Seasons of Flavor Define Foods in Egypt

street vendors offer tastes of egyptian agriculture and food cycle

Street Vendors Offer Tastes of the Season in Egypt

Speaking so fast that the repeated word actually sounds like one long tongue twister, the vendors on the corner down the street from my Cairo home lean in to every car window that passes. "Gambari, gambari, gambari!!!" There is always a slight lilt in their voices that implies a question. They stand for hours and yet never seem to run out of energy, playfully bantering with drivers or amongst themselves. It’s shrimp season in Egypt and the street hawkers are on their game.
Egyptian agriculture offers food cycleWell, it’s also orange season, but those edibles tend to be restricted to the fruit stands and wagons that have the slightly more passive merchants managing them. The shrimp guys stack their baskets at the bends and intersections of the high traffic roads and eagerly dangle-jangle their dripping product with outstretched arms into the lane of passing cars.
I've often wondered if they were in cahoots with the window washers who coincidentally(?) approach the cars just a little farther down the road.

Egyptian Agriculture Provides Seasonal Flavors

Despite tourism being the sexy economy pusher in Egypt, agriculture is still the driving force behind employment and daily life. Fresh product is always available somewhere close, if not from a small kiosk within walking distance then from a horse cart that winds its way through your neighborhood.
And the calendar is still king here. Farmers and fishermen still plant and gather based on time of year. A common Egyptian slang phrase expresses the uniqueness of certain seasons: "fil mish-mish" which roughly translates as "when the apricots are here". As this fruit has a once-a-year, two week timeslot of fresh availability, the phrase has come to represent an exceptional occurrence, an infrequent and precious opportunity.

Enjoying the Food Cycle

Egyptian agriculture offers food cycleI'm never quite attentive enough to mark the comings and goings of the food cycles on my own calendar. I'm usually pleasantly surprised to discover the heaps of pomegranates or the mounds of turnips in the markets. I shift my recipes accordingly and revel in the rarity of the flavors. I do have my favorite fruit season memorized. For a few glorious weeks in late August the prickly pear (in Egyptian Arabic "teen shookie") plays center stage at all juice vendors and produce carts. I'll arrange my daily plans to ensure an opportunity to indulge.

The expansion of the global market has made products that were once time or geography restricted much more available to everyone, always. There is a value in that. But there is also a beauty to be found in the still exceptional occurrences, the small windows of time to experience specific tastes, the "fil mish-mish" of particular sensory opportunities.

As I walk past the corner stocked with baskets full of wet crustaceans, I acknowledge that not all people share love for the same flavors. I veer towards the kiosk on the opposite corner, the one with its entire storefront dedicated to the sweet tangy orange. My taste buds are tingling. I sense fresh juice in my immediate future: a spoonful of honey, a dash of cinnamon and a tall glass are the only other items necessary to make this girl happy today.

Written By Amy McMahon

In the know traveler, In the know, Amy McMahon, travel writer

Amy McMahon

Amy McMahon[/caption]Born of the snowy tundras of central New York and transplanted to the ancient deserts of the Middle East, Amy McMahon is an avid adventuress, dirt-digging archeologist and educator extraordinaire. Her split personalities have taken her all over the globe but her favorite place is still wherever her friends and family are. For insight on her explorations of Egyptian foods and more, you can visit her archeology blog at and her new travel blog will be online soon.