Egypt’s Nubian culinary tradition is little known
Aswan - Nubian cuisine, little known to fellow Egyptians living further north in the Nile valley and delta, is made up of an astonishing variety of traditional dishes.
Egypt’s Nubians are experts in pairing nature with taste. Agriculture along the narrow strip of the Nile valley provided them with the necessary food supply. Barley, sorghum and wheat were the most commonly cultivated crops and, accordingly, bread is perhaps the most widely produced food item as best attested in the bakeries and ovens of Kerma, one of the largest archaeological sites in ancient Nubia.
Start with corn flour, mix it with water and plop it into a casserole dish before the paste is spread on a mud hearth. The dough is baked until the edges crisp, the top turns golden and the centre collapses into a molten mass to create what is commonly known among Nubians as kabed, a refined and extremely delicious bread.
The ancient recipe, passed on through generations of Nubians, can be upgraded by adding yeast before baking. The tasty bread is widely eaten by Nubians, either as a dessert with milk and honey or with main courses of vegetables and meat.
“Most Nubians eat what they grow in their farms or along the banks of the Nile,” said Moheieddin Saleh, an expert in Nubian heritage and culture. “They have managed to develop their own distinct cuisine from the things available in the local environment.”
This cuisine is part of the Nubians’ seemingly dying culture. The mouth-watering dishes are cooked today only in the homes of the few Nubians who live in southernmost Egypt or in New Nubia, an artificial amalgam of houses and villages also in southern Egypt, where Nubians were resettled after being evacuated from what is now the site of Egypt’s High Dam in the early 1960s.
Most “Nubians in the diaspora”, as some describe the people who were forced to leave their homes and settle in other parts of Egypt, no longer cook the traditional dishes.
“They found themselves compelled to change their diet and adapt to eating the food that the people around them in their new settings eat,” said Hamad Gabir, another Nubian heritage and culture expert. “But sadly enough, this is destroying the Nubian culinary culture.”
However, in their own communities, Nubians dig deep flavours out of plants they grow on the banks of the Nile or in the backyard of their homes. They use okra, courgettes, spinach, peas, beans and carrots to create the most magnificent of dishes.
Although most of these vegetables are used in other Egyptian cooking, “Nubians have incorporated their own particular herbs and spices, which they grow in their local environment, making their food totally different from other Egyptian dishes at the end of the day,” Gabir said.
One of Nubians’ most interesting dishes is made of camel liver.
Raw camel liver is chopped into small pieces to which slivered onions marinated in vinegar are added. The ingredients are then blended with chili sauce, cumin and coriander. The mixture is eaten raw. The dish is widespread among Nubians who say it has nutritious and beneficial effects.
Nubians also use meat, chicken and fish — usually salty fish — to cook dishes passed from one generation to another to preserve their culinary culture.
In making their aromatic dishes, Nubians use simple and primitive tools, ones commensurate with their austere surroundings and the few resources the local environment offers.
Most Nubian kitchens are equipped with a traditional mud hearth for cooking, trays, bowels and dishes, some of which are made of mud and others of glass and, above all, clay water coolers.
With the help of Nubian intellectuals, Saleh has been trying to document Nubian cuisine and culinary culture by collecting information about the different dishes and the ways they are cooked.
He says the culinary culture of the Nubians of Egypt has been affected by Nubian tribes in northern Sudan, Kenya and Uganda.
“We are talking about one whole Nubian culture here, even as Nubian tribes lived separately in a number of countries,” Saleh said. “The most important thing now is to protect this culinary culture from dying.”
Nubian cuisine and some of its recipes date back 5,000 years and archaeologists have found the use of food as a means of payment during ancient times. Of course, there have been adjustments to the dishes over the years, mainly with the addition of ingredients and styles from other cultures