By Annick Dournes & Frederick De Poligny
Dining With The Stonecutters. What do “real” people have for breakfast in Egypt? Far from our usual cereals, bread, butter, and jam we recently had the chance to try this Oriental way to start the day… and loved it!
In Egypt tourists seldom has the opportunity to eat authentic local food. Cruise ships and hotel managers are so afraid of a gastroenteritis outbreak -also called turista- that they carefully avoid serving local food to tourists.
To be honest, there are also many tourists reluctant to taste Egyptian food thinking they are unsafe or too spicy.
Whatever the reason, it makes it difficult for a foreigner to have an authentic Egyptian meal. We were on our way to visit the Valley of the Kings on the western bank of the Nile close to Luxor when our guide proposed we make a detour and go to a craftsman village.
When he told us that we would be able to have breakfast with stonecutters we jumped at the chance.
Deir-el-Medina also known as the Craftsmen Valley, close to the Valleys of Kings and Queens, exists since Antiquity. At that time they built and decorated the tombs of the Pharaohs, Queens, and noblemen and were called the “Servants of the Place of Truth”.
Today this village is a major excavation site and has been emptied of all its inhabitants. But a new village has been built close by and the craftsmen have been able to carry on their activities and preserve their immemorial know-how. Now they serve tourists instead of pharaohs!
Man using pick to shape stone
We stopped at a workshop funnily called “Opera Aida for Alabaster”, an unlikely reference to Verdi’s opera… Here stonecutters use alabaster and flint to make antique styles statues and their shop is filled with representations of ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses such as Horus, Bastet, Khnum, Isis, and Anubis… They gave us a demonstration of their work that is still pretty basic, using simple tools.
Hard to know if every item in the shop has been crafted this way… or do they have a modern mechanized workshop hidden from tourists’ eyes?
valley of the kings restaurant
Anyway, we finally were able to have our Egyptian breakfast. It was made of simple hearty hot dishes and we felt hungry just looking at the various plates.
Since local products are favored it was a vegetarian breakfast mainly made with locally grown vegetables and legumes. First comes Aish Baladi the local bread that looks like pita bread.
Like in many oriental countries, bread is used as utensils to scoop food from the plate. This bread has been called Aish – life – Baladi – authentic – since ancient times.
It truly is a cornerstone of Egyptian cuisine and has pride in place on every table in the country. We used it to eat different kinds of dips including full medames made with slowly cooked lentils, olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, herbs, and spices.
There were also full hammam made with fava beans, amazing falafel – here called ta’ameya – and fresh cheese. We also had an egg which is an egg dish halfway between a thick omelet and fried scrambled eggs.
Thanks to the herbs and spices including cumin, cinnamon, coriander, cloves, parsley, bay leaves, or dill, everything was delicious and tasty. We ended our breakfast by dipping pieces of bread into a large bowl of honey out of pure gourmandize!
Last but not least turista didn’t strike and we have only good memories of
this unusual breakfast!
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny
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