Egyptian cuisine makes heavy legumes, vegetables and fruit from Egypt‘s rich Nile Valley and Delta. Egyptian dishes include rice-stuffed vegetables and grape leaves, hummus, falafel, shawarma, kebab and kofta, ful medames, mashed fava beans, kushari, lentils and pasta; and molokhia, bush okra stew. Pita bread, known locally as Eish Baladi, is a staple of Egyptian cuisine. Cheesemaking in Egypt dates back to Egypt’s First Dynasty, with Domiaty being the most popular cheese consumed today.
Common meats in Egyptian cuisine are squab, chicken, and lamb. Lamb and beef are frequently used for grilling. Offal is a popular fast food in cities with a high population, and foie gras is a delicacy that has been prepared in the region since at least 2500 BCE.
Fish and seafood are common in Egypt’s coastal regions. A significant amount of Egyptian cuisine is vegetarian due to the historically high price of meat and the needs of the Coptic Christian community, whose religious restrictions require essentially vegan diets for much of the year.
Tea is the national drink of Egypt, and beer is the most popular alcoholic beverage. While Islam is the majority faith in Egypt and observant Muslims tend to avoid alcohol, alcoholic drinks are still readily available.
Popular desserts in Egypt include Baqlawa, Basbousa, and Kunafa. Common ingredients in desserts include dates, honey, and almonds.
Wheat, barley and rice were part of the medieval Egyptian diet, but sources are conflicted about millet. According to Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, it was unknown outside a small area cultivated in Upper Egypt. It seems to be supported by chronicler Muhammad ibn Iyas, who wrote that millet consumption was unusual, if not unheard of, in Cairo. On the other hand, Shihab al-Umari says it was among the most popular cereal grains consumed in Egypt at that time.
Sorghum was, like millet, cultivated in Upper Egypt but was not considered a desirable crop by residents of Cairo. However, it was consumed only during famine or other times of scarcity in Cairo. In this case, Sorghum was preferred to other wheat substitutes used to make emergency bread rations like millet, bran, or broad beans.
In The Tale of Judar and His Brothers, an Egyptian story from Thousand and One Arabian Nights, the main character, a poverty-stricken fisherman named Judar, acquires a magic bag belonging to a necromancer of Maghrebi origin. This bag provides its owner with food like Ruzz Mufalfal, a rice dish seasoned with cinnamon and mastic, sometimes coloured with saffron and prepared stock and tail fat.
Ancient Egyptian cuisine was accompanied by bread and beer and fruit, vegetables, and fish eaten by the poor—many of its carvings showing cuisine date back to the Old and New Kingdom periods.
Egyptian cuisine is conducive to vegetarian diets, as it relies heavily on legumes and vegetable dishes. Though food in Alexandria and the coast 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.
Egypt’s Red Sea ports were the main entry points for spices to Europe. Easy access to various herbs has, throughout the years, left its mark on Egyptian cuisine. Cumin is the most commonly used spice. Other common seasonings include coriander, cardamom, chilli, aniseed, bay leaves, dill, parsley, ginger, cinnamon, mint and cloves.
Common meats featured in Egyptian cuisine are pigeon, chicken and duck. These are often boiled to make the broth for various stews and soups. Lamb and beef are the most common meats used for grilling. Grilled meats such as kofta (كفتة), kabab (كباب) and grilled cutlets are categorically referred to as Mashwiyat (مشويات).
Offal, a variety of meats, is popular in Egypt. A speciality of Alexandria, Liver sandwiches are a popular fast food in cities. Chopped-up pieces of liver fried with bell peppers, chilli, garlic, cumin and other spices are served in a baguette-like bread called eish fino. Cow and sheep brains are eaten in Egypt.
Foie gras, a well-known delicacy, is still enjoyed today by Egyptians. It is rich, buttery, and delicate, unlike an ordinary duck or goose liver. Foie gras is sold whole or is prepared into mousse, parfait, or pâté and may also be served as an accompaniment to another food item, such as steak. The technique involves gavage, cramming food into the throat of domesticated ducks and geese, and dates as far back as 2500 BC, when the ancient Egyptians began keeping birds for food.
Cheese is thought to have originated in the Middle East. Two alabaster jars found at Saqqara, dating from Egypt’s First Dynasty, contained cheese. These were placed in the tomb about 3,000 BC. They were likely fresh cheeses coagulated with acid or a combination of acid and heat. An earlier tomb of King Hor-Aha may also have contained cheese which, based on the hieroglyphic inscriptions on the two jars, appears to be from Upper and Lower Egypt. The pots are similar to those used today when preparing mish.
Although many rural people still make their cheese, notably the fermented mish, mass-produced cheeses are becoming more common. Cheese is often served with breakfast. It is included in several traditional dishes and even in some desserts. Cheeses include domiati (دمياطي), the most widely-eaten in Egypt; Qarish (قريش) made from laban rayeb; Rumi (رومي);, a hard, salty, ripened variety of cheese that belongs to the same family as Pecorino Romano and Manchego.
Bread made from a simple recipe forms the backbone of Egyptian cuisine. It 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 hearty, thick, gluten-rich pita bread called eish Baladi.
In modern Egypt, the government subsidizes bread, dating back to a Nasser-era policy. In 2008, a major food crisis caused ever-longer bread lines at government-subsidized bakeries where there would typically be none; occasional fights broke out over bread, leading to 11 deaths in 2008. Egyptian dissidents and outside observers of the former National Democratic Party regime frequently criticized the bread subsidy as an attempt to buy off the Egyptian urban working classes to encourage acceptance of the authoritarian system; nevertheless, the support continued after the 2011 revolution.
Bread is commonly used as a utensil on a culinary level while providing carbohydrates and protein to the Egyptian diet. Egyptians use bread to scoop up food, sauces, dips, and wrap kebabs falafel to keep the hands from becoming greasy. Most pita loaves of bread are baked at high temperatures (450 °F or 232 °C), causing the flattened rounds of dough to puff up dramatically. When removed from the oven, the layers of baked dough remain separated inside the deflated pita, which allows the bread to be opened into pockets, creating a space for use in various dishes. Common bread includes:
- Bataw (بتاو)
- Eish baladi (عيش بلدي)
- Eish fino (عيش فينو)
- Eish merahrah (عيش مرحرح)
- Eish shamsi (عيش شمسي)
- Feteer meshaltet (فطير مشلتت)
Starters and salads
In Egypt, meze, commonly referred to as mutability (مقبلات), salads and cheeses are traditionally served at the start of a multi-course meal along with bread, before the main courses. Popular dishes include:
- Tamiya (طعمية) is a breakfast dish of deep-fried fritters made out of fava beans, in contrast to the Levantine version of falafel made with chickpeas.
- Baba Ghannoug (بابا غنوج) is a dip made with eggplants, lemon juice, salt, pepper, parsley, cumin and oil.
- Duqqa (دقة) is a dry mixture of chopped nuts, seeds and spices.
- Goulash (جلاش)is a phyllo dough pastry stuffed with minced meat or cheese.
- Salata Baladi (سلطة بلدي)is a salad made with tomatoes, cucumber, onion and chilli topped with parsley, cumin, coriander, vinegar and oil.
- Tehina (طحينة) is a sesame paste dip or spread made of sesame tahini, lemon juice, and garlic.
- Torshi (طرشي)is an assortment of pickled vegetables.
- Legumes, widely used in Egyptian cuisine, are on display in Alexandria.
- Grilled fish with a side of Sayadiya rice
A typical Egyptian lunch
Egyptian cuisine is characterized by dishes such as ful medames, mashed fava beans; kushari, a mixture of lentils, rice, pasta, and other ingredients; molokhia, chopped and cooked bush okra with garlic and coriander sauce; and Feteer Meshaltet.
Egyptian cuisine shares similarities with food of the Eastern Mediterranean region, such as rice-stuffed vegetables, grape leaves, shawarma, kebab and kofta, with some variation and differences in preparation.
Some consider kushari, a mixture of rice, lentils, and macaroni, the national dish. Ful medames is also one of the most popular dishes. Fava bean is also used in making falafel (most commonly referred to as Tamiya in Egypt, and served with fresh tomatoes, tahini sauce and arugula).
Ancient Egyptians have used a lot of garlic and onions in their everyday dishes. Fresh garlic mashed with other herbs is used in the spicy tomato salad and stuffed in boiled or baked eggplant. Garlic fried with coriander is added to molokhia, a famous green soup made from chopped jute leaves, sometimes with chicken or rabbit. Fried onions can also be added to kushari. The ingredients in the okra and molokhia dishes are whipped and blended with a tool called the wīka, used in ancient times and today in Egypt and Sudan.