Many argue that there isn’t really a true Egyptian cuisine, that we’ve borrowed from so many cultures that we have lost our culinary heritage. But there are things we know for sure: Ancient Egyptians had a few staple sources of nutrition, namely bread, beer, vegetation, particularly onions and garlic, and beans. The beer’s out, but the bread, beans and onions are good starting points. You would be hard pressed to find a modern Egyptian recipe that doesn’t contain onions and garlic, a food that Egyptians will not eat with bread or a way Egyptians haven’t thought to use fava beans.
If you were asked to name 10 foods that are Egyptian through and through, you probably wouldn’t be able to. Koshary, molokheyya, fuul and fiteer is where the list would probably end. The truth is, most of the Egyptian foods we know and love have roots in Ottoman, Greek, Italian and numerous other cultures. Mahshi has roots in Ottoman cuisine, mesaqa’a is the local variant of the Greek moussaka and macarona béchamel is a cross between baked ziti and lasagna.
While colonization can make for great culinary traditions, there is something to be said about eating a dish that couldn’t have possibly come from anywhere else in the world. Most Egyptian foods can be found at street vendors, restaurants or at the very least in the majority of Egyptian homes. But here is a list of truly unique Egyptian foods that you probably haven’t heard of or are unlikely to find in most places, not even mama’s kitchen.
Terfas is what the Bedouins in the Western Desert call terfeziaceae. Still not familiar? These are actually a family of truffles found in arid or semi-arid deserts. Terfas bear no flavor resemblance to European forest truffles, but they are cheaper because they’re more widely available. They are said to be created when lightning strikes the sand they grow under. The Bedouins turn the dense fungi into a stew.
Called Egyptian mallow, this herb is in the same family as the more popular molokheyya. It appears to grow much bigger than molokheyya — as Egyptians frequently say when your grocer is trying to rip you off, he adds khobayza to the molokheyya leaves. The green is used almost exactly like molokheyya, except a few spoons of rice or fireek (green wheat) are added in the cooking to give body, as khobayza does not have the same mucilaginous properties of molokheyya.
The majority of dill found around the globe is imported from Egypt as it grows native here. Dill stems are laid out and wrapped around the traditional rice stuffing before being cooked. The result it what resembles a furry ball of rice. Other notable mahshis you may not have heard of include: turnip leaves, blackberry leaves, onions, lemons and carrots.
Shamsi (sun) bread hails from Upper Egypt and gets its name from the method of proofing. This simple bread of water, flour and salt is kneaded and formed into rounds before rising in the sun for several hours to allow the air’s natural yeasts to cause leavening. The dough is then baked in a clay oven.
With a name that literally means “puffy”, this bread is a staple in many Upper-Egyptian homes. The addition of turmeric gives the simple yeast-leavened dough a bright yellow color. Fayish is shaped into rounds and scored horizontally before baking for a soft and chewy aromatic bread. It can also be baked in rounds then sliced and rebaked for a crisp cookie-like texture. Undoubtedly the Egyptian answer to a savory biscotti, the crispy fayish is traditionally dunked into milky tea.
This is a crisp, round flat bread flavored with pungent fenugreek. The name means “stretched out” due to how large the bread is.
Literally meaning a less-than-polite “shut your mouth,” this sweet dessert is simplicity in itself. A dark roux is made of ghee and flour with sesame seeds before sugar and water is added to make a paste. The thick paste, which is what gives the dish its name since it’s so thick you couldn’t possibly speak while eating it, is formed into oblong shapes using spoons.
Literally sweet zucchini, kosa helwa is something akin to a zucchini pudding. Soft, creamy and a startling green, the pudding has a texture similar to the inside of a pumpkin pie with a caramelized top.
Similar to the more widely know aasaliya, this is a cone of whipped and hardened molasses eaten just like candy. The taste is similar to caramel and the texture is grainy but creamy, unlike the crunchy texture of aasaliya.
With roots in Egypt’s Jewish community, these are eggs that are slowly boiled with onion skins and coffee for up to 12 hours. The result is a non-sulfurous egg with an extremely creamy yolk.
Ancient Egyptians cultivated these sycamore figs almost exclusively, according to some Egyptologists. The tree they grow on was known as the Ancient Egyptian Tree of Life, of which some coffins were crafted. According to Daniel Zohary and Maria Hopf’s Domestication of Plants in the Old World, Egypt was the main area this tree thrived. Today you can find gemayz sold by street-side fruit sellers in random locations. The fig is small, with firmer flesh than a regular fig and a hollow center. It tastes almost nothing like a conventional fig, bearing a taste and textural resemblance to a flavorless peach.