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Tablyat Masr: On the Origins of Egyptian Agricultural Traditions and Cuisine


On Monday, the NMEC held its monthly series of Tablyat Masr Initiatives. Tablyat Masr meaning the traditional Egyptian round wooden table that is quite short and used as a mobile dining table, is an initiative organized by the museum which aims to highlight the importance of the heritage of Egyptian food in order to document and revive it.

This session focused on the origin of Koshary, and the significance of salted fish, onions, garlic, and humus in ancient Egyptian harvest rituals.

Which Egyptian Cuisine?

Professor of Archaeobotany (the analysis and interpretation of plant remains found at archaeological sites) and Archaeology of food, Ain Shams University, Mennat-Allah El-Dorry puts it this way: “Egyptian cuisine is an interchangeable concept that developed over the years and was more of a manifestation of cultural infusions. So, when we ask what Egyptian cuisine is, we must ask which era. While there is evidence that Egyptian Dill, Coriander, and Anise were authentic culinary elements in ancient Egypt, there are many other food components that were very popular in Egyptian cuisine, yet they are not Egyptian.”

“There are many Egyptian recipes that include Ginger and Galangal, a spice planted in Asia, which is evidence of a very rich trade with the rest of the world, especially with Asia,” El-Dorry explains.

She added that in the 14th century, the way fried spices and herbs were fried before using it to get their full flavour is a typical Asian cooking methodology. “It was in the 20th century when  Mohamed Ali introduced some new crops to Egypt, such as Oranges, and we imported corn, potatoes, tomatoes and pepper from the newly discovered Americas,” she continued. “Imagine Egyptian cuisine without tomatoes!” she exclaimed.

Heritage Cooking Books

The idea of documenting Egyptian recipes was not novel to Egyptian society. Between the 16th and 17th centuries, many books were published. Harb El Manshoue Fi Hawader El Souk (The War of the Marketplace, published in the 17th century) was a witty book depicting a virtual fight between animals, fruits and vegetables in the souq (market) and which proteins are better. There was also the book titled: Brains Confounded: An Ode of Abi Shadouf, (Haz al ko7ouf fi qasidet Abi Shadouf) where he wrote about the differences between the town and village cuisine. The name of the meal Fesikh (salted fish), was first mentioned in this book.

In the late 19th and 20th centuries, books written by head chefs of the Royal Family cuisine shared their recipes with the public. “Osta Ahmed Ibrahim, the head chef of Khedive Ismail , and his famous book Nasihet Al Anam Fi Hosn Al Taaam (Advice on the Best of Food). There is another more famous book co-written by Toghian Said and Abu Zeid Amin, and it has a whole section for oriental recipes. Basima Zaki’s book and that of Abla Nazira co-written with Bahia Othman,” continued El-Dorry.

Origins of Koshary 

“In 1864, Sir Richard Burton (British Explorer), who followed the hajj (pilgrimage) route along the Red Sea, wrote about the Suez winter breakfast, which was a mixture of lentils, rice, ghee, and onions. They called it Koshary, and the people living in Hijaz ate a similar dish. An Indian pilgrim who came from Asia first introduced it to the people of the Red Sea. When Koshary moved to the Nile Valley, it developed over time into the form of Koshary we now know. So Koshary is a 100 percent Egyptian cuisine meal with an Indian grandfather,” she smiles as she elaborates.

The Ancient Egyptian Harvest Season

The second part of the session focused on the origins of ancient Egyptian agricultural rituals and harvest seasons. Professor Maissara Abd Allah, Deputy executive manager at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation, gave a talk titled ‘The Harvest of Ancient Egyptian Gods,’ where he delved into an enchanting world of philosophy and spirituality that unveiled a profound religious doctrine of ancient Egypt.

“The ancient Egyptians referred to Egypt as ‘The Sky On Earth’ because, according to their beliefs, when God created the universe, the universe was Egypt, and this land was a gift from God, and so all of their acts on this land are sacred acts of worshipping whether it be looking at the sun or harvesting,” noted Abd Allah.

“Consider the river Nile while crossing from Upper Egypt to the Mediterranean; it is exactly parallel to the milky-way in the sky, which ancient Egyptians view as the Dress of Nut, the goddess of the sky. The stars that are scattered on the body of Nut mirror the locations of ancient Egyptian governorates and the main religious centres.

“That’s why ancient Egyptians named the Karnak temple, Masaherta, or the manifestation of the sky on earth. The temple of Karnak’s architectural design symbolized the Egyptian land, with its two main axis, from south to north representing the river Nile axis  and from east and west, the axis of the sun,” he noted.

The ancient Egyptian religious beliefs picture the universe as a dark place covered with water, out of which materialized the first land, which was Egypt. Aton, the creator who created himself by himself, created Shu, the god of air. Tefut, the god of light, worked with Shu and both gods worked together to expand the universe. When both gods got married, they gave birth to Geb, the god of the land and Nut, the goddess of the sky. When such gods married, they gave birth to four children that are the essence of the Agriculture cycle: Osiris, a kind and fair ruler; his wife Isis, a wise, fair, and fertile deity, Set an evil, envious man married to the goddess of love, beauty, and joy, and Nephtys, who represents the sisterly love and the funeral rite.

Ancient Egyptians believed that the world was in a cycle of prosperity and that the Gods had to be worshipped to maintain the prosperity cycle.

They had three main harvest seasons: The first is the Shemo El-Seim (different spelling because it was changed to Sham El-Nessim in the Coptic language) festival that comes in April to celebrate the harvest.

Then it is followed by the 11 Bashans (May) festival, which ensures that the crops are ready to be harvested and that the prosperous cycle of agriculture will continue for another year. This is called the Valley Festival, the closing ceremony where Amun pays a visit at the end of the harvest season.

Amun’s procession comes out of El-Deir Al-Bahary temple in Luxor to Habu temple and crosses the Nile to Karnak temple. This route ends with a great banquet of offerings where the dead in the graveyards are brought back to life and join the living in celebrating the harvest.

The Food of Harvest Celebrations

The food offered during harvest celebrations is highly symbolic. Some of it is still eaten during Sham El Nessim.“Salted fish (Fesikh) is a symbol of Osiris, the god of the underworld who managed to be resurrected after his death. The technique of salting fish is very similar to the mummification technique, where the internal organs of the fish are emptied and replaced with salt to preserve it,” he added.

 Green onions and garlic are considered sacred plants in ancient Egypt because they grow by themselves with no seeds. Malana, which is green humus, symbolizes Osiris’s seed that was conceived inside the womb of Isis and manifested into their son Horus. The seed resembles the face of Horus. The lotus flower was offered as well as a symbol of life. People would drink alcohol and remember the memories of the dead,” he concluded. 

Source: Ahram online

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