers a wide variety of Egyptian delicacies as well, including a sesame seed dip known as tahina; hummus; a smoky aubergine purée known as babaganoush; meatballs or skewers of minced meat called kofta; and falafel, plus yogurt sauce, olives, nuts, cheese — referred to as gibna — and lettuce, tomato and cucumber salad. Youssef points out that traditional Egyptian cuisine regards vegetables such as zucchini, aubergine, tomatoes, peppers, vine leaves and baked stuffed cabbage leaves as part of the main course.
In reality, the majority of the population — peasants and many middle-class families — lean towards a vegetarian diet consisting of affordable vegetables, lentils and beans and rarely any significant quantity of meat except on special occasions. But all social classes enjoy inexpensive quick bites from street vendors or cafés. Besides ful, clients line up for falafel, frequently served drizzled with tahina sauce in a sandwich along with torshi, brightly coloured pickled turnip, carrots and lime. Spiced marinated lamb, chicken or goat slowly cooked on a vertical rotating spit, shaved off and cut into julienne strips is called shawarma, and thin pancakes with savoury or sweet fillings known as fatari also quickly appease hungry appetites.
Now, I invite you to try my version of a favourite Egyptian dessert, kunafa. Bon appétit or Bilhana wal Shifa.

(Photo: Larry Dickenson)

(Photo: Larry Dickenson)

Kunafa with Cream Filling
Makes 8 to 10 servings

Sugar Syrup
1 cup (250 mL) granulated sugar
½ cup (125 mL) water
1 tsp (5 mL) lemon juice
½ tsp (3 mL) rosewater*

1 cup (250 (mL) whole milk, divided
½ cup (125 mL) 35 per cent cream
1 tbsp (15 mL) granulated sugar
2 tbsp (30 mL) cornstarch

Kataifi Crust
8 oz (225 g) kataifi*
½ cup (125 mL) butter

1. Generously butter an eight-inch (20-centimetre) cake pan.
2. To make the sugar syrup, in a small saucepan, thoroughly combine sugar, water and lemon juice, place over medium heat and bring to a boil without stirring. Immediately reduce heat and simmer without stirring until it reaches a light syrup consistency. Add rosewater and cool.
3. To make the cream filling, in a medium-sized non-stick saucepan, combine ½ cup (125 mL) of milk, cream and sugar; place over medium heat. Whisk cornstarch thoroughly into remaining ½ cup (125 mL) of milk; pass it through a fine sieve and whisk into the saucepan. Continue whisking until mixture comes to a full boil and for a few more seconds until filling thickens slightly to form a very light and fluid custard-like cream. Remove from heat.
4. To prepare kataifi crust, melt butter and allow it to sit for a few minutes. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, pull the kataifi dough apart into separate individual threads; cut threads into 1½ inch (3.5 cm) pieces. Drizzle kataifi with melted butter (avoiding bottom white liquid); rub butter thoroughly into all strands with your fingers and palms.
5. Place 2/3 of the kataifi into the prepared pan, pressing and packing it around the bottom and up the sides.
6. Add the cream filling; top gently with remaining kataifi and press down lightly.
7. Bake on the lower-middle rack of a preheated oven (375F or 190C) for 10 minutes; reduce heat to 350F (180C) and bake for another 20 minutes until deep golden brown.
8. Transfer to a cooling rack, allow to rest for 10 minutes. With the assistance of a dinner plate, very carefully flip it over and drizzle surface with sugar syrup to taste (2 tbsp or more). After another 10 minutes, cautiously flip it onto a serving platter; drizzle surface with sugar syrup (1½ tbsp or more).
9. Cut into wedges and serve. Note: I prefer to cool and refrigerate my kunafa for up to a day and reheat cut wedges in a 300F (150C) oven for 7 to 9 minutes. (The cream filling becomes soft and the crust irresistibly crunchy.) Serve promptly, passing extra sugar syrup at the table.
* Available at Middle Eastern and Greek grocery stores.

Margaret Dickenson is a cookbook author, TV host, menu/recipe developer and a protocol, business and etiquette instructor. (

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Category: Delights

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Margaret Dickenson wrote the awardwinning cookbook, Margaret’s Table — Easy Cooking & Inspiring Entertaining (

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