One week ago, Cairo Kitchen decided to offer its customers a one of a kind, truly traditional, unbelievably delicious new addition: Aysh Shamsi, or Sun Bread. Not only that, but we decided to add our own little twist to this ancient recipe – olives. We love adding little touches here and there!
Because of this wonderful new addition, and because it has been so well received, we’d like to dedicate this post to one of Egypt’s most important staple: bread.
Sustenance of the People
Bread has been the cornerstone of our diet since the days of the pharaohs. In fact, it has been so important that it is subsidized by the government to keep people from revolting. And that has actually happened before!
In January of 1977, President Anwar Sadat announced that the government would be lifting the subsidies on basic foodstuffs such as cooking oil and flour – which would sharply increase the price of bread and other commodities. Almost immediately afterwards, hundreds of thousands of Egypt’s poor took to the streets across the entire country in what is now called “The Bread Riots”.
Dozens were killed and hundreds wounded. The government retracted their decision and placed the subsidies on basic foodstuffs once more. Since then, they have feared coming near this topic again.
And it is true, Egyptians cannot live without bread. Some of us eat it with every meal of the day, and some of us can only afford bread as the meal of the day. An ancient Egyptian tradition that still exists in some parts of the country today is eating bread and onions as a meal on its own…
If bread is not the main carbohydrate, then it becomes a secondary one that is used as a utensil to help scoop up the food, and then is eaten on second bite… this is lovingly called taghmees by Egyptians, and is a pleasure of its own.
Try eating fuul with a fork and you’ll get strange looks pitying you for missing out on proper taghmees!
Bread of the Pharaohs
In ancient Egypt, most bread was made with emmer wheat, which is more difficult to turn into flour than other kinds of wheat. Barley was also sometimes used.
Bread was made in each household, usually by the women or servants. The grain was first ground and then all the ingredients would be kneaded by hand (and sometimes by foot too). Overall it was a very long and tiring process.
It went a little something like this:
Step 1 – Removing the Chaff
First the grains go through something called threshing – basically being beaten with a tool or on a threshing floor until they break into packets, each of which is a thick envelope of chaff that tightly surrounds two kernels.
Some believe that they were moistened before being pounded with wooden pestles in limestone mortars. This would help in separating the chaff from the kernels without much damage. It was then left to dry in the sun then winnowed and sieved. Now it was ready for grinding…
Step 2 – Grinding the Grain
A saddle quern was used as the grinding surface… a flat slab of quern stone would serve as the base, and its surface was purposely kept rough to facilitate the grinding. They would use a smaller stone and slide it back and forth on top of the base stone, with the grain in the middle.
As bread was the most widely eaten of all the ancient Egyptian food, the Egyptians developed a method to grind the grain quickly. The baker would add sand or ground stone into the grinding device along with the grain, which produced the flour faster.
Unfortunately, this caused a lot of wear and tear on the teeth. Most mummies were found with teeth worn down to the pulp. This was probably the most common health problem in ancient Egypt, and definitely a very painful one!
Step 3 – Baking the Dough
In the earlier days, bread was baked in open fires. Later on, ovens were made with the fire contained at the bottom and an opening at the top.
During the old kingdom they used heavy pottery moulded into the shape of loaves, placed the dough inside, then placed the pottery on top of burning embers to bake the bread. In the Middle Kingdom, square hearths were used, and the pottery moulds were altered into tall, narrow, almost cylindrical cones. In the New Kingdom, a clay oven surrounded by mud-bricks with large openings was used. This is the one that many Egyptian villages still use until today.
There were many different shapes and sizes of bread in ancient Egypt, and sometimes they would add other ingredients to the mix like yeast, milk, salt, spices, fruits, vegetables, honey, eggs and butter. They also used to bake fruit loaves and honey cakes for special occasions.
Egyptian Bread Nowadays
Although Egyptians love all kinds of bread and baked goods, the most common type is called Aysh Baladi, or local bread. This is used for all types of meals, sandwiches, and even Egyptian Fattah.
In Upper Egypt, in places like Aswan and Luxor, people still use a very similar process as that of the ancient Egyptians to make Aysh Shamsi. Although they don’t grind the grains by hand anymore as flour is more readily available, the rest of the process is quite similar. They mix flour with salt, yeast, and water then knead the dough by hand. They cut the dough into fist-sized pieces, roll it into a ball, and dust it with more flour. They then flatten it out in a loaf-shape and leave it on special platters in the sun to dry for many hours. The dough begins to rise while in the sun, and then is baked in traditional fire ovens.
We at Cairo Kitchen are bread lovers, and we actually employ traditional Egyptian bakers from the villages that make our bread fresh every day. We offer both Baladi and Shamsi loaves, and we’ll be introducing new recipes soon!
But don’t worry, we don’t use sand in ours…
You may have heard… the word is out: Cairo Kitchen has opened up a new branch in Heliopolis. Now we’ve covered 3 very distinct and far-apart areas of Cairo, and who knows? Maybe we’ll cover even more someday.
But on this special occasion, we thought we should get to know this town a little better. Here’s what we found out…
City of the Sun
First off, we need to differentiate between the Heliopolis we all know (and where many of us live) and the original Heliopolis. The original Heliopolis is actually an ancient Egyptian cult center that was located where Ain Shams (eye of the sun) now is.
The name Heliopolis comes from Greek Helio (sun) and Polis (city).
In the Middle East and Mediterranean, there is a vast array of different styles of cuisine, colorful and healthy dishes, and culinary traditions that go back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. From the Levantine and Turkish, to the North African and Southern European influences, the freshness of the ingredients and flavorful spices make for some of the world’s most delightful tastes.
But in the midst of all that, Egyptian food has been side-lined and overshadowed, for no real reason. Lebanese and Syrian cuisine take the main spotlight, often with people arguing which is truly the most delicious and original. The Turks have had influences on most of the region’s culture and food, including Egypt and the Levant, and their cooking is definitely worthy of fame.
Next week Monday Egypt will be celebrating one of the oldest celebrations in Egypt, Sham El Nessim, which is as old as 2700 BC. Its interesting name comes from two historical adaptations:
The first is the ancient Egyptian harvest season Shemu, the third and final season of the year that began with the spring equinox and ended with the rising of the star Sirius. When Sirius appeared after a long period of invisibility, the ancient Egyptians marked it as the beginning of the New Year with the Nile’s flooding.
And the second was when the Arabic language entered the country. The similar sounding name of Sham (to smell) was used with the added El Nessim (the breeze) to signify the smelling of the zephyr, or the light west wind that blows eastward, during that time.