Bread-Baking in Egypt, Then and Now


Woman patting out loaves to rise. Thebes Mapping Project

Preparing sun bread (aysh al-Shams) in Upper (southern) Egypt.  Source: Theban Mapping Project

…Sometimes we look in upon the poor in their huts while they are at meals. They all eat with their fingers, but I must say that generally their table manners will compare for daintiness and unselfish restraint with the peoples who use the knife and fork. They eat moderately and of the simplest diet, of which bread is the chief item.

Leeder, Modern Sons of the Pharaohs… 1918

modernsonscopticfmlyeatinguf2 Bread, eaten with some onions or cucumbers, and water in an ‘ulla (clay bottle). Source: Leeder – Modern Sons of the Pharaohs, 1918

For several years in the early 1980’s I lived in an Upper Egyptian village documenting agricultural and social happenings, as the field component of my Ph.D. studies. A favored time of joining in discussions and gossip on village affairs took place every few weeks when bread was baked in the huge, clay oven of Umm M’s house.

Then, several women would join in the all day task of collecting fuel, making the dough, and baking the bread. The fuel consisted primarily of stocks of maize and cotton, which are stored after harvest for use in cooking and baking. The traditionally baked bread in this part of Egypt is ‘aysh nashif’ – dry bread. These are huge, thin cracker-like round loaves that are easily stored for weeks in the dry climate of Upper Egypt.

Once the dough has been made, it is rolled very thinly and then expertly placed on a long baton and placed in the oven:

Woman placing ruqaq in oven.  Theban mapping project - Suzan Weeks

Placing bread into the oven. Source: Theban Mapping Project

The task is arduous, especially during the hot summer months when the women take turns tending the dough, fire, and bread-making.

.. Her great day is that of bread-making. All the women of a family are called to this task, for what with sifting the flour, mixing the leaven, and laboriously kneading the dough for the two to three hours which she thinks necessary, and then baking the many small loaves in her mud-oven, there is great activity.

Such belief have the people in the medicinal virtues of helba [fenugreek seeds], of which I shall speak elsewhere, that she adds to her labour by pounding the seeds of this plant to mix in the bread.

The native bread is a flat round cake, of a dusky colour, very like a large stone: reminding us of Scripture again—“If a son shall ask bread … will ye give him a stone?” A piece of bread, with pickled turnip and a taste of salted curd, often makes a meal.

I have sometimes seen the children eating this bread merely dipped in syrup, though vegetables are so cheap that it is rare not to be able to afford the relish of raw carrots, radishes, tomatoes, onions, and the tiny cucumber which is grown so abundantly in Egypt.

In the hot weather every one eats the cucumber; indeed, without a dish of these cool and refreshing vegetables the people would often not eat at all.

I have in other parts of the country eaten cakes with the whole seeds of sesame sprinkled thickly on the top…

In another blog, I write about helba (hulba – fenugreek seeds), mentioned above, and several other herbs that are popular drinks in Egypt; and several more blogs on bread-baking , in Africa, ancient Egypt and today.

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About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Colonialism, Cuisine, Egypt-Recent, Food, History, Middle East, Technology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Bread-Baking in Egypt, Then and Now

  1. Pingback: Modern Words that Survive from Ancient Egypt – What, How and Why | DIANABUJA'S BLOG

  2. Pingback: Colonial Encounters with West African Rice « Dianabuja's Blog

  3. Diana, do you have any idea of what type of clay or clay mixture is used for the building of the oven?

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    • dianabuja says:

      It is the mud-clay of the Nile Valley, which because there are no longer any floods has become more and more scarce such that now there are laws against the making of mud bricks or using mud for construction, though I do not know the specific details. The mud is mixed with chopped straw and sometimes special, more heat-retaining linings (also of clay) are put into the oven.

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  4. sonia says:

    Diana,

    I was once in Lalibela, Ethiopia for Coptic Easter. They make an most amazing bread and have a ceremony and special blessing for it. Do you know anything about this?

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