Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 April 2007
Issue No. 840
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The pungent zephyr

Abeer Anwar joins millions of Egyptians seeking the spring breeze

Click to view caption
Families enjoying their outdoor meals

For many Egyptians, Sham Al-Nessim marks the beginning of spring. It usually falls on the Monday following Easter. The celebration involves its own rituals, bringing out hordes of the festive who fill green spaces or spend the day sailing on the Nile. The ritual starts at dawn, when people prepare special meals -- Easter eggs together with one of several varieties of salted fish (often fiseekh ), lettuce, spring onions and plenty of termis (boiled lupin seeds) -- and wrap themselves in blankets before heading out for their outdoor location of choice. According to the Banha University ancient Egyptian history professor Mahmoud Abdel-Ghafaar, Sham Al-Nessim (in Arabic the term means "smelling the breeze") dates back to ancient Egypt, when the festival was known as Shamo -- meaning "renewal of life" and denoting agricultural fertility -- before it morphed into shamm (smelling) during Coptic times; nessim was added only later. The occasion was associated first with the Exodus, then with the resurrection with Christ three days after his crucifixion. Some of the rituals involved are described vividly in Edward Lane's Manners and Customs of Modern Egyptians : the habit of inhaling a fresh onion at sunrise, for example, which was believed to have miraculous healing powers. The one ritual that has universally survived is rather different, however: eating fiseekh, with (spring) onions on the side.

According to Ahmed Shahin, owner of one of Egypt's better- known fiseekh makes, the preparation of fiseekh is a family trade passed from one generation to the next -- a sophisticated tradition approaching an art: "We pile the fish high and let them be until they acquire the right degree of distention, then we add the salt and let them pickle for a few more months." Aside from its notorious smell, he added, the stuff is "100 per cent safe"; only salt is used, it has no additives or preservatives. Shahin says traditional fiseekh like his own is made from bouri (grey mullet) freshly caught in the northern Delta -- mainly Rashid, Damietta and Baltim, and is sold at LE30-46 a kilo, depending on the size of the fish and the degree of saltiness (the less the salt the more expensive). But there is another kind of fiseekh, and it is to it that most of the scare stories about food poisoning are due: this is made from imported grey mullet brought over frozen from the US and northern Europe, which is more impervious to the salt and sells for LE10-12 a kilo: "it may taste salty, but the breakdown in the flesh that kills the bacteria hasn't happened." Salted fish consumed on Sham Al-Nessim includes sardines, mackerel and anchovies and tend to be priced at LE20-25. Shahin says the way to identify good fiseekh is to find out if the flesh around the backbone is sufficiently firm and make sure the fish doesn't smell too pungent.

Some women like Breksan Ali, a housewife, prefer to make their own; the claim is that it is easy enough providing that fresh bouri is bought in time; the earlier the bouri is bought the better, since prices rise as the season approaches. The fish should be cleaned thoroughly and piled in a glass jar, with plenty of salt between the layers, until the jar is packed. The jar should then be tightly sealed and left for no less than 45 days; and what you end up with is the real thing, Ali added proudly, recounting the annual family gathering that her sons and their families look forward to every year -- its cleanliness guaranteed, its cost significantly lower than that of fiseekh bought from a fasakhani like Shahin. And yet nutritionist Iman Omar warns against excessive consumption, which can raise blood pressure and increase the risk of other diseases; she recommends eating spring onions, drinking at least three litres of water and adding lemon and vinegar to further disinfect the fish. So far, so good. But as Hoda Awadallah, an 80-year-old grandmother points out, no Sham Nessim is complete without dyed eggs; this, she says, is the most fun part. Rather than using dyes, Awadallah likes to boil the eggs in onion peel, anise leaves, tea, peppermint or strawberries -- to give them a natural tint -- or else let her grandchildren run wild with their watercolours; in a yearly competition in which the best egg is chosen -- her four-year-old granddaughter has proved to be the most talented. "Then they are left in the sun," she says, "to be ready in time for that special breakfast."

On the other hand, according to historian Sayed Karim, spring onions are as old as Shamo itself. According to a sixth-dynasty papyrus from Memphis, "it is said that a Pharaoh's son much loved by the people was struck down by an unknown disease which left him bed- ridden for years, during which time the people refrained from celebrating the spring festival in sympathy with the king and his son. Finally the archpriest of the Temple of Oun, who managed to diagnose the illness as a result of evil spirits, found the solution: he ordered a ripe spring onion under the patient's head. The priest sliced another onion and placed it on the patient's nose in such a way as to make him inhale the vapours. The prince soon recovered, and wide-ranging festivities were held in the palace to coincide with the spring festival. As a gesture of goodwill towards the king, people started hanging bunches of scallions on the doors of their houses -- and went on eating it in festive spirit every year to mark Sham Al-Nessim."

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