Savouring the sights, smells, and taste of Ramadan in Egypt

5 min read
04 April, 2024

As the sun sets and the sound of the call to prayer echoes, Egyptian households get ready to perform what is probably the most important part of their day, iftar.

As with every Muslim family, the evening meal to break their fast is characterised by the most special kinds of food on the occasion of the holy month of Ramadan. 

Every country has its special traditions, as well as steps in the performance of this meaningful tradition. However, what is pretty much a general rule for the whole Muslim community is to start this ritual with some dates, as Prophet Muhammad would do back in Islam’s early years.

"As the popular Egyptian saying goes, basalat el-mu7eb kharoof — 'an onion shared in love is [as satisfying] as a sheep'"

That is how Azza Hassanein, a 67-year-old Egyptian who lives with her family on the outskirts of Cairo, always starts her iftar.

“In my house, we always start with dates and milk, we drink a bit of water, and we go to perform Maghreb prayers,” she tells The New Arab. “With that boost of energy, we can then pray at ease and come back later to start the first stage of iftar.” 

Nonetheless, she recognises that in addition to the former staple, Ramadan drinks are another common way to break the fasts in Egypt, where many of these beverages have their origin.

Karkade, or hibiscus, is said to be traced back to the time of the ancient Pharaohs; and the first accounts of the coconut-milk sweet bomb sobya are found during the Mamluk era.  

An Egyptian old man starts his iftar by eating dates in water [photo credit: Bianca Carrera]
An Egyptian old man starts his iftar by eating dates in water [photo credit: Bianca Carrera]

“Right after, the first stage of the typical Egyptian iftar usually consists of soup, accompanied by sambousa or any kind of  fatayer,” Azza continues, “and then we eat the main food, any dishes that we usually cook during the year.”

She adds that stuffed vegetables and grape leaves are the most common in Egyptian households.

But the most important part of the iftar is yet to come, Azza tells us: the time of dessert.

Egyptians and Ramadan desserts: a love story

Once hunger has been satisfied and the stress of it evaporates, families come together for dessert, something essential for the majority of Egyptians.

Azza serves the traditional knafeh, zalabia and balah el-sham, sweets that she says originated during Egypt’s Fatimid period and that were also spread to Turkey and the Levant.

A unique Egyptian icon, though, is the popular Om Ali, a bread pudding that is said to have emerged from the celebration of the death of Shajar al-Durr, one of Egypt’s ancient women rulers.

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Even if the traditional old desserts cannot be missing in any Egyptian house during Ramadan, Egyptians are known for their innovative sweet creations year after year, which fusion the basic familiar flavours with crazy new additions.

One of the businesses offering this particular experience from the heart of Cairo is Dara’s Ice Cream.

“We do not want to get lost in the shuffle of the Ramadan desserts,” Dara Ghosheh, the place’s founder, tells The New Arab. “It is important to create things that stick to the traditional flavours that people relate to, but that they are also different, breaking that routine of the normal oriental dessert.”

One of their most loved products during the holy season is their baklava cake, which has three different layers of ice cream made of milk, Eshta and Mastiha, stuffed with caramelised pistachio and topped with a crispy piece of baklava.

In addition to the mix between tradition and innovation, Dara’s also offers other special cakes that, although less traditional, were crafted to feel fresh and light after the heavy iftar.

Azza’s dessert table, featuring traditional Egyptian Ramadan sweets [photo credit: Bianca Carrera]
Azza’s dessert table, featuring traditional Egyptian Ramadan sweets [photo credit: Bianca Carrera]

“The end of iftar is usually, once you are relieved from having eaten, it is that moment when you start to unwind and spend time with your loved ones around the dessert table,” says Dara.

“The dessert is also the gift that you bring to someone when you are invited to their homes, and we want to make sure that we are part of that gathering.”

For Dara’s, as well as for any dessert business in Egypt, Ramadan is probably the biggest selling season. “Egyptians love sweets, we eat a lot of them,” laughs Azza. But this feast, she argues, is not what is most important at iftar time.

Dara’s Ice Cream Ramadan cakes [photo credit: Bianca Carrera]
Dara’s Ice Cream Ramadan cakes [photo credit: Bianca Carrera]

The food is not as important as the table that is shared

“For me, the most magical thing during Ramadan is family gatherings,” something that does not happen as easily during the rest of the year in the busy and buzzing Cairo, the loving lady argues.

“When our family gathers on a normal basis, some members are working or the small go out with their friends: in Ramadan that does not happen, we are all present at the dining table, and that is what characterises Ramadan the most.”

Iftar has the power to organise the frenzied and chaotic rhythm of Egyptian streets: when the evening call to prayer starts, all Egyptians gather to eat, even Christians, Azza tells The New Arab since work timetables during the holy month are modified accordingly. Roads and avenues empty as everyone rushes to join a hot meal with their loved ones.

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“The food is just an excuse to gather, it is not what matters as such, but the table you share,” says Azza with a tender smile. “As the Egyptian popular saying goes, basalat el-mu7eb kharoof — 'an onion shared in love is [as satisfying] as a sheep.'” 

Yes, food in Egypt is an essential part of the Ramadan experience for the history it holds, the innovation that is put into it, its great taste, and, of course, the value that one attributes to it after hours of committed fast.

But what is the food itself if not an excuse for the moments that get shared around it?

Ramadan Kareem from Cairo!

Bianca Carrera is a freelance writer and analyst specialising in Middle Eastern and North African politics and society at Sciences Po Paris. She has written for Al Jazeera, The New Arab, Al-Quds Al-Araby, EU Observer and others. She is based between Spain, Morocco and Egypt

Follow her on Twitter: @biancacarrera25