Explore the nourishing foods of Egypt as Maeve O’Meara discovers the country's favorite dishes. Meet chef and restaurateur Ramy Megalaa who introduces the key ingredients in Egyptian cooking and prepares an aromatic fish tajine.
As part of the great tradition of street food in Egypt, Tereza Shehata makes kushari, a fragrant mix of rice, lentils and pasta served with onions and delicious tomato sauce. We see how important bread is in Egyptian cooking and how to make a good loaf.
Nadia Fawzi makes okra and lamb stew showing how to prepare the nutritious vegetable to its best. A teacher of Egyptian cooking, Mary Maksemos, reveals how her ancestors used the potent molokhia leaves to make the national soup, which she serves with rabbit and rice.
Morris Mansour is a chef and restaurateur passionate about dukkah–a mix of nuts, seeds and spices. Finally we discover Egypt's sweet side as Amira Georgy talks Maeve through her mother's recipe for a semolina and rosewater syrup dessert, basbousa.
Click here for the recipes featured in this episode.
Egypt officially the Arab Republic of Egypt, is a country mainly in North Africa, with the Sinai Peninsula forming a land bridge in Southwest Asia. Egypt is thus a transcontinental country, and a major power in Africa, the Mediterranean Basin, the Middle East and the Muslim world.
Over the ages, and as far back as four thousand years, Egypt stood as the land where civilizations have always met. The Pharaohs together with the Nubians, Greeks, Babylonians and the Romans have left their imprints here. Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula, led by Amr ibn al-A'as, introduced Islam into Egypt. Khedive Mohammad Ali, with his Albanian family roots, put Egypt on the road to modernity. If anything, the cultural mix in this country is natural, given its heritage.
Egypt can be likened to an open museum with monuments of the different historical periods on display everywhere. Basically, Egyptian history can be divided into 6 major periods:
Prehistoric Egypt — The Prehistory of Egypt spans the period of earliest human settlement to the beginning of the Early Dynastic Period of Egypt in ca. 3100 BC, starting with King Menes/Narmer. The Predynastic Period is traditionally equivalent to the Neolithic period, beginning ca. 6000 BC and including the Protodynastic Period (Naqada III). From about 4800 to 4300BC the Merimde culture flourished in Lower Egypt. This culture, among others, has links to the Levant. In Upper Egypt the predynastic Badarian culture was followed by the Naqada culture. Human remains from both the Naqada and Badarian cultures are more closely related to Nubians and East Africans than with northern Egyptian remains.
Ancient Egypt — A unified kingdom was founded c. 3150 BC by King Menes, leading to a series of dynasties that ruled Egypt for the next three millennia. Egyptian culture flourished during this long period and remained distinctively Egyptian in its religion, arts, language and customs. The first two ruling dynasties of a unified Egypt set the stage for the Old Kingdom period, c. 2700–2200 BC., which constructed many pyramids, most notably the Third Dynasty pyramid of Djoser and the Fourth Dynasty Giza Pyramids. The Thirtieth Dynasty was the last native ruling dynasty during the Pharaonic epoch. It fell to the Persians in 343 BC after the last native Pharaoh, King Nectanebo II, was defeated in battle.
Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt — The Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt began with the conquest of Egypt from the Persians and ends with the death of queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt and the Roman conquest in 30 BC. The Roman province of Egypt was established in 30 BC after Octavian (the future emperor Augustus) annexed the Egypt to the Roman Empire.
Arab and Ottoman Egypt — During the initial Islamic invasion in 639 AD, Egypt was ruled at first by governors acting in the name of the Righteous Caliphs, and then the Ummayad Caliphs in Damascus but, in 747, the Ummayads were overthrown. In 1174, Egypt came under the rule of Ayyubids that lasted until 1252. The Ayyubids were overthrown by their bodyguards, known as the Mamluks, who ruled under the suzerainty of Abbasid Caliphs until 1517. Egypt was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1517, following the Mamluk-Ottoman war (1516–1517) and the loss of Syria to the Ottomans in 1516. Egypt was administrated as an eyalet of the Ottoman Empire from 1517 until 1867, with an interruption during the French occupation of 1798 to 1801.
Muhammad Ali dynasty — The Muhammad Ali Pasha dynasty (1805-1953) spanned the later period of Ottoman Egypt, the Khedivate of Egypt under British patronage, and the nominally independent Sultanate of Egypt and Kingdom of Egypt, ending with the Revolution of 1952 and the formation of the Republic of Egypt.
Modern Egypt — The definition of Egypt's modern history has varied in accordance to different definitions of Modernity. Some scholars date it as far back as 1517 with the Ottomans’ defeat of the Mamlūks in 1516–17. However, most scholars have agreed that the modern history of Egypt starts with Muhammad Ali's rule and his launching of Egypt's modernization project that involved building a new army and suggesting a new map for Egypt.
The economy of Egypt is one of the most diversified in the Middle East, with sectors such as tourism, agriculture, media, petroleum exports, industry and service at almost equal production levels. A rapidly growing population, limited arable land, and dependence on the Nile all continue to overtax resources and stress the economy.
The government has invested in communications and physical infrastructure. Egypt has received U.S. foreign aid (since 1979, an average of $2.2 billion per year) and is the third-largest recipient of such funds from the United States following the Iraq war. Its main revenues, however, come from tourism as well as traffic that goes through the Suez Canal.
Since the turn of the new millennium, the pace of structural reforms, including fiscal, monetary policies, privatization and new business legislations, helped Egypt to move towards a more market-oriented economy and prompted increased foreign investment. However, corruption is often cited by Egyptians as the main impediment to further economic growth.
The reforms and policies have strengthened macroeconomic annual growth results which averaged 5% annually, but the government largely failed to equitably share the wealth and the benefits of growth have failed to trickle down to improve economic conditions for the broader population, especially with the growing problem of unemployment and underemployment among youth under the age of 30 years.
A youth protest demanding more political freedoms, fighting corruption and delivering improved living standards forced President Mubarak to step down on February 11, 2011. In the Post-Mubarak Era the Egyptian economy faces a rocky road to stabilize the economy after 18 days of protests which may cut economic growth in the Fiscal Year ending June 2011 to about 2%.
Today Egypt is one of the most populous countries in Africa and the Middle East. The great majority of its estimated 80 million people live near the banks of the Nile River. The large areas of the Sahara Desert are sparsely inhabited. About half of Egypt's residents live in urban areas, with most spread across the densely populated centres of greater Cairo, Alexandria and other major cities in the Nile Delta.
Egyptians are by far the largest ethnic group in Egypt at 91% of the total population. Ethnic minorities include the Abazas, Turks, Greeks, Bedouin Arab tribes living in the eastern deserts and the Sinai Peninsula, the Berber-speaking Siwis (Amazigh) of the Siwa Oasis, and the Nubian communities clustered along the Nile.
Egypt also hosts an unknown number of refugees and asylum seekers, estimated to be between 500,000 and 3 million. There are some 70,000 Palestinian refugees, and about 150,000 recently arrived Iraqi refugees, but the number of the largest group, the Sudanese, is contested. The once-vibrant Greek and Jewish communities in Egypt have almost disappeared, with only a small number remaining in the country, but many Egyptian Jews visit on religious occasions and for tourism.
The official language of the Republic is Modern Standard Arabic. The national language of modern-day Egypt is Egyptian Arabic. The main taught foreign languages in schools are English, French, German and sometimes Italian.
Approximately 90% of the population adheres to Islam and most of the rest to Christianity, primarily the Coptic Orthodox denomination. Apart from religious affiliation, Egyptians can be divided demographically into those who live in the major urban centers and the fellahin or farmers of rural villages.
Monuments in Egypt such as the Giza pyramid complex and its Great Sphinx were constructed by its ancient civilization. Its ancient ruins, such as those of Memphis, Thebes, and Karnak and the Valley of the Kings outside Luxor, are a significant focus of archaeological study. The tourism industry and the Red Sea Riviera employ about 12% of Egypt's workforce. More than 12.8 million tourists visited Egypt in 2008, providing revenues of nearly $11 billion.
Egyptian cuisine's history goes back to Ancient Egypt. Egyptian cuisine consists of the local culinary traditions of Egypt. Egyptian cuisine makes heavy use of legumes and vegetables, as Egypt's rich Nile Valley and Delta produce large quantities of high-quality crops.
Egyptian cuisine is notably conducive to vegetarian- and vegan diets, as it relies so heavily on vegetable dishes. Though food in Alexandria and the coasts of Egypt tends to use a great deal of fish and other seafood, for the most part Egyptian cuisine is based on foods that grow out of the ground. Meat has been very expensive for most Egyptians throughout history, and a great deal of vegetarian dishes have developed to work around this economic reality.
Bread forms the backbone of Egyptian cuisine. Bread is consumed at almost all Egyptian meals; a working-class or rural Egyptian meal might consist of little more than bread and beans. The local bread is a form of hearty, thick, glutenous pita bread called Eish Masri or Eish Balad. Bread is most commonly used as an edible utensil besides providing the carbohydrate and much of the protein in the Egyptian diet. Egyptians use bread to scoop up food, sauces, and dips and to wrap kebabs, falafel, and the like in the manner of sandwiches. Aish Merahrah is an Egyptian flat bread made with 5-10% ground fenugreek seeds and maize. It is part of the traditional diet of the Egyptian countryside, prepared locally in village homes.
Egyptian cuisine is characterized by dishes such as Ful Medames, Koshari, rice-stuffed pigeon, and Mulukhiyah. Egyptian cuisine also shares similarities with food of the Eastern Mediterranean region, such as rice-stuffed vegetables, grape leaves, Shawerma, kebab, falafel, Baba Ghannoug, and baklava. Some Egyptians consider Koshari—a mixture of rice, lentils, and macaroni—to be the national dish. In addition, Ful Medames (mashed fava beans) is one of the most popular dishes. Fava bean is also used in making falafel, which originated in Egypt and spread to other parts of the Middle East.
Fresh mashed garlic with other herbs is used in spicy tomato salad and is also stuffed in boiled or baked aubergines (eggplant). Garlic fried with coriander is added to Mulukhiyah, a popular green soup made from finely chopped jute leaves, sometimes with chicken or rabbit.
Egyptian desserts are different from other Eastern Mediterranean desserts. Basbousa, sometimes called Harissa, is a spicy dish made from semolina and is soaked in a sugar syrup. It is usually topped with almonds and traditionally cut vertically into pieces so that each piece resembles a diamond shape. Baklava is a sweet dish made from many layers of phyllo pastry, an assortment of nuts, and soaked in a sweet syrup. Eish el-Saraya are pancakes (filo dough) stuffed with everything from eggs to apricots or fruit of choice. Polvorón is a common dish in all of North Africa. It is like shortbread and is usually topped with roasted almonds. Traditional apple cakes are seasoned with various spices, such as nutmeg or cinnamon, accompanied by crushed nuts, the most popular being walnuts and almonds.
Tea is the national drink in Egypt, followed only distantly by Egyptian coffee. Egyptian tea is uniformly black and sweet, usually not served with milk, and generally in a glass. Tea packed and sold in Egypt is almost exclusively imported from Kenya and Sri Lanka. Tea is a vital part of daily life and folk etiquette in Egypt. Visiting another person's household, regardless of socioeconomic level or the purpose of the visit, entails a compulsory cup of tea; similar hospitality might be required for a business visit to the private office.
Coffee is also considered a part of the traditional welcome in Egypt. In Egypt, sugar cane juice is called "aseer asab" and is an incredibly popular drink served by almost all fruit juice vendors, who can be found abundantly in most cities.