Back to a Better Past: Food Traditions of my Egyptian Grandparents

 Here on midEATS, we savor traditional dishes that are passed down from generation to generation, and we place a lot of emphasis on learning the art of cooking Middle Eastern food from those who have been doing it for much longer than we have. When we started building our site, we decided early on that we want midEATS not to be ‘just another food blog’ – we want it to be a community of real food enthusiasts who are not only looking to put together a meal in 5 minutes – but who relish more importantly the traditional way of preparing the meal, and who like to share with one another the joys of making something authentic for the new generation. For this reason, we decided to frequently interview Middle Eastern culinary experts, including food bloggers, chefs, restaurant owners, and our own family members – starting with the most experienced and skilled Middle Eastern cooks to whom we have access today: our grandparents!

My [Heba’s] grandparents, who are now in their late 80s, cook their meals daily till this day. Most of my memories growing up and visiting Egypt every summer involve eating at my grandparents’ house – and the food was always exquisitely prepared and full of flavor. I was curious about how my grandparents used to eat while growing up, before the advent of refrigerators and packaged foods … so I asked them! And their responses were fascinating as you’ll see for yourself.

My lovely grandparents preparing food in the kitchen on the day of my engagement in 2008

Tell me about the food you had growing up. Was it different from what you find today in the supermarket? Where was it sold?

Gedo (“grandpa” in colloquial Egyptian Arabic): I lived in Cairo (Masr el Gedeeda) all my life, so I never had access to a farm directly, but still, the food fifty or sixty years ago was significantly fresher than it is today. For example, until I was about 10 years old, fresh bread from the bakery would be dropped off at our door every day – both baguettes (‘eish fino) and whole-wheat pita bread (‘eish balady). We would choose the loaves right from our doorstep.

We also didn’t have a supermarket like the kinds we have today. There were mostly smaller stores, called dakakeen (dokkan is the singular). They sold much smaller-sized items there than the bulk items you get today – for example, we’d buy only a ¼ kilo (kilogram) of cheese or an eighth kilo of mortadella every day. For produce, we’d send the housemaid or doorman (bawwab) to buy enough seasonal fruits and veggies for the day. The only things I’d buy myself were the meats because I usually liked to choose them myself. At the butcher shop, chickens, ducks, geese, pigeons and rabbits would be alive on display in cages. I’d pick the ones I want, and the butcher would slaughter them and clean them right then and there. Every food was bought for consumption on the same day, or at the latest by the next day – as they say in Arabic: “El youm be youmo” – or “Each day for itself”. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t buy more because without a modern fridge back then, food wouldn’t keep for more than a day or two.

Teta (“grandma”): Growing up, I lived in Stanley, Alexandria on an elevated area, where no frail wooden produce carts would be able to push up the hill – these were common at the time and prevalent in the city. With the exception of the guava guy, who resiliently pushed his cart up the hill daily, we would buy all the produce, meats, dairy and bakery items from the nearby downtown center (el balad). My dad, who was the principal of an American school downtown, would bring with him the food daily in a car that we had bought used from an Englishman who was leaving Egypt. The car had a manivela to start the motor – imagine how that worked! Since we were farther away from the market, we would buy what we could in bulk – the items that don’t spoil, such as farmers’ eggs, dates, watermelons, butter to make ghee (samna balady), and feta cheese (brought to the city from Malaawy in Upper Egypt).

Old World Market: Feta Cheese - History, Facts and Cooking Tips ...
Fresh feta cheese

I remember distinctly when we’d buy the eggs on the way home from school with dad – we’d get them a hundred at a time, and hang them in a wire basket from the dish rack in the kitchen to keep them aired. My siblings and I would take turns carrying the large paper bag padded with hay (‘ash) on the bottom to prevent the eggs from breaking during the bumpy car ride. Still, a dozen or so would break, and my dad would ask the guy to add more ‘ash next time. Not only did the farmer add the padding with no questions asked; he’d also add in another twenty eggs for free, just as insurance in case some of our eggs break. This kind of service no longer exists in Egypt! The price of the 120 eggs? 1 reyal. Today, one egg costs 1 genei (1 Egyptian pound – close to 0.15-0.20 USD)This means that 1 genei could have bought 600 eggs back then! (laughs)

My grandparents on their wedding day

So, back then you had no fridge at all, huh? How did you store vegetables and leftovers before you bought a fridge?

Gedo: Until 1948 or 1950, no one had a modern electric refrigerator. Instead, each family had a small container that they’d fill with ice logs to keep the food bought each day cold and fresh. Each ice log (loah talg) was 1 meter x 30 cm x 30 cm, and each family would buy a fourth of a log each day. Factories built for the sole purpose of manufacturing these ice logs and selling them door-to-door were obviously popular. Butchers and other deli shops selling cheese and cold cuts would also need to purchase these ice logs to keep their food cold for the day, but they’d purchase maybe ten at a time. Still, the stores couldn’t store food for more than a couple of days at most because the ice would melt and the food couldn’t remain fresh. So, there was a guarantee back then that the food we bought each day was fresh. There wasn’t any mechanism to keep it sitting for that long in the store! In terms of leftovers, we’d only make food enough for the day – so we’d rarely have a lot of leftovers. The small ice logs would keep a couple of items relatively cool overnight in case we did have some uneaten food from dinnertime. Of course, when fridges became available, the shelf life of the foods got longer, and by the same token, less fresh. Nowadays, we rely on the fridge and freezer to preserve our food for days and weeks at a time.

Blocks of ice before refrigeration

I like that fresh food was a guarantee back then. Do you miss that?

Gedo: There’s nothing like the food we had growing up. Everything was bought fresh each day – an eighth of a kilo of cheese and deli meats would be bought in the morning and made into lunch sandwiches for the day. The produce would be bought from the market, washed, cut and cooked on the same day. Same with the meats – the chicken would be slaughtered, cleaned, cooked and eaten all on the same day. You can’t beat the flavor and freshness of food that’s prepared and cooked from scratch. Modernization may have made certain things more convenient, but it also compromised the food system – most produce today doesn’t have the strong flavor of yesteryear. The genetic modification (GMO) of fruits and vegetables has destroyed both the taste and the nutritional content.

Teta:  To demonstrate how fresh everything was – even the tomato paste used in cooking most produce was made fresh daily by squeezing tomatoes through a strainer! Of course the flavor is unbeatable, but the process was laborious compared to opening a can of tomato paste today. We still try to make food from scratch as much as we can daily, but the quality of the food just isn’t the same as before. And with the wide availability of frozen vegetables, it’s sometimes hard to justify buying the molokhia leaves uncut and unwashed and manually preparing them myself, especially at our older age. Even so, as much as possible, we try to buy the least processed and freshest produce, bread, and meats that we can find.

What were your favorite foods growing up?

Teta: Stuffed grape leaves (wara’ el ‘enab) and molokheya for sure. Also because I grew up in Alexandria, I love seafood, and we’d have fish frequently growing up – every Saturday to be exact. We frequently ate samak bolty (wild-caught tilapia fish). For dessert, I love fresh fruit, mostly ripe mangoes.

Gedo: A few of my favorite traditional foods include macarona ‘aleb (a pasta dish made with ground beef, eggs, clarified butter, and toasted breadcrumbs), ro’aa’ (a pastry similar to filo dough brushed with samna (clarified butter) in between layers and filled with ground beef and sautéed onions), molokheyaand wara’ el ‘enab (stuffed grape leaves). I also really like bitingan abyad mahshi (stuffed white eggplants) and pigeon (hamam) stuffed with fereek (toasted cracked wheat cooked with broth). For dessert, watermelons and grapes are favorites in the summer and oranges are great in the winter. Mangoes are delicious too, but not to be eaten every day.

Gedo cutting turkey breast in preparation of my engagement party in July 2008

What are Egyptian meals like? What would you say are the quintessential Egyptian ingredients that were found in every traditional Egyptian kitchen?

Gedo: An Egyptian breakfast often includes ful medammes (fava beans), eggs, fresh cheese, olives, and deli meats. In Egypt, lunchtime – usually at 3 or 4 pm – is the big meal, the equivalent of the American 6 or 7 PM dinner. It’s the main meal of the day. Generally, on non-feast days, lunch would consist of cooked seasonal vegetables, rice, and a meat or chicken, with a side salad. Many people take a siesta afterward. Some have supper later in the evening between 8-10 PM, usually including tea or another hot drink with something sweet or a fruit. Growing up, supper often consisted of leftovers from dinnertime, because we’d try to finish most of the food before the end of the day lest it goes bad. Today’s fridge affords us a little more variety though!

Teta & Gedo: We’d say that samna baladi (farmers’ ghee or clarified butter) is most definitely the quintessential Egyptian ingredient, and distinguishes our cooking. Even through the phase when imitation ghee, or hydrogenated oil, was touted for supposed health benefits over samna, we never believed the hype! We’ve been using our trusted samna all along, and today’s scientists and educated people are coming back to denounce the claims that artificial fats are good for us. They’re starting to come back to telling people to embrace natural fats like samna (clarified butter). Other popular ingredients in an Egyptian kitchen include boharaat (spice mix made with 7-8 spices including cinnamon and coriander), misteka (Arabic gum), and habbahaan (cardamom). All tabeekh (cooking) would include one or more of these spices, and all would include a good amount of samna for flavor.

Making clarified butter, or samna balady, an Egyptian staple used in all cooking

Any questions for my grandparents?

As much as I would have loved to chat with my grandparents in person, they still live in Egypt, so the phone had to suffice. Our conversation lasted over an hour and half, and I was excited to learn about their simpler way of life growing up. As much as I can, I will try to emulate the traditional preparation methods of cooking (even though it may take a little longer to prepare), and will try to buy smaller quantities to make fresh every day or every couple of days. One of my passions in life is to keep the tradition going. So I plan on keeping it up as long as I can.

If anyone has questions for my grandparents, I can give them a call soon to follow up. Please post your questions in the comments section below and I’ll get back to you when I ask them the questions. Merci!

20 Comments

  1. What a wonderful post and written with such love. It’s a great insight into how people valued every morsel of food then and I feel quite ashamed at the way we throw things away without thnking now. Please tell your grandparents how much it is appreciated that they have shared this and thank you for taking the time and trouble also through your blog. Really excellent. PS Sutffed vine leaves are one of my favourites too.

    • Thanks so much for your kind comment, Sally. I am fortunate that I had the opportunity to chat with them and get so much insight about their way of life. I’m making adjustments in my own way of life based on just that conversation! Thanks again. I’ll relay to them the enthusiasm that you and others shared about their experience. Oh, and I’ll be sure to upload a stuffed vine leaves recipe to midEATS soon!!

  2. Heba, what a fabulous story. this is how It should be today. There would be less I’ll health, less and fewer broken families. I vote we go back to the days of old.

    • Thanks so much Edwina! I agree with you … things were simpler back then. It may have taken more time to make a meal from scratch, but it was tastier, fresher and more nutritious. I’m trying to have the same appreciation for food that they had back then – as with everything, it’s a habit that needs to grow 🙂

  3. Well, great post. I would love to know what is Mortadella that everyone pre-1950 refers to. Any clue what does it consist of? and why has it disappeared from Egyptian grocery stores?. also is there something that your grand parents used to buy back then but has disappeared by time? is everything that they used to buy then can be bought now or are there things that because of the large supermarkets and all did not make it to 2011? thanks

    • Thanks Marwa! I think mortadella pre-1950 is made out of pork (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mortadella). After that a lot of demand increased for halal mortadella, so it’s now made with chicken, beef, or turkey and called luncheon. I think there’s no more safe pork available in Egypt, so ‘mortadella’ in the traditional sense has virtually disappeared from store shelves, and almost entirely replaced by luncheon. Nowadays I don’t eat either anymore because they’re very processed/preserved, and the quality of the meat is often very questionable. To answer your second question, I will have to ask my grandparents specifically, but in general, a lot of the ‘fresh’ food has turned into packaged, processed, or genetically engineered food. So that would be the major difference between food now and food when my grandparents were growing up. Today, if you want to eat safer food, you would have to buy premium ‘organic’ produce, dairy and meats – back then, ALL food was organic by definition. That, to me, is a major difference and a travesty in our food supply all over the world (unfortunately). But we do the best we can by buying at least the freshest, least processed foods we can find today!

  4. I loved reading this post! This post was so nostaglic! I loved the photos! I shared this post with my parents and they loved it too:)

    • Thank you Debby! 🙂 That’s very sweet of you. I want to interview my other grandma and Sherif’s grandma too and write about the food they had growing up.

  5. Hi Heba. Love your blog and this interview.
    Today I made the stuffed zucchini and turned out delicious! Thanks a billion, I am not a cook and cooking is not in my DNA at all so I really appreciate the help I get from food bloggers. There something very Egyptian that I would like to make. The pickled lemons. In NYC I used to buy the Queen brand but since I moved I never found them again. The other brands have so many preservatives, the taste is awful. Would you or you grandparents have a recipe for it? Thanks =)

    • Hi Mariam! Thanks so much for your kind comment 🙂 I’m so glad the stuffed zucchini turned out well for you – it’s one of my favorites! You’re in luck – I actually have a recipe for Egyptian preserved lemons on midEATS. You can find it here. For other recipes, feel free to search our recipe index by going to this section of the site and searching by keyword. If you have any other requests for recipes, feel free to comment or shoot us an email, and we’ll try to get a recipe up for it soon! Hope this helps! 🙂

  6. I am happy to have found this site.
    My husband was born in the Mazarita quarter in Alexandria 81 years ago.
    My husband left Egypt more than 65 years ago yet his love for Egypt has never diminished.
    He constantly speaks of the sweetness of life in Cairo as well as in Alexandria whose beautiful beaches (especially Abu-Kir) he still sees in his dreams.
    Listening to his descriptions of the different types of food he remembers it seems to me that Egypt was paradise on earth.
    Dishes he speaks of fondly are “Khushaf” some sweet fragrant dessert and a sort of cake served with a thick layer of cream whose name was something like “Eysh -el-Seraya”
    Do you have these recipes ?
    I hope to keep on writing about my husband and his family who in the early 1930 owned one of the first filmmaking studios (cartoons) in Egypt and were the creators of the “Mishmish Effendi” cartoon character.
    Until then keep well.
    Sally

    • Sally – Brenda here. We also have a recipe for khushaf on our site, but it is made of dried fruit. If you continue to poke around our site, I think you will find a lot of old recipes that your husband will enjoy 🙂

  7. Thank you for a beautifully illustrated Past. You have brought tears to my eyes, describing almost my childhood in Shoubra Cairo, which I left some 50 years ago?? Now I am in my mid sixties and have not seen Egypt for more than 40 years except on T.V. Thanks for a beautiful memories.

    • So happy you enjoyed the post and thanks so much for your kind comment! I hope you get to visit Egypt again soon 🙂 All the best to you and yours.

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