Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Epiphany à la carte

Egyptian potatoes make for a traditional Epiphany delight, writes Gamal Nkrumah

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liv1
Al-Ahram Weekly

“If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water.” — Ernest Hemingway


“I always loved those moments of epiphany, when you have the next destination.” — Brad Pitt


Water and winter may not necessarily be compatible to Western ears, but they are in the Arabic-speaking eastern Mediterranean. Beyond geography, linguistics counts. Shiteh, or winter, is synonymous with water in the Levant. Bitishatteh, or it is raining, means both rain and cold in the same region. Small wonder, then, that the supposedly coldest day in winter is Epiphany, a Christian feast associated with water.
Journeys down memory lane take me back to the days when my grandmother used to tell us tales from Egypt’s history. Coptic Christians used to go to the Nile and jump into the river in mid-winter, she said, often on the coldest day of the calendar, 19 January, when it invariably rained.
In my grandmother’s childhood, she witnessed first-hand how the Coptic Christian peasants would trot to the river, shivering, on Epiphany. I picture those peasants wrapped in their woollen robes. They were remembering Jesus being baptised in the River Jordan long ago. The choice of the day therefore had cultural and historical dimensions, as well as purely aesthetic ones.
And food came into it, too. The choice dish, actually de rigueur at this time of year, was the Egyptian potato, or quolqaisia, a starchy, filling winter root vegetable that is traditionally prepared with greens making a nutritious and warming dish that is perfect for mid-winter.   
Once again, cultural reflections mingle with aesthetic ones. The light drains out of the mid-day sun, the sky grows grey, and the frost begins to grip. People huddle around the dining table and reach their hands out towards the soup. My own association of this very Egyptian dish with extreme weather remains strong. My grandmother used to stress that the dish tasted especially appetising as the testing period of the Egyptian winter set in.      
The Egyptian potato is a winter warmer. So was the tradition of hurling oneself into the freezing waters of the Nile in mid-winter. I was told that women went in first at dawn. My grandmother said that the men followed later once the darkness had gone. But she also hinted that the men used to spy out the best-looking girls as they bathed by the river bank in order to take advantage of the fairground atmosphere that visits the country each January during Epiphany.  
As Hemingway notes above, the dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-ninth of it being above water. The women waded in the water, and the secret voyeurs salivated. The event therefore ended up as being not so much Christian, or religious, as mundane. Possible brides were picked up just in time to tie the knot before the spring.
On a frosty day no place is more magical than the banks of the Nile. I imagined the ceremony as being like a beauty pageant, or at least this is how my grandmother presented it. She conjured up images of beauties emerging from the frothy waters of the river, enveloped in the morning fog.
I picture these damsels chopping the air like helicopter blades as they prepare the Egyptian potatoes and the greens that go with them. The latter were fried in butter or ghee, and a lump of lamb fat was thrown in with the mutton broth. The chopped Egyptian potatoes that tasted more like tropical yams went in next. The women would whirr them round in a tight spin, and the men would hold their breath.
Then it would rain cats and dogs, and the children would run amuck on the muddy banks of the Nile. Egypt’s contemporary Coptic Christians, many of them urban dwellers, never took these traditions with them to the cities. But, I wonder if the rural peasants in some backwater of Upper Egypt still hang on to these delightful traditions.  
Today, as our main course arrives, I remember my grandmother as the dining table begins to fill with a delectable array of dishes. The main course, of course, is the Egyptian potato.
The lamb cutlets arrive with a clatter. I squeeze lemon juice into the green soup. The lamb is scrumptiously juicy. Epiphany in Egypt is for omnivores, even as for Egypt’s Coptic Christians, at least for the devout ones, much of the year is spent in fasting, in other words adhering to a strictly vegan diet. No dairy products are consumed and especially not the flesh of other creatures. In feasts such as Epiphany, meat is a rare treat.
In the villages, poverty was everywhere, and as I take a slurp of the Egyptian potato soup I am reminded that the vast majority of Egypt’s peasants are still very poor. Yet, on days such as Epiphany at least, Egypt’s Coptic Christians are able to cram in a piece of lamb with their Egyptian potato greens.

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