International Cooking: Food from Egypt

Egypt is located across both northeast Africa and southwest Asia, making it a transcontinental country.

I think everyone knows something about Egyptian history, which can be traced all the way back to the 6th-4th millennia BC. Some of the earliest developments in writing, agriculture, urbanization, organized religion, and central government took place in Ancient Egypt. Once Egypt was primarily a Christian country, but there was a shift towards Islam in the seventh century and that is now the majority religion.

Throughout its long history, Egypt has been at times under the power of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the French, and the United Kingdom. In 1922, Egypt gained independence, and since then has experienced many conflicts. It is still considered a developing country, which seems crazy to me given its long history and how organized and advanced Ancient Egypt seemed for its time. I think Egypt’s strategic location has made the country struggle in ways it may not have otherwise; I guess everyone wanted to have power over the only piece of land connecting Africa and Asia, not to mention all the important ports along the coastline.

What Do People Eat In Egypt?

Much of Egypt is a desert, but the Nile river that runs through the country provides fertile land for growing food, and was also once a source for all kinds of wildlife (probably not so much these days). Ancient Egyptians grew wheat, flax, and papyrus, and wheat is still one of the most important staples in Egypt today, with bread being a common part of most meals.

Other common staples today include barley and rice. Legumes and vegetables are used in many meals, with meat being less common. This makes Egyptian cuisine a great option for vegetarians and vegans.

When meat features in meals, it may be chicken, lamb, beef, pigeon, or duck, with fish also being quite common.

Meals are often flavored with a variety of herbs and spices, such as coriander, cardamom, chili, bay, dill, parsley, cinnamon, and cloves, to name a few.

It is thought that cheese originated in the Middle East, and traces of cheese dating back to roughly 3, 000 BC have been found in Egypt. Today, cheese is often served with breakfast, and many rural people still make it themselves.

What I Made

Falafel with Pita Bread

Falafel with Pita Bread

Many people are familiar with falafel, but you would probably be thinking of the version made with chickpeas. In Egypt, although chickpea falafel has become common, falafel is traditionally made with fava beans instead, with lots of herbs to yield a bright green color. The falafel is usually stuffed into pita bread with tahini, greens, tomato, and pickles.

I had some issues making these. First, the recipe called for peeled, split fava beans, and I was starting with whole, unpeeled fava beans, because that is what I needed for the next recipe and I wasn’t going to buy two different kinds. After all, I’d read that it was easy to peel fava beans. You just soak them overnight, and then the peels slip right off! Well, this was a lie. Most of the peels were a little loose after soaking but not enough to just squeeze the bean and have it pop out. I had to like, scratch holes into the loose bits of the peels with my nails and then I could kind of get them off. This worked for most of the beans, but some just didn’t seem to have loose skins at all and so I didn’t use them. When I was done, most of the beans had split in the peeling process, and my nails were all messed up too. Luckily, I decided to get this started in the morning, and I wasn’t making the falafel until lunchtime. I let the peeled beans soak a few hours longer until I needed them.

When it was time to make the falafel, I added the fava beans to the food processor, along with leek, parsley, cilantro, garlic, baking soda, coriander, cumin, salt, and pepper. But my food processor didn’t want to grind up the fava beans. I finally got them somewhat ground but had to pick out some pieces that were too big, and after already discarding some beans that I couldn’t peel, I ended up with enough for exactly two falafel, when I had been halving the recipe to end up with about 7.

Now, I have a few theories as to what went wrong, especially after a Google search did not show other people having trouble with their food processors not grinding up the beans. It’s possible it would have worked better if I had more in the food processor, like if I’d been able to peel all the fava beans I intended to use, or if I had not halved the recipe. But it’s also possible that when you buy fava beans that are already peeled and split, they have been slightly cooked in order to get them peeled. So maybe they are softer than regular dried fava beans. I don’t know; these are only theories!

Anyway, I fried my falafel, and although I was directed to put sesame seeds on one side, I only did it to one of the falafel. Because I wasn’t sure the seeds wouldn’t burn while I was frying and I only had two! But it turned out fine, and the falafel themselves were really good. I served them in homemade pita with some vegetables and a Greek yogurt/tahini mixture.

I made the wholewheat pita myself, which was a much less eventful process. It turned out much better than my last pita attempt for Cyprus; I got serviceable pockets in every pita. These were made with a simple bread dough and then shaped and baked briefly.

Both these recipes were from Amira’s Pantry:

Ful Medames (Stewed Fava Beans)

Ful Medames (Stewed Fava Beans)

I had already heard of this dish from various subreddits I read, so I was excited to finally get the chance to try it. Ful medames (also spelled ‘foul mudammas’) is a simple dish made of stewed fava beans. It can have various seasonings and accompaniments, which likely differ from household to household. Ful medames can be served at any time of the day, but it is a common breakfast food.

The recipe I followed made use of canned fava beans, but instructed you could also cook dried fava beans for an hour. That’s the option I took, but my soaked fava beans took nearly one and a half hours to get soft. I guess it’s possible they aren’t as fresh as they could be, but they don’t expire until late this year.

Anyway, I cooked the fava beans and mashed them a bit, then seasoned them with garlic, jalapeño, cumin, salt, olive oil, and lemon juice. I used diced tomato and parsley for toppings, and I served them with my homemade pita.

This was really good, and I love how easy it is to customize! I’m sure I’ll be making it again; after all, I still have a bunch of fava beans to use up.

The recipe I used is from The Mediterranean Dish.

Koshari (Chickpeas, Lentils, Pasta, and Rice)

Koshari (Chickpeas, Lentils, Pasta, and Rice)

Koshari is Egypt’s national dish, and it is composed of rice, chickpeas, pasta, and lentils in tomato sauce, topped with fried onions, a tomato sauce, and a vinegary cumin sauce. The components themselves are all really simple. The rice, pasta, and chickpeas are kept pretty plain, and the lentils are combined with onion, garlic, tomato sauce, and cumin. This dish gets most of its flavor from the two sauces and the fried onion. Especially the fried onion, which was my favorite part of this dish! I wasn’t sure how much I would like this, but I think everything combined to create great flavor. My kitchen was a nightmare afterwards though, since I used so many pots and pans!

If you’d like to make this, I used the recipe from Amira’s Pantry. I omitted the vermicelli, since she says it’s not traditional, and I already had macaroni, and wasn’t serving a lot of people. I’m sure it would be a great addition though.

Fattah (Lamb and Rice)

Fattah (Lamb and Rice)

Fattah is another dish with multiple components, and it’s usually constructed in layers. First you place some toasted pita pieces, which you drizzle with a sauce made mostly of broth with a little garlic and vinegar. Then you add some rice, cooked in broth. FInally, you top that with chunks of slow-cooked lamb and a tomato-garlic sauce.

The result was pretty good, but the pita gets soft pretty quickly, and I think I’d prefer it to stay crisp (which may be possible if you fry it instead of toasting, and don’t let it sit too long). Apparently the recipe author’s family prefers it to be crisp too, though many people say it’s supposed to soften.

This recipe is from Amira’s Pantry.

Egga (Onion and Herb Frittata)

Egga (Onion and Herb Frittata)

This is a frittata made with sauteed onions and lots of herbs—mostly cilantro and parsley, with a little dill. Optionally, you can add tomato, but I was out of tomatoes when I made this. It didn’t matter; this was delicious, even though it doesn’t look like much! It’s easy to make too; just sautee the onions, then combine everything and bake it in the oven until done.

This recipe is from Amira’s Pantry. There’s no baking time given; mine took around 9-10 minutes and I baked it in a 10-inch cast iron skillet (which was still warm, since I used it to saute the onions). My egga was slightly underdone in the middle, but that’s not a problem for me. If it would be for you, you could bake a little longer. You’d also need more time if you were starting with a cold baking dish.

Final Thoughts

Everything this week was pretty good, but if I had to choose a favorite it would be the fattah, mostly just because I love lamb. The eggah was great too, and that’s mostly because I love eggs!

Next week, I will be cooking food from El Salvador.

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