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Understanding Egypt – Food

Understanding Egypt is a series about Egyptian culture and traditions. I will try my best to explain the Egyptian way of thinking about different aspects of life that are usually different (or not) from Western and other cultures. If you have any questions or points you need elaborated please contact me through the comments sections or through the contact me page.

Food

This is the first post in the Understanding Egypt category. In this post I will try to explain the culture and traditions behind Egyptian food.

No, I will not talk about the local cuisine nor will I give the recipes to my favorite menus, simply because I don’t know the recipes, I am the worst person to be put in a kitchen to cook :)

I want to, however, explain something that I haven’t seen in any other country. Egyptians love to eat together! But that is human nature you might say, humans tend to like living – and especially eating – in groups. But to an Egyptian this has a deep meaning…

Egyptians love to share their food, no matter how little it was. Heck, the less food an Egyptian has, the more you will hear them offering everyone passing by to come and join them. “A good bite is good for one hundred” is a well known proverb in Egypt, meaning that this little food I have now will leave us all satisfied if we share it.

Ahmed the Feteer Guru - Step 1
Photo by mnadi from Flickr | Cutting 'Feteer' - Egyptian Pie that could be eaten with sweet or salty additives

It is not just out of kindness. Mind you, Egyptians are generally kind and hospitable people, but it also holds another meaning to it.

It is a sign of friendship. Or in other words, sharing food and – not literally – eating from the same plate – or maybe even literally! – means that you two became brothers. An Egyptian will never betray someone that ate with them from the same plate.

And it is not just betrayal in its literal meaning, it is more like: I will have to bail out, stand up for, and help out that person that shared food with me, no matter what. “We ate together” is the only sentence you hear in defense of a stupid/risky action taken by someone to help out someone else.

If you ask me, this is great!

Farek and I eat our ful
Photo by dlisbona from Flickr | Eating Ful together in a street restaurant

It has also been taken into the slang language of the people, where we would call someone who would betray you or who isn’t a very good friend “he didn’t preserve the food between us”.

And by the way, for the simplicity of Egyptians, we don’t translate the word food in all those proverbs and known expressions to the Arabic word of food. Instead, we call it “bread and salt” because it is the simplest “meal” that even very poor people might be able to have on their table.

Falafel in the Making
Photo by Daniele Muscetta from Flickr | Frying some fresh, hot Falafel

So are you up to joining me for some Falafel now? Are you up for “eating with me from the same plate”?

What if it was this delicious breakfast? I guess it is worth the risks ;)

Egyptian Breakfast Table
Photo by ~W~ from Flickr | Authentic Egyptian Breakfast: Ful, Falafel, Feta cheese with tomatoes and Egyptian Salad - To be Shared!

How does that compare to the eating traditions in other countries? And do you have any questions or misunderstood points about this? Write them down in the comments, I’ll be happy to explain more!

12 thoughts on “Understanding Egypt – Food”

  1. You guys have some of the most amazing food in the world :) Love falafels, hummus :)

    The problem with most Americans from the U.S. is that they’ve been trained to eat in 30 minutes or less or lose their jobs. So there’s never really any enjoyment of a meal above and beyond certain holidays. But in countries like Bulgaria, Mexico, Colombia, Greece, Italy, Egypt…eating is much more than just food. It’s a social gathering.

    In 6 years of traveling to and 2.5 years of living in Bulgaria I never once sat down to a meal that was less than two hours in length, other than a handful of times I was out with friends for a quick burger before a movie, and that’s not really a meal. The same thing in Colombia, and here in Mexico: when you eat, whether it’s at home with friends or out in a restaurant, you are there for 2-4 hours on average. Sometimes for as many as 6 hours.

    I love the proverb about a good bite being good for a hundred. The social aspect of gathering together to eat has been lost in the frantic “NEED TO EARN MONEY TO PAY MY BILLS!” frenzy of the U.S. and other Western countries. I much prefer the slow-paced style of the aforementioned countries, which it appears Egypt shares as well.

    Colombia even has an “unofficial” rule where most workers have a shift that is 8-12, but then they have a 2-3 hour break. Lunch is the most popular meal of the day in Colombia, and the streets of Bogota and other cities are PACKED with people for lunch-time, and it’s impossible to find a seat in most restaurants. It’s usually groups of friends and co-workers, enjoying a 2 hour lunch break.

    Thanks for the insight into Egyptian culture.

  2. I feel like this social relationship that Egypt has with food is found in all Arab countries actually. Having dealt with many cultures, I find that for Arabs, a meal with friends or family is really just an excuse to hang out and discuss everything from fashion to recent politics. It’s an amazing tradition that should be spread to the rest of the world!

    1. Thanks Mariam, yeah I do believe this kind of eating tradition is shared through out the middle east. And yes, it is very common to discuss politics during meals specially these days :D

  3. Food, a key component of our culture over the years is associated with many religious and social occasions. With globalization and the invasion of fast food for our world. Traditional meals are struggling to find her a place on the dining table the Egyptian citizen.

    1. That is true, Sameh. I find more and more Egyptians are being amazed and then sucked into the fast food chains, with fewer families still cooking and doing traditional meals.

  4. Salaam Aliekom Mina,
    As a recent devotee of Egyptian culture (my husband is from there) I love the social aspect of Egyptians in general…and of course, the food is amazing! I love Koshery! I have also been to Morocco, we got to know the inn keeper’s family, and they made it a special point to make us cous cous for our last day, even when I knew they could not afford having an extra 2 people to feed. And of course, it wasn’t even Jummah. I think this is the essence of Arabian sensibility. This is why I am hopelessly in love with Egypt and will move there soon. Ahebeck.

    1. Hi Amira! It is great to see people so interested in Egyptian culture and food! I’ve heard so many stories too about Moroccan hospitality, I’ll have to check that out myself :) You’re always welcome in Egypt and I hope you will have more great stories to share when you move there :)

  5. Hello, thank you for your posts. I have come to know an Egyptian family that I see weekly. Shem I brought cookies for the child, he said, “no, I can’t take the. It’s too much.” Of course, he did take and eat them later. This week, I tried Koushari and brought some to the Mother who always gives me fruit and a drink. She said the same thing. What does that mean? Is it just a polite expression? Marie

    1. Hello Marie,

      It is a polite expression in Egypt. As I probably mentioned in another post, Egyptian always invite people for everything even if they can’t really afford inviting them, and a common answer is nicely declining the invitation. However, when it comes to food, invitations are usually meant, but then again, one or two “no no I can’t take that” in the beginning is a polite thing in Egypt, and it requires insisting from the other side to show you really want to give that food/gift.

      I’ve noticed it is quite different in England where I am now. Someone would offer something only once, if I said no they won’t offer it again :D So now I am used to taking things from the first offer if I need them, and also slightly being not pushy when offering my stuff, trying to fit in the culture here. But it is very different from Egypt. Offering, pushing and insisting is part of the Egyptian culture on offering something.

      How did you like the Koushari anyway??

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