Ah the sweet smell of spring is kind of, almost, in the air. At least on this side of the world. Back in Egypt, they have finished celebrating the Sham el-Nessim festival. This year, that holiday was today, on April 25th, 2011. It is a holiday that literally translates into ‘smelling of the breeze’; the new spring air, and it is one that has no origin in either Christianity or Islam. Therefore it is celebrated by all Egyptians on this day. It’s a day when families get together and picnic outside, stroll by the zoo and generally do whatever they can do stay outside and take in the changing of the season.
It is a festival that can be traced back from nearly 4500 years ago when the Ancient Egyptians would celebrate the warm winds returning which would signal a new growing season. It was known then as ‘Shamo’, meaning a renwal of life. The date of the festival would vary each year and it would be announced the night before at the foot of the great pyramid, when the day of feasting would begin.
The festival was celebrated through certain foods that were either eaten or offered to the gods to ensure a good harvest would be had that year. Salted fish (fiseekh), coloured eggs, termis (lupin beans), lettuce and green onions are all the major foods that are still in practice to this day.
Fiseekh is a salted a fish whose recipe is handed down from generation to generation. When the Nile waters would fluctuate by season (pre-Aswan dam), fish would be in abundance a few weeks prior to the festival and thus easier to catch. They would then be dried in the sun, and then salted awaiting the day of the festival to be eaten. According to my parents, the fish are notoriously smelly and really are far from a treat to be eaten. Further to that is the problem of botulism if the fish are not properly dried. Apparently this festival has led to people getting poisoned from the smelly fish. One article I read quoted a lady using canned tuna as a healthier alternative.
Lupin beans and lettuce are harvested just at the end of winter and early spring. They are believed to represent the hopefulness that comes with the spring. Many households may grow a little pot of beans and/or lettuce in anticipation of this holiday.
The pharaohs believed eggs represented a regeneration of life. Thus they were boiled and coloured, and then hung in temples. The tradition of colouring eggs seeped into the Christian celebration of Easter, and seems to be going strong today, and world wide it would seem.
The use of onions (green onions), apparently comes from the belief that they ward off the evil eye and prevent envy. The story behind this belief comes from one of the pharaohs in the 6th Dynasty whose only son was loved by the people, but was ill for many years. One day, a doctor prescribed slicing an onion and putting it under the boy’s nose so he would breathe in the vapors. The prince soon recovered and the people were so happy to hear of this news that as a gesture to honour the king, onions were hung over the doors of their houses.
Following the Ancient Egyptians, the Coptics continued this tradition as the festival often falls on or near Easter. Hence many of the traditions associated with Easter in Egypt stem from the celebration of Shem el Nessim. In fact, after many years, the official date of Sham el Nessim is now the day after Coptic Easter.
One such tradition that has fused both Shem el Nessim and Easter is the baking of Armenian Choreg, a very indulgent and sweet bread. Many countries bake a very rich and sweet bread following the end of lent to mark Easter. The growing Armenian community in Egypt since the early 19th century brought many of their culinary traditions to the country. Their easter bread, or Choreg as it is known (or brioche), is one such contribution to Egyptian culture.
My maternal grandmother, whom I never got to meet, was known to be an exceptional cook and baker according to my mother. With the coming of Sham el Nessim, she would whip out her Choreg recipe and bake this bread. She would braid it and bake it with the coloured eggs in keeping with the spring festival traditions. The interesting thing is that my mother’s side of the family does not celebrate Easter; but the Aremeninan influence in Egyptian culture has become so ingrained that many households have incorporated different traditions into their own. And this is one bread everyone should have a chance to taste at least once.
The secret ingredient in this bread’s flavour is the mahleb; the ground sour cherry pit that was also used in making the kahk cookies.
So in addition to the salted fish, onions, beans, lettuce and coloured eggs, this bread has also woven a place into celebrating both Easter and Sham el Nessim. It’s a bread that requires a bit of patience to make, but once you smell it baking in your home, and you take that first bite; you’ll think twice before you share it with others…
Total preparation time: 3.5 hours
Total baking time: 20-30 minutes
Yield: 1 large loaf or three small loaves (minimum 8 persons)
2 packages dry yeast (each package 8g/1/4 oz)
1/2 cup warm water
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons of flour
1 1/4 cups + 1 teaspoon white sugar
8 tablespoons butter (room temperature)
3 tablespoons vegetable shortening
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
5 large eggs
2 tablespoons ground mahleb
7 cups all purpose flour
3/4 cup warm milk
2 egg yolks whisked
1. Add the yeast mixture to a bowl and mix until all ingredients have dissolved.
2. Allow it to stand for about 10 minutes until it has completely foamed.
8. Use your hands to mix the dough properly.
9. On a floured surface, get the dough out of the bowl and begin kneading.
10. You need to knead the dough until it feels a little springy; kneading it for about 10 minutes should do the trick.
11. Grab a big bowl (try to find one that is non-metal) and grease it with vegetable or olive oil.
12. Form the dough into a big ball and place it into the bowl.
13. Make sure the dough rolls around in the bowl so it is greased all over.
14. Place a kitchen cloth on the dough ball in the bowl.
15. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap.
16. Leave the bowl in the oven (oven is not on at this point).
17. Allow it to rise for at least three hours. If you let it rise longer, it’s ok too.
18. After three hours, check on the dough.
19. If it has risen, punch it down and let it rise again for another 10 minutes.
20. Take the dough out of the bowl.
21. Now you can preheat the oven to 350F.
23. If you don’t want to braid the dough, you can section it however you would like. Some people do mini-rolls, others may just do a loaf.
24. Line an oven tray with parchment paper or silicone sheet and place the bread on it.
25. Glaze the bread with the egg yolks.
26. Put in the oven (not the bottom rack) and leave it for about 15 – 20 minutes; but do keep an eye on it.
27. The bread is done when it is golden in colour but still bouncy in touch.
28. Take out and enjoy with a bit of butter and some jam. Or just a slice on its own!