Some of the most drastic changes in Egyptian food culture begin to take place.
The twentieth century saw some of the most drastic changes in Egyptian food habits. Many food traditions present at the start of the century were largely lost by the end of it. Changes, as is often the case, were first adopted by city dwellers, but quickly seeped into rural lives.
During the first half of the century, royalty and nobility continued to enjoy a largely Ottoman and European-style diet. The less affluent also saw little change. Maize continued to be the primary foodstuff of the Egyptians together with a diet of bread, pulses, leafy greens, and vegetables.
Nile floods, previously at the heart of Egyptian agriculture, were curbed in the twentieth century, first with the Old Aswan Dam, completed in 1902, and then the High Dam in 1960. No longer were Egyptian peasants at the mercy of the floods that have long determined their seasonal diets, but new factors started playing pivotal roles in food choice. These included new levels of social mobility, technology, governmental initiatives, and media influences.
With the introduction of cooperatives, frozen foods—particularly proteins, such as Lake Nasser—fish became accessible to a wider public. Cooperatives also meant that crops and raw ingredients were being sold nationwide: rice, for example, which was never part of the southern Egyptian diet but cultivated in the Delta, gradually replaced fireek (cracked green wheat). The introduction of mechanised bakeries provided an easy and cheap way of procuring bread, and fewer people baked at home.
The earliest cookbooks of the twentieth century were by and for professional men; cookbooks for housewives came later, with the first published in 1914 by Munira Francis and titled al-Tabbakh al-Manzely. In the 1930s and 1940s, Basima Zaki Ibrahim also published a cookbook on eastern cuisine, issuing perhaps the first call to preserve Egyptian cuisine against the tide of westernisation. In 1941, came the cornerstone of Egyptian cookbooks, colloquially called Kitab Abla Nazira, authored by Nazira Nicola and Bahiya ‘Uthman. It was a book that influenced successive generations of home cooks and included traditional Egyptian recipes side by side with French, British, and Turkish dishes. In addition to cookbooks, the rising popularity of television and radio introduced people well outside of the urban centres to European recipes and ingredients.
In the 1970s, Egypt’s open-door policy meant that attractive foreign foodstuffs and goods were suddenly available, and understandably, became status symbols. Traditional foods and preservation techniques dwindled. Many of today’s staples are no older than a few decades, a century or two at the most. Although the ability to change and assimilate cultures has been a strength in Egypt over its history, the twentieth century instigated change at a dizzyingly rapid pace. Instead of gradually evolving, local traditions were hastily replaced, making it pertinent to study, document, and perhaps try to save whatever is left of the many disappearing age-old traditions that until the twentieth century had possibly endured for millennia.
SADD EL HANAK
Source: Unknown, passed from generation to generation
Date: 20th century (possibly earlier)
Developed by Nermine Hanno
Sadd al-hanak is an affordable, filling treat, with a name that literally translates to ‘mouth stuffer’. It is a thick paste sweetened with a simple syrup containing rosewater. Variations can be made by changing the syrup, using different flours, and adding aromatics such as lemon and/or orange peel, cinnamon, cardamom, and so on. This version was developed by Nermine Hanno, a prolific chef, prize-winning author, and accredited culinary judge with a particular interest in traditional recipes.
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 ½ cup water
- 1 tsp rosewater (optional)
- ¾ cup buffalo ghee
- 1 ½ cup flour
- ¼ cup toasted pine nuts
For the syrup: Mix the sugar and water in a saucepan and bring it to a boil. Cook until the sugar is dissolved then turn off the heat. Add rosewater to the syrup.
For the halva: Melt the ghee in a large saucepan. Add the flour all at once. Over low heat, keep stirring the flour and ghee mixture until the flour turns golden brown and takes on a nutty aroma. Turn off the heat. Add the syrup all at once, stirring it through the flour. When the halva begins to bind together and form a ball, shape into quenelles while still hot. Garnish with toasted pine nuts.
Double the sugar and water for the syrup and substitute the same amount of semolina flour for the wheat flour. Follow the recipe as above.
ARTICHOKE HEARTS AND BROAD (FAVA) BEANS IN OIL
Source: The New Book of Middle Eastern Food
Date: Early 20th century (possibly earlier)
Documented by Claudia Roden
[Eaten during Coptic Lent, this dish is] also popular with the Greeks of Egypt and a general favourite throughout the Middle East.
- 6 artichokes of good quality
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- Juice of 1 lemon or more
- 2-3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, crushed or more
- 500 g (1 lb) fresh shelled or frozen broad beans
- Salt and black pepper
- 1 tablespoon flour or cornflour
Buy young artichokes. Remove the leaves, stems and chokes and use only the hearts. Rub with lemon juice and drop in 150 ml (½ cup) water acidulated with lemon to prevent discoloration.
Put the olive oil, garlic, sugar and the acidulated water in a large pan with the artichoke hearts. Add the broad beans, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Add more water to cover if necessary. Simmer gently over low heat for about ¾ hour, until the artichoke hearts and beans are very tender, and the liquid is considerably reduced.
Mix the flour or cornflour to a smooth paste with a little cold water. Add a little of the hot liquid and stir well. Then add this to the pan gradually stirring constantly. Simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens and has lost the taste of flour (about 15 minutes). Pour into a dish.
Serve hot to accompany main dishes, or cold as an hors d’oeuvre. The sauce will be gelatinous if cornflour is used.
Reproduced from The New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden (London: Penguin, 1986) with the kind permission of the author.
BISARA WITH MEAT
(Fava and Spring Herb Stew with Meat)
Source: Usul al-ṭahi: al-Naẓari wa-l-‘amali (Fundamentals of Cooking: Theory and Practice), affectionately referred to simply as Kitab Abla Nazira.
Date: Published in 1941 based on a traditional recipe
Documented by: Nazira Nicola and Bahiya ‘Uthman
- 1 cup dried, peeled, and split fava beans (soaked overnight)
- 2 onions (or one onion and one large leek)
- bunch of French celery
- bunch of fresh mint
- ½–1 tsp dried molokheyya
- ½–1 tsp dried mint
- ½ tsp toasted and crushed caraway seeds
- 2 tbsp oil or ghee
- Minced onion
Ta’leyya with meat
- 1 ½ tbsp oil or ghee
- ¼ kg lean minced beef
- 3–5 cloves of garlic
- 1 tsp dried and crushed coriander seed
Bring water to a boil in a large pot. Drain and rinse the fava beans and place in the pot, making sure the beans are completely submerged. Add the chopped onion, celery, and fresh mint. Simmer the beans on a low flame checking occasionally; add water as needed until the beans are cooked through and there is very little water left. (You can also put them in a pressure cooker for 15 minutes.)
Allow the mixture to cool, then run through a fine sieve or chinois (or purée in a food processor), return to a pot on low heat and add the dried molokheyya, dried mint, crushed caraway, salt, and chili. Continue to stir. Add water as needed, to create the consistency of creamy mashed potatoes.
For the garnish: Fry the minced onions in oil or ghee until golden. Drain on a kitchen towel. Use half for the ta’leyya and reserve the rest.
For the meat ta’leyya: Pound the garlic with some salt using a mortar and pestle. Heat the ghee and add about 1/4 kg of lean minced beef. Sauté. As it begins to colour, add half the fried onions, the minced garlic, and the coriander. Stir until cooked through.
To serve, ladle the bean mixture into bowls and spoon the meat ta’leyya on top, garnishing it with the reserved fried onions. Allow to cool before serving.
Source: Usul al-ṭahi: al-Naẓari wa-l-‘amali (Fundamentals of Cooking: Theory and Practice)
Date: Published in 1941 based on a traditional recipe
Documented by Nazira Nicola and Bahiya ‘Uthman
Falawzaj was distributed at Fatimid palace gates to the public during celebrations. Although today it has fallen out of fashion, it clearly had survived into the 1940s when it was published in this seminal book. It is commonly referred to as balouza in contemporary Egypt.
- ½ l water
- ½ l orange juice
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 ½ cup cornflour
- shelled, peeled, and crushed pistachios (for garnish)
Combine the water, orange juice, and sugar. In a small bowl, place the cornflour and about a cup of the sweetened orange-water mixture and whisk together until the cornflour dissolves. You may need to add more liquid.
In a pot over low heat, place the remaining orange liquid and slowly whisk in the cornflour mixture until it is well blended. Cook this mixture for 15–25 minutes. Ladle the pudding into small bowls and refrigerate to set (approximately 1 hour). Garnish with crushed pistachios and serve cold.
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