Egyptian Cuisine: The Gift Of the Nile
As far back as 4 BC, Herodotus, the Greek historian described Egypt as ‘the gift of the Nile’. Egyptian culture and civilization flourished along the fertile banks of the Nile, which is the bread basket of Egypt.
Egypt’s national dishes have their roots in the kitchens of the Pharaohs, with more recent influences from other Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines. Molokhiya, a green herby soup, made from a variety of mallow; koshari – a rice and pasta dish topped with a savoury tomato sauce, and ful medamas – a thick potage of slow-cooked fava or broad beans eaten with aish or bread – are the pride of every modern Egyptian kitchen. The profusion of dovecotes and pigeon towers dotting the landscape speak of the Egyptian enduring fondness for the tiny bird especially when stuffed with rice, onions and cinnamon.
Falafel, the ubiquitous Middle-Eastern deep-fried bean rissole and believed to have originated in Egypt, is an Egyptian favourite, especially when washed down with tamarhindi – the sour-sweet tamarind drink or hot mint tea. Egyptian food has much in common with Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines. Alexandria, which once boasted the largest library in the world situated on the shores of the Mediterranean, showcases influences from French, Greek and Italian cuisine, especially in their bountiful and varied seafood dishes. Egypt shares many other dishes such as fatoosh, hummus, shorba and stuffed vine leaves with its neighbours.
Egypt boasts a variety of vegetables including okra or ladies fingers, aubergines and gourds. Beans and lentils are the mainstay of the cuisine, eaten with wheat bread in different shapes and sizes including the unique aish shams or sun bread which is left to rise by the heat of the sun. Meat, poultry, rabbit and fish make frequent appearances at an Egyptian table. The predominant flavours of Egyptian cuisine come from onion, garlic, samnah or ghee, herbs and spices such as fenugreek, dill, coriander and cumin, mistika or mastic grains and baharat –an aromatic mixture of around 8 spices including cayenne pepper, cinnamon, cloves, cumin and coriander. Dukkah – another spice mixture makes for a delicious starter coupled with olive oil into which chunks of aish or bread are dipped.
From Pharaonic times, Egyptians have sweetened their desserts with honey and fruit, and enriched them with sprinklings of nuts and seeds. Pomegranates, dates, figs, pine nuts and almonds continue to tantalize Egyptian taste buds in sweet dishes. Among the most popular sweets are basbousa – a syrupy semolina and coconut cake, kunafa – a crisp stuffed vermicelli roll, zalabia – sweet fritters, and mahalabiya or milk pudding.
With an Egyptian table laden with the gifts of the Nile, one can only say, “Bel hana wel shefa!” or “Bon appétit!”