How Food Travelled to Egypt

At the centre of trade routes since antiquity, Egypt has always both assimilated and exported culinary innovations

Regional Atlas Map (1803)RAWI Publishing

When Food Travels

Determining the origin of a dish and how it spread is one of the most complex issues in the history of food. Dishes—like people—often embark on unexpected journeys, changing their name, ingredients and even preparation methods along the way.

In the process, they may lose all connection with their original place of inception. 

For instance, the faludhajiyya, a fragrant meat stew, mysteriously came to be known as mawardiyya (rose-water stew) in Egypt. As for the buraniyya, it was not always made exclusively with aubergine, nor was it always fried. For example, a 13th-c. cookbook from Baghdad has a recipe for a buran, which is essentially an aubergine and yoghurt dip that serves as a bed for meatballs.

Page from The Wonders of CreationRAWI Publishing

A Taste of Egypt

In the Middle Ages, Egypt was a major trading hub and became associated with produce exported to other areas. Some ingredients had been cultivated since ancient times, such as jummayz (seen here), known in English as the sycamore fig or Egyptian sycamore. 

Egypt was also famous for black poppyseeds (khashkhash aswad), lupine beans (turmus or, colloquially, tirmis), halum cheese, wild pomegranate blossoms (jullanar), as well as local varieties of white olives, melons (faqqus), and gum Arabic (used as a thickener in cooking). The fame of Egyptian rice even spread to the Islamic West, where it was praised by the great Andalusian botanist Ibn al-Baytar (d. 1248). 

Less common items included natron (or borax), which was mined in the north-eastern desert, in the aptly called Wadi al-Natrun (‘Natron Valley’). It was used as a glaze for bread or as a leavening agent in dough. There is, however, no evidence that the Egyptian habit, reported by the 11th-c. Baghdadi pharmacologist Ibn Jazla, of sucking on bardi (papyrus) like sugar cane was ever adopted by others!

Traditional Ka'k BiscuitRAWI Publishing

There is evidence that recipes from the Nile valley were appreciated in far-flung regions. For instance, the two extant Andalusian and North African cookery books (both from the 13th c.) contain a recipe for marzipan biscuits known simply as qahiriyya (‘the Cairene’), in reference to their place of origin. Both treatises also include a recipe for a sweet-and-sour chicken stew with prunes, known as muruziyya, which was said to hail from Egypt. It was apparently hated by Iraqis who felt it tasted like medicine!
Among the recipes for which Egyptians were famous and which travelled east of their homeland, we can mention those for wine made from honey or raisins. They are already found in what is considered the oldest cookery book in the region compiled in 10th-c. Baghdad. 

Of particular interest is ka’k, a type of biscuit, occasionally filled with dates and the such. There are a number of recipes for this confection in cookery books from both ends of the Muslim empire, but its Egyptian origins are well documented.

Shortly before the start of the Christian era, the Greek geographer Strabo visited Egypt and gave a detailed account of the country in his famous Geography. In terms of the food, one of the things that struck him was the Egyptians’ love of kakeis, ‘a peculiar kind of bread which checks the bowels’! 

Medieval Painting (1236/1237) by Yahya ibn MahmoudRAWI Publishing

A Taste of the Exotic

Medieval Egyptian cuisine was enriched by a wide number of influences, some direct, others indirect by way of intermediaries. In the latter category, we can put dishes that originated in Persia in pre-Islamic times, for instance, all of which would have first arrived in the Abbasid heartland before continuing their journey to Egypt. 

Dishes imported directly include those that came from various parts of the Islamic world. Tharid, for example—a bread sopped in a thick broth—was a staple dish among the Bedouin from the Arabian Peninsula and said to have been a favourite of the Prophet Muhammad. It arrived during the Muslim conquest of Egypt around the middle of the 7th c. and is today popularly known as fattah.

The rise of the Ottoman empire and the eventual annexation of Egypt explain the presence in Egyptian cookbooks of a number of Turkish dishes. Existing dishes were also adapted for the Turkish palate. We find, for example, the author of a 15th-c. cookery book suggesting the addition of garlic steeped in oil if a particular sauce was to be cooked for the table of a Turk. 

Finally, the cosmopolitan nature of Egyptian cuisine becomes evident from the fact that several recipes called for foreign ingredients such as Syrian leeks, coriander and cheese, Nisibin roses, or Iraqi rosebuds. 

To travel through Egypt's culinary past, check out this story detailing 7,000 years of food.

Credits: Story

Author: Dr. Daniel Newman (translator)  - Ibn Mubarak Shah, and Daniel L Newman. 2020.   The Sultan’s Feast : A Fifteenth-Century Egyptian Cookbook. 2020. London: Saqi Books.

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