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Protecting Egypt’s Culinary Heritage


Thousands of years before cookbooks were written elsewhere in the world, the ancient Egyptians were documenting recipes on the walls of tombs, like the one found in the tomb of Rekhmi Ra, a minister, that depicted the stages of preparing tiger nut cake.

The recipe dates back to the New Kingdom, according to a book by US author Cathy K Kaufman called Cooking in Ancient Civilizations.

During the last century, Egypt witnessed a revolution in what could be called the art of cooking because of star cook Nazira Nicola (1902-1992), later known as Abla Nazira, and her famous cookbook that she co-authored with Bahiya Othman called Osoul Al-Tahi: Al-Nazari wal-Amali (Cooking Basics: Theory and Practice), later called simply Kitab Abla Nazira (Abla Nazira’s Book).

This was first published in 1941 and was considered a reference for Egyptian food for the years to come.

While archaeological findings and cookbooks are important parts of documenting Egypt’s culinary heritage, it is also important to register traditional Egyptian dishes on the UN cultural agency UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List in order to make sure that they are protected.

Three popular Egyptian dishes have been in danger of being claimed by others, including taameya (fried crushed fava beans, green onions, garlic, parsley, and coriander), molokheya (a green soup prepared with garlic and coriander) and koshari (a dish made with rice, lentils, spaghetti, chili red sauce, fried onions, and garlic).  

As a result, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) in partnership with UNESCO, the National Research Centre (NRC), the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Education, the Egyptian Cultural Heritage Organisation, and the National Institute of Nutrition started an initiative called Tableyat Masr (the Egyptian Table).

The NMEC is also working on inscribing traditional Egyptian dishes on the UNESCO List. 

“One of the most famous Egyptian dishes that other nations are attempting to inscribe is taameya. We also want to register besara [a traditional Egyptian dish made of dried fava beans and green onions] and koshari,” said co-coordinator of Tableyat Masr Sahar Abdel-Rahman.

“We wanted to revitalise traditional dishes as some young people, especially new mothers, may not be familiar with the types of food that we have inherited from our mothers and grandmothers, not to mention the recipes for them.”

 “So, my colleagues in the team and I came up with the idea of organising lectures,” she said, adding that these covered the origins of Egyptian dishes and stories about them.

“Executive Chairman of the NMEC Ahmed Ghoneim agreed to the idea, but said that we should turn it into an initiative to revive the Egyptian culinary heritage more generally. So, we started to plan talking points in this regard,” Abdel-Rahman said.

These had included an economic axis to tackle the wave of high prices after the Russian-Ukrainian war and an Egyptian one to protect Egyptian cuisine by registering it on the UNESCO List.

It is important for Egyptian children to become familiar with Egyptian cuisine, Abdel-Rahman said. “We started to think of a name for the initiative and found that Tableya was the most suitable, as it is the Arabic word for the round dinner table used in rural areas around which members of the family gather to have their meals.

“In addition to this, in the ancient Egyptian language a circle is the symbol of eternity as it neither has a beginning nor an end. If a family sits around a round table, it means that they will stay together for eternity,” she said.

Marian Adel, responsible for compiling the scientific information for the initiative, agreed, and added that another problem has been the changing ingredients of the traditional Egyptian foods that may have been cooked for thousands of years.

The fava beans in a besara recipe from the pre-Dynastic period of ancient Egypt would be different to the beans found in the tombs of the Fifth Dynasty, for example, she said, adding that they have tried to track down modern ingredients that resemble the ancient ones.

RESEARCH PHASES: The initiative has been composed of many phases, the first being an introductory one in which they organised a workshop for young people called the “Egyptian Little Chefs”.

Young people were taught how to make ancient Egyptian recipes from the Middle Kingdom, as well as more modern ones from the Islamic era and the modern age.

“We started by teaching children to make a dish that resembles the modern sadd al-hanak [a dessert made of milk, butter, flour, and sugar]. The ancient Egyptians made the same recipe using flour mixed with honey and fat,” Abdel-Rahman said.

Academics working for the Nutritional Research Centre (NRC) conducted field trips to most of the governorates to write about the traditional foods found there. This will also help in the initiative to inscribe traditional Egyptian foods on the UNESCO List.

“To be able to inscribe Egyptian foods on the UNESCO List, you have to compile a large number of foods and point to features that are specifically Egyptian,” she said. “Intangible heritage includes things like customs, traditions and practices, including the culinary arts. If these things are not preserved, they will be subject to extinction.”

Sabah Amin, in charge of the Egyptian culinary file at UNESCO, said that she is often asked when showing visitors the bread displayed at the NMEC whether there are other Egyptian foods that she would recommend for inscription.

“We are currently working to complete the Egyptian culinary heritage file to present it to UNESCO,” Amin said. “It includes the recipes, the methods, and the history of these dishes. This will also help to market Egyptian cuisine and make it better known internationally.”

According to the UNESCO website, the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage meets on an annual basis to evaluate the nominations proposed by Member States and to decide whether or not to inscribe these cultural practices and expressions on the list.

A country that wants to inscribe an aspect of its heritage, like a food dish, must submit it by March to the committee and the information required in their files must be completed by September.

Some of the conditions include the idea that an element is in urgent need of safeguarding because it is at risk despite the efforts of the community, group, or state concerned or that it is facing grave threats as a result of which it cannot be expected to survive without immediate safeguarding. It must be practised within the territory of the state that wants to inscribe it and by many citizens of that state.

Amin said that there are foods that people in Egypt have been preparing for centuries that could be registered on the UNESCO List. A popular example is bread like the aish al-shamshi displayed in the NMEC. This has been prepared from the ancient Egyptian period up until the present. Other examples include a popular dish in modern Egypt like bamia (okra).

“There is a whole book about okra, The Whole Okra, in which it says that okra was queen Cleopatra’s favourite dish,” Amin said. “Some people might ask: what did the people who built the Pyramids eat? The ancient Greek historian Herodotus said that lentils were the favourite meal of those who built the Pyramids because they were full of nutrients. Kishk [a type of dried paste made of wheat grains] was also eaten during the reign of king Ahmose.

“We had to start documenting such dishes, and this was a main aim of Tableyat Masr,” commented Amin, adding that they have organised eight seminars in the first season, including one about the relationship between food and geography.

For instance, a type of bread called farasheeh from South Sinai that is made by nomads has been researched. It resembles roqaq (bread in the form of sheets) that is prepared over coal and stays fresh for three days.

Another lecture was about the grains used in Egypt through the ages and the foods that use them and that are still being prepared in modern Egypt.

“We started the initiative in February. It is sponsored by a private koshari restaurant and institutions like the NRC, UNESCO, various faculties of antiquities, sciences, and the arts, and Ain Shams University, to name a few,” Adel said. At the end of each seminar, the contents are published in booklet form and the recorded lectures shared on the NMECs YouTube page.

According to scientific coordinator of the initiative Hend Taha, there are also legal advisors helping with the UNESCO inscription process.

“We start by talking about the history of the dish and when it first appeared in Egypt,” Taha said, describing the lectures. “Then we talk about the ingredients and methods of preparing it and about the nutritional benefits of the dish.”

“I think that the events are very beneficial for young people as they help them to know more about the food of their ancestors. Traditional food is also cheaper than food from fast-food restaurants, and it is healthier for children,” said one mother who was attending one of the seminars at the NMEC.

“I would certainly attend future workshops with my children,” she said.

TOURING EGYPT: Head of the Egyptian Oriental Foods Project Magdi Al-Sayed has co-authored an Encycloapedia of Egyptian Traditional Foods with Mahmoud Sakr and deputy head of the project and researcher at the NRC Nehal Sameh. It is the first academic encyclopaedia in the field in the Middle East.  

Among the traditional foods included in the encyclopaedia are kishk saidi, asida, colocasia esculenta (taro), besara, and sallat, which are up for inscription on the UNESCO List.

“Asida is a meal that our grandmothers would sometimes make for supper. It is made of flour and water topped with molasses. Sallat is meat that is grilled on a special type of stone,” Al-Sayed said, while screening a documentary about how both foods are made.

The first unit of the encyclopaedia covers bread. The second covers the social and geographic roots of the foods described. The third is about the historical roots of bread in Egypt. The fourth is about ingredients, and the fifth, sixth, and seventh are about types of bread.

“There were 60 types of bread in ancient Egypt, and some of them are still being made today. One example is the aish shamsi bread from the Qena governorate, a loaf of which is on display at the NMEC,” Al-Sayed said.

Other types of traditional bread that are still being baked today include aish baladi, aish Fayoumi from Fayoum, aish mo khamar from Marsa Matrouh, farasheeh from South Sinai, and aish sajj from the Red Sea governorate.  

The encyclopaedia includes a section on cereals and another on legumes like taameya. The idea was to be as precise as possible in recording the ingredients for each dish because the correct amounts and methods are essential in documenting it.

There is a difference between the metabbaq (folded pie) made in Qena and the feteer meshaltet (multi-layered pie) made in Menoufiya and other Upper Egyptian areas in terms of the steps used. The first is folded into the shape of a cube, hence the name of metabbaq.

“We are trying to coordinate with EgyptAir to serve traditional meals during tourist trips like besara, taameya, or kishk saidi so they will be familiar with the Egyptian culinary heritage,” Al-Sayed said.

“Climate change is having a direct effect on food, changing the crops grown and the activities of people in food production. Our ancestors knew how to work with the Egyptian climate and produce different forms of food, and this is what we have been monitoring in the encyclopaedia,” Sameh said during a lecture at the NMEC about the effects of climate change on Egyptian food heritage from the sociological and geographical points of view.

The aim of the encyclopaedia is to cover the 27 governorates of Egypt. So far, the team has visited Sinai, Matrouh, Siwa, Nuweiba, Shalateen, Qena, Fayoum, and Menoufiya. “These places represent different environments in Egypt,” Sameh said. “We sought out people who were hospitable in these areas and had knowledge of making traditional foods.”

After gathering the information, there is a literature review. “But we could not always find information about traditional Egyptian foods. There was some scattered information, but some of it was unreachable,” she said.

There was also some information that was untrue and some that was biased. For this reason, the team had to conduct field trips to the 27 governorates first-hand in order to collect information. They also depended on archaeological and other evidence.

Sameh screened a documentary about how to make qaboori loaves as one example of the types of food that could become extinct in Egypt and also of how the inhabitants of a desert area are coping with its arid nature. Qaboori is a type of bread that is cooked by submerging it in pre-heated sand.

In Matrouh and other governorates, the inhabitants use the same food, especially dates, in all their meals.

One member of the encyclopaedia fieldwork team who cooks traditional food in her village in Qena, Faten Dandarawi, explained how she had become part of the team. “Magdy Al-Sayed mentioned that he was going to Qena for fieldwork, and I told him that I made all the traditional foods at home, so I cooked besara and kishk saidi and koshari as well as other dishes for him,” she said.

They recorded the methods and the ingredients used and documented them in the encyclopaedia. Dandarawi said she had also participated in many TV shows to cook her governorate’s traditional food like bosaret al-ads (lentil bosara), which is very healthy and very cheap.

“What we lack is the proper presentation of traditional food so that it is recognised on an international basis,” Sameh said.

“In the next season, we intend to organise a workshop to make sweets like Um Ali [a dessert made of milk, sugar, nuts, and pastry sheets]. We will start teaching children more dishes and the methods of preparing them,” Abdel-Rahman said.  

“This food is our heritage as Egyptians, so it is good to teach people more about it. We want TV shows to air more traditional recipes, especially those cooked in Upper Egypt,” Dandarawi commented.  

HIGHLIGHTS FROM ANCIENT EGYPT: Kaufman’s book covers 3,000 years of Egyptian culinary history starting from the pre-dynastic era until 525 BCE when foreigners started to rule Egypt. The book gathers evidence of methods of preparing food from examining the remains of the food found in ancient tombs, for example.

All civilisations that mixed with the Egyptian civilisation left their influence on the methods of preparing food in Egypt and vice versa. For instance, the Greeks introduced wheat into Egypt and changed the methods the Egyptians used to prepare bread to resemble those used in the Hellenistic world.

According to Kaufman, the ancient Egyptians cooked fava beans with salted meat and stored it in tombs like the tomb of Ka, the supervisor of public projects in the New Kingdom, in which pots of this dish were found. It was a type of food eaten by the elite as salt was expensive at the time. In France today, this type of food is also cooked with almost the same ingredients and is called cassoulet.

According to Kaufman, there are some types of traditional food eaten by modern Egyptians that were prepared by their ancestors, but with different ingredients. Freek (green whole wheat) was cooked by the ancient Egyptians using a method similar to the modern one, for example. However, it was not cooked with tomato sauce, but with crushed garlic and served as a soup instead.

The famous Egyptian dish molokheya was cooked by the Egyptians during the Roman era. This dish was served cold as people ate onions and garlic uncooked at the time.

People in Alexandria in the fourth century BCE would cook the heads, tongues and stomachs of animals and make soups out of them. This is where the Greeks learnt to cook this type of food that is still eaten in modern-day Egypt, including in the form of kawarea (boiled meat), kersha (stomach soup), and mokh (brains).

It was from the Egyptians that the Romans took to using barley in their bread, as before that barley was an expensive crop because the climate in Italy was not suitable for planting it. They also used baking soda that the Egyptians used to make their bread.

Kaufman says that the roasted barley cakes called maza that the ancient Greeks would make resembled the barley cake called matzoh that the ancient Egyptians would make.

The ancient Greeks cooked a type of stuffed vine leaves that resembles the current vine leaves stuffed with rice called mahsi warak enab that is cooked in modern Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, except that they would stuff their leaves with barley instead of rice.

Egyptian people tend to eat this dish hot, while it is eaten cold in other places.

Source: Ahram Online

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