It’s that time of year once more – Ramadan Kareem all! Last Ramadan I reminisced about my favourite sights and sounds in Egypt during our annual period of fasting and self-reflection. This year, food is on my mind. Particularly my favourite, much beloved dishes from Egypt, historically at the center of trade routes between Africa and Asia. This has produced unique and very popular cuisines with elements from many other regions. I’m leaving the basics out – hummus, baba ghanoush, couscous, falafel, stuffed grape leaves (warak ainab), and anything consisting nearly entirely of za’tar and olive oil – in order to really highlight the diversity of food that has accompanied this nation’s diversity of people. Some of you, especially from parts of East and West Africa, may recognize these dishes by other names.
Egyptians eat a lot of starch-dipped-in-other-stuff, so ful is something of a national dish for us. Rich with tahini, cumin, lemon juice, and garlic, fava beans are boiled and (sometimes) peeled, then (sometimes) mashed to bits and eaten with a lot of fresh pita bread. “Poor people, working people’s food,” my dad sometimes calls it, and it’s true. Very affordable, widely available, filling and delicious, ful is most often eaten for breakfast. During Ramadan it is ideal for suhoor, the pre-dawn meal. [Side note: one sure way to spot an Egyptian is to assess their bread-to-main-dish ratio. The country has erupted into riots over bread twice since 1952 for a reason. Hilariously, Anthony Bourdain predicted this when he first tried ful in Cairo.]
Another national dish (we have quite a few of these, you’ll notice) lives on from Pharaonic times. It’s called mulukhiyya – a distinctively slimy green soup made with a green plant that Wikipedia informs me is from the Corchorus genus. (As a friend stated the other night at a dinner I hosted, “I don’t know a SINGLE Arab who knows what the heck mulukhiyya is really called.”) For fans of that other slimy Egyptian meal, bamya (okra stew), mulukhiyya will make you very happy. Like so many other dishes, what goes in it (besides the mallow leaves, the only absolute) depends entirely on region. In Alexandria my grandmother would serve it with white rice and bread on the side, and maybe a little rabbit meat for my father and uncles (we kids could not imagine eating the cuddly bunnies we had walked past in the market).
Something a little more special, if only for the time and cost that can go into it, is stuffed pigeon. Literally called hamam. Which always confused me as a child, because… well, if you speak Egyptian Arabic you probably know what else it means! The pigeon is stuffed either with rice or bulgur wheat, but always with a lot of spectacularly eclectic herbs. It took me a long time to like stuffed pigeon. Mostly because my father would chase me around the flat with a freshly-plucked pigeon in his hand while yelling, “Hanafi! Hanafi!” If that seems slightly sacrilegious, it’s because it was.
Now I know a lot of you are thinking “Where is the koshary!?” Please forgive me. I’m from Alexandria. You Cairenes are the experts of koshary. We simply do not value it as much as you do, and we put lots of shrimps in it when we can. Also sacrilegious. Let this stuffy Al Arabiya report explain what I cannot do justice to:
The thing about fasting is that we’re supposed to be practicing our self-control, reflecting on those who do without, and ultimately become closer to our faith. The other thing about fasting is that not eating or drinking all day makes you very hungry, which then makes you feel as though you can eat everything in front of you. This, clearly, is shaytan trying to influence us to behave as unbecomingly as possible once it is time to break our fast. After our dates, milk, and the three spoonfuls of rice we can manage to fit into our rapidly shrinking stomachs, most of us are trying really hard to stay awake for at least another hour. In part because it is a particularly special blessing to feed others during Ramadan, which is why areas with a large population of Muslims will typically arrange community dinners open to all. But another reason is dessert. (And yet another reason is Taraweeh. I think my priorities are a bit out of order.)
In Egypt, basbousa – an intensely sweet semolina cake, also known as hareesa – is exactly the right consistency to eat with your equally sweet and very dark mint tea. Instant food coma – it feels like a rock in your stomach. Umm Ali is another, and guess what the main ingredient is!? That’s right – bread! A bread pudding chock full of pastry dough, sweet milk, fruits, nuts, and cloves. “Rock in your stomach” is the theme of Egyptian cuisine, but it’s partly how we manage Ramadan in the summer without Mubarak turning back the clocks ‘for’ us. There are many other sweets we share with our neighbors – baclawa, kanafeh, rice pudding and qatayef – but I have especially fond memories of my father melting dried apricot paste into a sweet, hot drink for us during those winter Ramadans. And, perhaps as it so often is during special times, I never figured out what he did to make it so soothing after a day of fasting.
Maybe, like Ali Hasan Kuban says, it’s all that sugar:
These foods are my cultural anchors to Egypt while I live in the United States. But what I love most about Ramadan, the season when we must confront our privilege and give what we have to those who need it most, is sharing the cultural anchors of my fellow Muslims, from all over the globe. I realize I’m very often tongue-in-cheek on AIAC, but I truly am constantly in awe of how little I know about how diverse Islam and its followers really are. So I’d like to turn this over to our patient readers: what are your most cherished Ramadan meals and traditions?