A History of Food in Egypt

The development of food in Egypt offers a fascinating glimpse into the history of the country over seven millennia

The Food of the Ancient Egyptians (2020)RAWI Publishing

The Food of the Ancients

The ancient Egyptians valued life, and their provisions for the dead (such as belongings and offerings in tombs) were meant to ensure a comfortable afterlife for the deceased. Egyptologists believe that the staples in ancient Egypt were bread and beer, thanks to large amounts of textual evidence of the trade in both these commodities.

Artistic evidence of offerings in tombs, physical finds of plants, and animal bones, in addition to ceramics and many other forms of material culture attest to a varied diet. Unfortunately, we know little of cooked dishes because these are often difficult to detect archaeologically.

During the Ptolemaic Period, ending with Queen Cleopatra VII, Greek-speaking settlers brought in new species and technologies, triggering many advances in agriculture that had a direct effect on diet. The waterwheel and the Archimedes screw, for example, allowed the introduction of an entirely new irrigation system not dependant on the seasonality of flooding.

New species introduced included bread wheat and nuts as well as a wide variety of fruits such as peaches, pears, plums, apricots, and sour cherries. Chicken also became a common foodstuff. The Greeks did not know beer or drink it, and eventually, wine replaced it as the beverage of choice.

Expansion of trade networks with Asia meant that crops such as rice, black pepper, and aubergines were present in Red Sea port cities during Roman times, but it took a few more centuries for these foods to become part of the mainstream diet. 

Food in Egypt After the Arabs (641/1517)RAWI Publishing

After The Arabs

Egypt’s days as a province of the Byzantine Empire came to an end with the Arab conquest of 641 CE. The warrior newcomers were reported to have been overwhelmed by the variety of dishes the Egyptians ate compared to their simple Bedouin diet. Sadly however, we do not know very much about what these varieties included. From then on, Egypt was ruled by a succession of dynasties and caliphates, but unless there was a drought or a famine, no one went hungry.

When the Fatimids established the city of Cairo in the 10th c. CE, the new capital soon became a flourishing metropolis and culinary centre of the Islamic world. Multitudes of people of different ethnicities flocked to the city bringing with them new farming techniques, plant species, and of course, recipes.

Cairo assimilated new influences with remarkable speed. New crops included sugar cane, eggplant, rice, taro, and different varieties of citrus fruits, to name but a few. Staples included mutton, beef, chicken, geese, eggs, wheat, fava beans, sugar, sesame oil, melons, and quinces.

The Fatimid rulers were renowned for organizing extravagant feasts to feed the masses. Hundreds of dishes would be piled up and eating contests would entertain the public. Their successors, the austere Ayyubids, fired many of the celebrated palace cooks, who eventually set up their own public cooking businesses in Cairo’s celebrated medieval marketplaces.

Egypt was annexed to the Ottoman Empire in 1517 CE and became a province providing agricultural and tax revenue, throwing the country into an era of slow decline, something that is sadly reflected in the lack of cookery books and information from this period.

Egyptian Food in the Transformative 19th c. (1800/1900)RAWI Publishing

The Transformative 19th Century

In 1811, Mohamed Ali forced the Ottomans into giving him hereditary rule over Egypt as viceroy, ushering in a new era in Egypt’s history. After securing his grip on power, Mohamed Ali began his grand modernization projects, starting with the army, industry, and agriculture.

By the 1840s, new crops such as guavas and strawberries were cultivated successfully in Egypt, while others like the pineapple did not take. The tomato, also a relatively recent introduction, was already widely cultivated and quickly became ubiquitous in Egyptian dishes.

As the Egyptian economy flourished, cities turned into cosmopolitan hubs with people of multiple ethnic and religious backgrounds living together in the same buildings. The Egyptian family would send over a plate of traditional ashourakahk, or bisara, and likely get back some Greek fasolada, or perhaps artichokes with fava beans, a popular dish during Jewish Passover or Coptic Lent.

It was, however, French culture that was to have the greatest effect on the Turko-Circassian ruling class and Egyptian notables. The strong French influence on the upper classes can be best exemplified in the menu of Khedive Ismail’s historic Suez Canal inaugural ceremony, which surprisingly, was a purely French feast.

Back at Abdin Palace, the menu was much more varied. A cookbook left us by Usta Ahmed Ibrahim, Khedive Ismail’s cook, the self-styled ‘Food Philsospher’, includes a dazzling array of recipes from different cultures, religious groups, and regions, ranging from Egyptian staples to Italian spaghetti and even an American rice milk pudding.

The European-Ottoman influence would continue to dominate the Egyptian urban diet well into the 20th c., when Egypt, along with the rest of the world underwent the drastic changes brought about by the modern age.

Egyptian Food in the Modern Age (1900/1950)RAWI Publishing

The Modern Age

The 20th c. 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. As often happens, changes were first adopted by city dwellers but soon seeped into rural lives.

During the first half of the century, royalty and nobility still enjoyed a largely Ottoman and European-style diet. Maize continued to be the primary foodstuff of most Egyptians together with a diet of bread, pulses, leafy greens, and vegetables. Potatoes, introduced in the previous century, became widely popular.

Nile floods, previously at the heart of Egyptian agriculture, were curbed in the 20th c., 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 had long determined their seasonal diets. New factors started playing pivotal roles in choice of food. These included new levels of social mobility, technology, governmental initiatives, and media influences.

In the 1970s, Egypt’s 'open-door' economic policy meant that attractive foreign foodstuffs and goods were suddenly available and fashionable. 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.

With the introduction of cooperatives, frozen foods became accessible to a wider public and sold nationwide. The introduction of mechanised bakeries provided an easy and cheap way of procuring bread, and fewer people baked at home.

Although the ability to change and assimilate cultures has been a strength in Egypt over its history, the 20th c. instigated change at a dizzying pace. Instead of gradually evolving, local traditions were hastily replaced, making it vital to study, document, and perhaps try to save whatever is left of the many disappearing age-old traditions that had possibly endured for millennia.

For more on Egyptian culinary culture, check out this story on dining at an Egyptian palace

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