With Easter upon us, I’m sharing my blog about the holiday in Upper [southern] Egypt:
During the years that I spent a good deal of my time working and living in Upper [southern] Egypt while conducting doctoral research, I was invited by friends in a nearby izba [small, extended family-based village, or hamlet] to join them at their church for Easter celebrations. Not having been to a Coptic Easter, I gladly accepted.
Afterwards, we enjoyed a huge Easter feast, consisting of the following dishes. Recipes for these dishes are given at the end of the blog.• Kishk (Cracked Wheat (Burghul) fermented with Milk & Yogurt) • Mulukhiyyah bil-Firaakh (Jew’s Mallow Greens with Roast Chicken) • Bamya bil-Gamusa (Okra with Water Buffalo Shanks) • Arnabit bil-Tomatum (Cauliflower in Tomato Sauce) • Ruz bil- Sha’ariya (Rice with Vermicelli) • Gargir wa-Salatat (Salad Greens) • ‘Aysh Nashif (Crispy Bread) • ‘Aysh Baladi (Country Bread)
The izba in which my friends lived was tucked neatly between 2 minor canals of the Nile
and surrounded by a variety of vegetable crops, clover, maize and barsiim [clover] fields for the water buffalo and other livestock. It had been settled in the mid-19th. century by a Coptic extended family whose farming activities were part of the huge estate of an Ottoman landowner. During the time of Egypt’s President Nasser in the 1960’s, extensive land reform was affected and many of the huge land owners lost most of their vast holdings and/or fled Egypt, leaving many of the izba inhabitants true owners of perhaps a bit of the land that they had been farming for several.
By the 1980’s, the izba discussed in this blog had grown to about 1200 persons – about 1/2 Muslim and 1/2 Coptic, though it was still considered a ‘Coptic’ izba. There was a small mosque, and a very large church that could accommodate the entire Coptic population of the izba.
I was instructed to wear warm clothing and bring a blanket or two, because April in rural Egypt is still very cold in the evenings. Entering the church I saw that whole families were accommodating themselves for the long night vigil with their blankets, pillows, and scarves.
Then began a religious passion in the most traditional sense. All elder men and male heads of families took terms chanting and reading Coptic religious texts. This continued for approximately six hours, by candle light for there was no electricity in the izba. Participants in the church, separated by gender and with younger children tended by their mothers, huddled closer and closer together to keep warm. After a time, a very large icon of Christ was carried in by 2 men, and this was followed by an athletic fellow impersonating the Devil, followed by the Devil’s entourage. As the chanting reached great emotional heights, the icon of Christ alternately was chased down one isle and another – but at appropriate times the icon of Christ chased back the Devil and his pack. This continued until dawn, when Christ conquered the Devil, the service ended, and everyone joined in glorious song and prayers.
Cramped and cold, we all trooped back to the 2-story mud-brick house where Umm M and her married daughters began preparing a huge meal, while the rest of us enjoyed a refreshing snack of dried kishk mixed into hot chicken broth and sautéed onion, followed by sweet tea. This was a favorite dish of both Muslims and Copts in the Nile Valley, [a kishk recipe is also given, below]. Umm Makram and her daughters prepared a lavish meal, consisting of the following dishes: Mulukhiya (leaves of the Jew’s marrow) and roast chicken; Water buffalo shanks and okra; Deep-fried cauliflower in tomato sauce; Rice and vermicelli cooked with lavish quantities of water buffalo butter that has been clarified (semna) ; Crisp, large rounds of aysh naashif – a crispy white bread made only in rural Upper Egypt, which had been previously made by the women Various fresh greens and onions.
. These are staple fellaheen [Egyptian rural/ peasant] dishes; fancier fare – dishes that are said to be traditional Egyptian – but have been heavily influenced by Ottoman and Greek cuisine – are found primarily in Cairo and other large cities of Egypt.
Fellaheen dishes are rich in oils and clarified butter in which many cloves of garlic and onion slices are sautéed, and contain mellow spices: cumin; coriander; cardamom… sometimes a little hot pepper and splashes of lemon or vinegar.
For our feast, in the early afternoon a large, round table was placed in the center of the main room of the two-story, mud brick house – a low table, about 2′ high, around which we all sat on little stools; about 12 of us. Dishes were served on large trays and platters, and everyone had a soup spoon by which to select bites from the different trays and bowls.
Before eating one must wash the right hand, which is the only hand used in eating. Meat is eaten by the hand, and bread in used in taking up mulukhiyya and rice. A spoon may be used to take up broth from the mulukhiyya, the spoon then being filled with a bit of rice.
After the meal is finished, hand-washing again takes place, and a glass of water can then be drunk. Water is never consumed with the meal as this is though to result in indigestion.
All food that remained was given to poor families in the izba. Then, throughout the rest of the day, friends and relatives visited one another, Muslim neighbors from the quarter also visited to wish a good holiday, lingering on benches outside the house to chat.
By the evening everyone dropped totally exhausted into their beds, with visitors accommodated on piles of quilts and bedding that had been prepared in advance and smelled pleasantly of the camphor wood trunks in which they had been stored.
Village and izba homes are generally constructed one against the other, and roads can be very narrow. In a country that lacks land both for homes and cultivation, this is an important strategy. In the evenings, families and friends promenade about the village, resting a few minutes on the mastaba – or benches that are built outside the main entrance of a house – to exchange news and greetings.
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Food in rural Egypt has evolved to satisfy the appetites of hard-working farmers. It tends, therefore, to use quite a lot of semna [clarified butter] and oil, as well as quite large amounts of garlic, onion, cumin, coriander, and cardamom. Not much meat, however, except for holidays. Hot pepper spices are occasionally used, but do not feature into the dishes. Dishes of Muslims and Christians are basically the same, although during fast days Copts will rely on non-meat recipes and during the fasting month of Ramadan Muslims consume large amounts of dry and fresh fruits and also prepare nut and fruit-based recipes as part of fast-breaking.
Copts fast approximately 200 days per year, 60 of which are completely vegetarian meals. During the remaining fast days, fish are allowed. Here are my own recipes for the Easter meal that we ate, as explained to me by Umm Makram; if the levels of butter and garlic do not suit you, by all means reduce the quantities! Some recipes are adapted from written sources and so noted.
Kishk (Cracked Wheat (Burghul) fermented with Milk & Yogurt) Kishk is a powdery substance made of bulgur [cracked wheat], which is fermented with milk and yogurt. The 3 ingredients are mixed and fermented for about 9 days – each day the substance is thoroughly kneaded. Thereafter, it is spread out on cloths in the sun to dry, and once dry it is carefully rubbed between the fingers into a powder that is stored for months of future use. Although I doubt this process is still practiced in Upper Egypt as it was during my time there.
1. Using Kishk:
Ingredients:1 C. Kishk [Available on-line or in Middle East shops] 1 T. Clarified butter 4 cloves Garlic 1 lg. Onion 4 C. Chicken stock To taste Salt & pepper
Method: • Melt butter • Saute Onion & garlic • Mix in Kish; cook a few minutes • Remove from heat & add liquid slowly, stirring • Return to heat & cook, stirring, until the dish thickens • Add salt & pepper to taste • If too thick, add a little more liquid
- Source: Mallos: The Complete Middle East Cookbook
2. Using flour: If you do not have authentic kishk, you can make a dish that resembles it using flour, yogurt and stock, a method taught me by a Cairene friend: Ingredients:1.5 oz. Clarified butter 2 T. Oil 3 T. Flour 3 med Onions 3-4 cloves Garlic 450 g. Thick Yogurt 1 L. Stock To taste Salt & Pepper
Method: • Fry onions until brown in oil • Cook garlic in butter • Add flour to garlic & butter and blend • Add yogurt, a few spoons at a time and mixing well • Add stock slowly & onions, mixing well • Simmer until thick • Add salt & pepper • Add more stock or water if too thick
Mulukhiyah bil-Firaakh (Mulukhiyah Greens with Roast Chicken)
Ingredients:1 –2 Chicken, whole 5 oz dry, or 1# fresh Mulukhiyah [Jew’s Mallow] – or use spinach 12 cloves Garlic 8 med Onion 5 T Clarified butter 6-8 C Water 1 T Coriander 6 Cardamom pods 4 Lemons To taste Salt & Pepper
Method: • Put chicken in a large casserole to which ½ the onions [quartered] ½ the garlic & all of the cardamom pods have been added; cover with water • Simmer chicken until tender • Remove from heat; set chicken aside; keep warm • Meanwhile, if using fresh mulukhiyah, chop in very fine pieces with a makhratah (2-handled, curved knife) or a regular knife; if using dry mulukhiyyah, rub to fine pieces with fingers • Strain chicken stock [or not, as you wish] • Add more liquid if necessary, to make 6-8 cups • Add mulukhiyyah to the broth, together with salt and pepper – cook no more than 5 minutes [overcooking results in the mulukhiyah sinking to the bottom of the pot – you want it to remain suspended in the liquid] • Melt 3 T. clarified butter in a large pan, and brown chicken/s evenly • Make a taqliyyah by mashing garlic, salt and coriander together, and frying in 2 T of clarified butter • When mulukhiyyah is nearly done, add the taqliyyah and mix; • Add salt & pepper • Simmer a bit longer • Add juice from 2-3 lemons – or, quarter lemons and serve separately • Check spices To Serve: • Cut Chicken in pieces • Pour mulukhiyyah in a large serving dish • Place chicken pieces on a separate platter, or combine with the mulukhiyah • Slice any remaining lemons into quarters and serve separately
Bamyah bil-Gamusa (Okra with Water Buffalo Shanks)
Ingredients:2 kg Water buffalo shanks [forearms; sliced horizontally into 1 – 2 in. pieces 1.5 kg Bamyah – fresh okra – very small and whole 6 + 3T Clarified butter 2-3 Onion 6 cloves Garlic 1.5 t Cumin 1.5 t Coriander 4 Tomatoes, chopped 3 T Tomato paste
Method: • Brown and sear meat in 6 T. clarified butter; set aside • Fry onion and garlic – sliced – in the drippings • Add tomatoes and sautée until soft • Add meat & Spices • Add stock with tomato paste, to cover • Simmer until tender – 2-3 hours Meanwhile: • Carefully trim tops of okra – do not cut into the okra as this results in sliminess • Soak ½ hour in vinegar to cover; rinse (This helps also to reduce the sliminess) • Saute okra in 3 T. clarified butter; set aside When meat is nearly done: • Mix in okra [or place it on top of the meat]; cover & continue cooking until okra is done • Squeeze in juice of 1 or so lemon Dried okra can also be used: The product is dried in rural Egypt by threading the okra fingers onto a long thread and hanging in the sun. The resulting product can be stored for long periods of time, and when cooked has a pleasingly pungent flavor and is less gelatinous than fresh okra.
Arnabit bil-Tomatum (Cauliflower in Tomato Sauce)
Ingredients:1 1 large or 2 small arnabit (cauliflower), broken into flowerets 4 T. Clarified butter 1 5 lg. Tomatoes, chopped 2 Onion, chopped 6 Garlic cloves 2 t Cumin To taste, Shatta – hot pepper To taste, Salt & Pepper Oil for deep-frying
Method: • Deep fry cauliflower until crisp-done • Sprinkle with some cumin; salt; pepper & set aside • Saute onion & garlic in butter • Add tomatoes, skinned & chopped • Simmer until a sauce has formed • Add stock, if too dry • Add cumin – salt – pepper to taste • Simmer until sauce is blended • Add Cauliflower and cook a couple of minutes to blend flavors
Ruz bil- Sha’ariyyah (Rice with Vermicelli)
Ingredients:2 C. Rice (ruz); washed ½ C. Vermicelli (sha’ariyyah), broken into ¼” pieces 4 T. Clarified butter 4 Cardamom pods 4+ C. Broth for rice Salt & pepper to taste
Method: • Saute Vermicelli in some of the butter until light brown; set aside • Saute rice in remaining butter • Add broth; cardamom pods; salt • Simmer until nearly done • Add vermicelli; fluff • Continue cooking until done
Gargiir wa-Salatat (Salad Greens)
Arrange a selection of –salad greens; radishes; green onions other, as you wish
… on a plate as finger food
‘Aysh Naashif (Crispy Bread)
The large, white rounds of bread made in rural Upper Egypt are unique to that part of the country. Women will gather at a home about once a month and share in the task of preparing the dough, stoking the oven fire, and baking the rounds; it is an all day task. The bread rounds – which are about 2.5’ in diameter – are then stacked in a large cloth or wicker basket that is loosely tied shut, and will last the family for several weeks.
‘Aysh nashif requires considerable skill to make and bake, and in place of a recipe for it, here is how to make ‘aysh baladi – the ubiquitous round ‘pita’ loaves found in most of Egypt:
‘Aysh Baladi – A Recipe for Egyptian Bread
There are many recipes for Egyptian pita bread, or aysh baladi. See this link for a selection.