From the land of pyramids, pharaohs, and papyrus, we bring you a look at Egyptian culture past and present. Grab a cup of mint tea, fire up the hookah, crack open a novel by Naguib Mahfouz, play some songs by Abdel Halim Hafez, or put on a movie starring Omar Sharif and join us while we share recipes, music, jokes, videos, and current events from Egypt.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Thursday Thirteen: Herbs & Spices in Every Egyptian Kitchen

See what others are writing about this Thursday or play along.

Today's Scribe:

Besides the usual garlic, onion, salt and pepper that seem to be found in kitchens the world over, no Egyptian kitchen can be without these herbs and spices:

1. Cumin, after salt and pepper, is the most commonly used spice in Egyptian cuisine. Honestly, I had never even heard of it until I married Ali; now I can't imagine having a spice cupboard that doesn't have a very large jar of cumin in it! Of course it makes sense that this spice would be used so often in Egyptian food considering that it comes from a plant that is native to Upper Egypt!

2. Coriander grows wild in Egypt and was probably a part of the staple diet of the ancient Egyptians before its seeds were ground and became a staple in the spice cupboards of modern Egyptians. In addition to being used for cooking in both seed and ground forms, coriander is eaten in its raw, green form.

3. Dill is my personal favorite of all the herbs and spices on this list. Over the years, I have found that adding it to old-time family favorites like potato and macaroni salads only makes them taste gazillions of times better! To make the best Egyptian style stuffed grape leaves, lots of fresh dill is a must.

4. Chili Peppers, whether fresh, dry, crushed, chopped, or grated, make up an integral ingredient in several Egyptian dishes. And if the chili isn't cooked into the food, it is served as a condiment. Green chilis are the most commonly used type, but red can be found in Egyptian markets as well. The average Egyptian loves hot and spicy food!

5. Saffron, the world's most expensive spice, is not used as often in Egyptian cuisine as it is in the foods from the Arabian Peninsula or Iran. Still, it belongs in the Egyptian kitchen where it is added to rice and pickled lemons to give it a beautiful vibrant yellow color.

6. Bay Leaf is used to flavor soups along with habahan (cardamom in English). During Ramadan, a 30 day period of fasting from sunrise until sunset, it is customary to begin the first meal of the day with a bowl of soup.  And that bowl of soup will most likely have been made with meat and flavored with bay leaf.

7. Cilantro is every bit as as common in the Egyptian kitchen as parsley, and it is rare to find one that doesn't have one or both at all times. Cilantro is used in salads or to provide flavor in cooked dishes such as kofta.  It is also eaten by itself much the same way that raw celery or carrots are eaten in the West.

8. Parsley may be little more than a decorative element in the States, but in Egypt it's used for so much more!  Like cilantro, parsley is a staple in salad and kofta, and it's one of the main ingredients in falafel.  In fact, you could say that without parsely, falafel wouldn't look the same at all because this herb gives that Middle Eastern favorite its characteristic color!

9. Aniseed, that wonderful seed that gives us the taste of licorice, is used in baked goods in Egypt.  The ancient Egyptians used anise for both culinary and medicinal purposes as far back as 1500 BC, and the tradition continues today.  In addition to making delicious baked goods that feature aniseed, Egyptians brew a tea, called Yansoon, from it.

10. Mint, especially fresh, is a must have whenever guests are over.  Egyptians are quite famous for their hospitality, so much so that it is nearly impossible to escape an Egyptian household without drinking at least one cup of tea.  Fresh mint leaves are offered with the tea and if the guest likes, shay-bil-nana or tea steeped with mint, is served.  It is customary for guests to eat something, too, even if it's just a cookie or two.  

11. Cardamom is another expensive spice and one that I haven't really learned to appreciate very much.  It is quite pungent with an easily recognized taste that Egyptians use to flavor soups with.  Saudis grind the seeds and make a coffee with it.  In any case, cardamom is very much an acquired taste.

12. Cinnamon has been known in Egypt for centuries and was even used in the embalming process when mummies were prepared for burial.  It was quite an expensive spice back in the day, though, so it was used quite sparingly.  In modern day Egypt, cinnamon is still used sparingly as a baking spice as well as way to give added flavor to meat dishes.

13. Nigella is another spice that I had never heard of until I married an Egyptian, and I have to confess that it's one I still haven't tasted.  You see these little "black seeds" as they are called in Egypt are used primarily in pickled dishes, and Egyptians pickle just about everything you can think of, including lemons!  Lucky for me, and you, the Amazing Egyptian Dude recently made a HUGE batch of pickled lemons, several jars of which are currently "curing" around the house.  I snapped a picture so that you could see both nigella and saffron in action. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Revolutionary Tourist

Today's Scribe:

While the Amazing Egyptian Dude stayed home to run the business and feed my cats, I spent December and January in Egypt.  In spite of the doom and gloom news reports that permeate the media here in the States, I can honestly say that had I not watched the evening news in Cairo, I would have never known that the revolution was an on going thing.  Crazy drivers in unbelievable city traffic made me feel a heck of lot less safe than any would-be revolutionaries!

With tourism making up a significant portion of Egypt's currently crippled economy, I was thrilled to learn that the AED helped to boost it just a bit by arranging a Nile cruise for me and my niece, Basma, who was my travel companion on the trip.  Not only did we get to cruise down the Nile, we also had a private tour guide to show us all of the sights along the way!  Luxor and Aswan are definite must see destinations for anyone who visits Egypt, but plan to spend some extra time in Aswan as it is by far the more charming city of the two.  

One of the highlights of the trip was watching my nephew blossom into a photographer par excellence.  Ahmed bought a new high tech camera while I was in Cairo and with an incredible eye for detail, began producing some breathtaking photos like this one:

This is the oldest street in Cairo, and it also happens to be the one where Ali's family still lives.  It's still my very favorite place in all of Egypt.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Small World Saturday: Papyrus, Egypt's Gift to the World

This blog is about everything Egyptian and although Egypt’s history is long and her culture fascinating, she is but one nation in this world of ours that grows smaller with each day. Every Saturday, we’ll post a theme. Participants will post a picture, story, song, poem, recipe, craft project, piece of art – anything, really – that tells us something about your city/town, state/province, or country for that week's topic. Our hope is that through this weekly meme, we’ll learn more about our countries and cultures.

This week's theme is PLANTS, so tell us something about how plants, crops, trees, flowers are used or any special meanings they may have in your part of the world.

Next week's theme: PROVERBS

Here are the rules:

1. Please keep your posts family friendly.

2. Enter the link to your specific Small World Saturday post ONLY in Mr. Linky, as this makes it easier for us all to find the posts.

3. We reserve the right to remove any links that are not from Small World Saturday participants and are not linked directly to the weekly post.

Today's Scribe:
Let's face it, most people don't think of plants and greenery when they think of Egypt.  That's understandable considering that the overwhelming majority of the country is surrounded by the shifting sands of the Sahara Desert; however, as a satellite image of Egypt reveals, not only does a river run though it but that river takes the shape of a flower!  Thanks to the Nile River, Egypt has lots of plant life (about 2075 native species, in fact).  One plant stands out above all the others because it became the very foundation on which Egypt's rich history was recorded.

Those clever ancient Egyptians found a way to turn the papyrus, a beautiful plant that grows along the banks of the Nile River, into a paper product that has withstood the test of time.  It's hard to imagine any other plant playing as important a role in shaping Egypt into the country that we all know today.  In fact, if it weren't for papyrus, we wouldn't know nearly as much about the development and history of Egypt as we do because so much of it was recorded on scrolls of papyrus paper!

As useful as it was for making paper, papyrus was also used to make the boats that carried workmen up and down the Nile collecting the plant.  These portable lightweight boats made maneuvering through the marshes easy and efficient.  Sails made of, you guessed it, woven papyrus reeds were used on wooden boats, and papyrus pulp was used as caulking between the planks. What versatility!

Much of what we know about life in the ancient Mediterranean world comes from papyrus.  Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used it to record the events that shaped their civilizations.  This portable writing medium made it possible to record everything from treaties to medical treatments.  Did you know that a urine-based pregnancy test used in ancient Egypt was found on a papyrus?

A papyrus described a test in which a woman who might be pregnant could urinate on wheat and barley seeds over the course of several days: “If the barley grows, it means a male child. If the wheat grows, it means a female child. If both do not grow, she will not bear at all.” Testing of this theory in 1963 found that 70 percent of the time, the urine of pregnant women did promote growth, while the urine of non-pregnant women and men did not. Scholars have identified this as perhaps the first test to detect a unique substance in the urine of pregnant women, and have speculated that elevated levels of estrogens in pregnant women’s urine may have been the key to its success.  (Source)

Flowers and trees fill gardens and line streets in Egypt; wadis and oases are surrounded by greenery; crops grow on farms all along the banks of the Nile.  And while each of them has a role in Egyptian life, none is as important to the culture and history of Egypt or as versatile in terms of its use as the papyrus.  If Egypt is the gift of the Nile, then surely the papyrus plant is Egypt's gift to the world!  

Friday, May 11, 2012

A Presidential Debate: Egypt Scores Another First!

Today's Scribe:

Presidential debates aren't such a big deal to the average American.  Every election cycle the airwaves of America are jammed with the candidates facing off against one another as they first try to win their party's nomination and then lay claim to the big desk in the Oval Office.  We take a free election for granted because it's the norm in America.  For the most part, Egyptians have taken presidential elections for granted, too, but for a vastly different reason -- they  have never, not even once, been free.  But all of that is about to change as Egypt scored another historical first for the Middle East -- a live, televised debate between two presidential hopefuls.

For the average Egyptian, elections have always been a joke.  The cartoon above is the perfect example of what I mean.  It shows the election results for the ruling party, then and now (now being the last time Mubarak "won").  Beginning with Anwar Sadat, the ruling party has always won by a 99.9% landslide vote.  Under "pressure" from the Bush administration in 2005, the winning percentage drops to 66.6% -- not quite a landslide yet enough to maintain a stranglehold on the country.  Maybe someone finally figured out that dead people don't vote and just removed those ballots from the boxes?  Not likely.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Thursday Thirteen

See what others are writing about this Thursday or play along.

Today's Scribe:

13 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Egypt, Then and Now

1.  Egypt’s most successful Olympic Games was in London in 1948. They won 2 gold medals, 2 silver medals and 1 bronze medal.  (Source:  Olympic Records)

2.  Sadly, Egypt's pyramids are the only remaining Ancient Wonders of the World.  They have been given an honorary place on the list of new Wonders of the World.

3.  In Egypt, Sunday is the first day of the week with Friday and Saturday being the weekend.

4.  Ancient Egyptians considered cats to be sacred animals, and that included pet cats.  When a pet cat died, the entire family shaved their eyebrows as a sign of mourning.

5. The first international peace treaty was both made and recorded by the Egyptians.  Ramses II of Egypt and Hattusii III of the Hittite Empire were the signatories to the treaty.  Amazingly, both copies of the treaty -- the one written in Egyptian as well as the one written in Akkadian (the language of the Hittites) -- still exist!

6.  Tea is the beverage of choice in Egypt, and Egyptians drink hot tea from glasses, not cups!

7.  Although she was the last in a long line of pharaohs, Cleopatra wasn't even Egyptian!  She was a Macedonian Greek descended from Ptolemy I, Alexander the Great's general who became the king of Egypt after Alexander died.

8.  Cairo is home to the oldest university in the world.  Not only is Al Azhar the oldest university, it is the oldest university that is still operational.

9.  Contrary to popular belief, excavated skeletons show that the pyramid builders were actually Egyptians who were most likely in the permanent employ of the pharaoh. Graffiti indicates that at least some of these workers took pride in their work, calling their teams “Friends of Khufu,” “Drunkards of Menkaure,” and so on—names indicating allegiances to pharaohs.

10.  Egypt's cell phone market increases by an average of one million (1,000,000) users per month!

11.  We can thank the ancient Egyptians for a calender made up of 12 months and 365 days, as well as a day made of 24 hours.

12.  Education from kindergarten through university is free in Egypt.

13.  Central Park is home to a Cleopatra's Needle, one of three ancient obelisks stolen from Egypt in the late 19th century and deposited in London, Paris, and New York City.  Of the three stolen monuments, the one in Paris is in the best condition while the one in NYC is in the worst.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Happy Birthday, Howard Carter

Today's Scribe:

Imagine my surprise when, upon opening Google last night, I was greeted with the image of a man gazing at what was obviously a room filled with treasures from ancient Egypt.  Excited, I waved the Amazing Egyptian Dude in the direction of the screen so that he could see my discovery.  

"Google loves Egypt!" I exclaimed as he squinted and leaned forward to see more clearly.  As he pushed forward, he jostled the mouse just enough to move the pointer so that it hovered over the image.  The image text mentioned something about Howard Carter's 138th birthday, which burst my bubble ever so slightly.  Ok, so Google doesn't exactly love Egypt like we love Egypt, but what the heck -- Google is honoring her history with a graphic on the opening page.  Works for us!  

In honor of the man who uncovered King Tut's magical mystery tomb, we say,

Happy birthday, Howard Carter!