The National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) in Fustat has recently launched an initiative to preserve Egyptian food heritage.
Dubbed ‘Tabliet Misr’, the initiative promotes and documents Egypt’s traditional cuisine that were usually served on a round dining table, locally known as “Tablia”.
Ahmed Ghoneim, the CEO of the NMEC said that initiative plays an important role in raising people’s cultural awareness to protect the cultural heritage of Egypt. This initiative comes to shed light, in particular, on many traditional foods and dishes that have been handed down for thousands of years, in addition to promoting tourism for Egyptian foods.
“We need to educate the younger generation on how to choose their diet in a healthy way, and to find healthy alternatives to traditional foods in light of the economic crises the world is going through, and the high prices of food products,” he said.
Sahar Mohamed Abdel-Rahman, coordinator of “Tabliet Misr” initiative and NMEC library manager told the Egyptian Mail that the one-year initiative aims to revive Egyptian traditional food in an academic way to document and trace the history of Egyptian cuisine.
“The academics are giving lectures inside the museum to let the audience know about the history of Egyptian food. Through these lecturers and their recommendations, we seek the possibility of documenting the heritage of Egyptian food with UNESCO, as it is an authentic, intangible Egyptian heritage.”
The initiative is holding two lectures a month each one covers a topic related to cuisine.
Among the highlighted dishes is okra. It had a special status among the ancient Egyptians, as it was a favourite food of Queen Cleopatra (51–30 BC). This was mentioned in Chris Smith’s book ‘The Whole Okra’ (2019), which talks about the origin of okra and traces its history. It spread from here to Africa, Asia and Europe when Muslims entered Andalusia.
Abdel-Rahman said that in addition to lectures, the initiative also holds workshops for young women on how to prepare traditional food like shalaolao (green mallow is dried and ground), bissara and koshari.
A lecture entitled ‘7000 years of Food Heritage’ was presented by Dr Hala Nayel Barakat, Former Deputy Director of Cultnat, Heritage and Environmental Consultant.
She told the Mail: “We learnt from studies and what we find from the botanical and animal remains at predynastic archaeological sites in the desert that ancient Egyptians used hab el-aziz (tiger nuts), and nabq (rhamnus).
“There were scenes of animals like gazelles, ibex and ostriches in the predynastic caves. They hunted them and also they ate the ostrich eggs, but kept its shell as a vessel to carry water,” she added.
When ancient Egyptians began to live near the Nile banks, Barakat added, they started to plant wheat, barley, lentils and peas.
Barakat said that in Saqqara during the Old Kingdom (c. 2686 BC–c. 2181 BC) they found inside the tombs animal remains such as parts of cows. Drawings of offerings show beer, wine, lotus, bread and cheese. Geese were consumed as they are wild.
In the Middle Kingdom (c. 2055 BC–c.1650 BC), ancient Egyptians began to eat quail and dove. Also fish with all its kinds were available.
“They used to catch fish in quantity and because they had no refrigerators they had to clean it, dry and salt it. That is the beginning of meloha or fisheekh as we know today.”
In the New Kingdom (c. 1550 BC–c. 1069 BC), they knew the dates, carob, pomegranate, chickpea and olive. The olive later became the main source of oil, Barakat said.
“Also they knew cumin, black seed, sesame and celery in addition to peach,” she said.
In the Roman and Greek period, she added, they learnt about apricot, bay leaf and pine.
She added that the oldest recipe ever is found inside the tomb of Rekhmire, an ancient Egyptian noble and official of the 18th Dynasty who served as Governor of the Thebes and vizier during the reigns of Thutmose III and Amenhotep II, c. 1400 BC.
“It is for hab el-aziz cake. Hab el-aziz still exist in moulids (celebration of saints’ birthdays),” she said.
Barakat said that ancient Egyptians used honey, as sugar entered Egypt during the Arab conquest in the 7th century.
In this period also they knew chicken, rice, herbs like cinnamon, nutmeg and saffron, she added.
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