I’m starting to believe that the Egyptians (and perhaps all Middle Eastern countries, though I’m uncertain) might have a superior approach to dining compared to us in the West. In western homes, when we typically sit down to a meal, each person has their own individual plate. Have you ever pondered how much wasted, uneaten food is generated by this practice? Moreover, we are all used to hearing children being admonished to “finish your dinner!” and don’t we remember being told that almost daily ourselves?
My four and seven-year-old grandchildren adore having lunch with me when I am in Ireland for one simple reason: I set the table with an array of lunch items and allow them to pick what they want. It might seem trivial, but they absolutely love it!
In Egypt, they adopt a different dining style. They place several dishes in the center of the table; everyone sits down, and each person helps themselves from the huge tray, using pieces of flatbread resembling pitta bread to scoop up the food. I can almost see some noses wrinkling at the thought! But hold on, there’s an art to using the bread—your fingers aren’t supposed to touch the food in the bowl, nor are they supposed to touch your mouth when you’re transferring the food.
I’ve witnessed children as young as two in Egypt being taught this etiquette by their parents and siblings. Besides eliminating food waste, serving meals in this manner has two additional benefits. First, for the Egyptian women, there’s no need to ask, “What do you want for dinner?” and no need to make shopping lists because typically the head of the household brings home the freshest fruits, vegetables, and perhaps meat available from the markets or street vendors.
Now, back to the bread: you can still have your own plate, but you can fill it from the communal bowls in smaller portions as you desire, rather than starting with a full plate. These bowls are usually small, akin to soup bowls, and they’re refilled when they’re empty. The critical thing is that they need not be full; the variety of dishes available is vast, and everyone takes only what appeals to them. This system virtually eradicates waste and often leaves enough food for the next meal or the next day. It is quite safe, as what is on the table is usually finished and what is in the pots has not been touched. It’s a brilliant and cost-effective concept!
Imagine a Western dinner served in Egyptian style, with bowls of minced meat and onion, chopped cucumber, tomato, parsley, and sides like boiled, fried, or roasted potatoes and mashed carrot or parsnip. Presented in this Egyptian manner, dinner becomes a feast!
Ok, so forget about the bread if double-dipping contamination worries you. We can all still have our own plate, but fill it from the bowls in small portions as we want it instead of starting with a full plate. The bowls of food are usually only small soup bowls that are refilled when empty. It is not important that the bowls are full; there is variety; anything that is in the kitchen is on the table; everyone only takes what they want; there is no waste; and there is usually food left for the next meal or the next day, which is quite safe as no hands have touched it. Great idea, and cheap! A western dinner served Egyptian style could include a bowl of minced meat and onion, a bowl of chopped cucumber, tomato, and parsley, a bowl of boiled, fried, or roasted potatoes, and a bowl of boiled, mashed carrot or parsnip. Served Egyptian style, dinner becomes a feast!
When we serve the Salahadeen Feast at Mara House in Luxor to our guests, I’ve noticed that children particularly enjoy it. I can’t quite tell if it’s the delicious food, the thrill of trying a variety of dishes, or the novelty of serving themselves that captivates them. Our feast typically comprises 12 to 15 dishes, including soups, main courses, and desserts, all presented in the Egyptian style on a large central tray per table. This might be slightly more than the average Egyptian family serves for dinner, but we want our guests to savor as much traditional, home-cooked cuisine as possible during their stay with us.
Imagine the fun of a couple of families coming together to enjoy such a meal; it simply requires a bit of cooperation and coordination. It saves money for everyone, fosters togetherness, and injects some fun into life! As for how to eat it, just lay it all out on the table, give everyone a small plate instead of a big dinner plate, and let everyone help themselves as they want. A little bit of everything goes a long way!