Celebrating spring, the Egyptian way

Sham Al Nessim is a centuries-old springtime festival believed to originate in ancient Egypt

Cairo: Spring is in the air. For Egyptians, it’s a festive time involving age-old rituals.

Egyptians annually celebrate the advent of the spring with a day-long festival known as Sham Al Nessim, which literally translates to “breathing the breeze”.

The event is believed to have its roots in ancient Egypt. Modern Egyptians mark Sham Al Nessim on the first Monday that follows the Coptic Easter. Copts make up the majority of Egypt’s Christian population.

In the lead-up to Sham Al Nessim, Egyptians prepare special dishes for the occasion. Salted fish, locally known as feseekh, is the main dish. It is eaten along with onions, lettuce, lemons and lupine.

While most Egyptian buy the dish at shops, some people, however, prefer to do the job at home for hygiene reasons and cost cutting.

All the same, the seasonal demand for the pickled fish means brisk business for vendors.

“For years, Sham Al Nessim has been a national occasion, which is not complete without eating feseekh,” said Mahmoud Abdul Rehim, who works at a shop selling salted fish in the old Cairo neighbourhood of Al Sayeda Zeinab.

“We sell feseekh around the year, but Sham Al Nessim is the highest season of sales,” he added.

“We have our customers, who come weeks before the occasion in order to place their orders. They trust us because we use the finest types of fish and the best preservation methods in preparing feseekh,” Abdul Rehim said.

If badly preserved, the feseekh can cause food poisoning.

Every year, health authorities mount nationwide raids on dubious fish stores and confiscate tons of feseekh deemed unfit for human consumption before they find their way to the stomachs of unsuspecting customers. In addition, state-run health centres are put on emergency to treat botulism cases resulting from eating badly preserved fish. People with high blood pressure, or heart disorders as well as pregnant women are advised against eating the fish dish due to its high salinity.

“It is easy to tell good feseekh from the bad one,” said Hossam Asran, a worker at a fish store in the northern Cairo district of Al Matariya. “Check the flesh around the backbone and ensure it is not either frayed, bloated or too smelly. Also, the nostrils are a good indicator of the quality of the feseekh. If they are pink, then, the fish is OK. If not, then, it is dangerous to eat,” he expertly explained. “We get our feseekh supply from factories that have their good names in Nabaruh,” Asran added, referring to a province in Egypt’s Nile Delta famed for making the salty fish.

Feseekh is mainly made of grey mullet – though other types of fish such as sardines and mackerel are used for the dish, too.

Vendors and customers reported an increase of about 20 per cent in the prices of the feseekh fish this year compared to 2017. The speciality sells for 150 Egyptian pounds (Dh31.8) to 200 pounds per kilo, depending on the size of the fish.

“The price of everything has risen. The feseekh is no exception. People can’t abandon their traditions, which go back to the days of Pharaohs. They’ll buy feseekh, whatever the price. It’s just one day in the year. It’s Sham Al Feseekh!” Asran chuckled, playing on the name of the festival.

In recent months, Egypt has experienced a wave of high prices resulting from the 2016 floatation of the local pound and state subsidy cuts as part of painful economic reforms.

“In order to reduce the cost, some people buy mullet and bring it to me to preserve it for them before Sham Al Nessim. One kilo of mullet and additives cost around 100 pounds,” said Asran.

Weeks before the event, government-run cooperatives have offered to the public brands of salted fish and herring at reduced prices. Some women, however, opt to buy fish at the market and pickle it at home after adding salt to it in order to leave no room for microbes to thrive. Maha Abdul Fattah, a mother of two, is one of them.

“The home-made feseekh is the best in cleanliness and cost,” the 38-year-old woman said. “I usually buy two kilos of mullet and pickle them in a clean container three weeks before the occasion. On the day of Sham Al Nessim, my family goes out to a garden near our home where the children play and then we eat feseekh together,” Maha added. “I also boil eggs for my children on the eve of Sham Al Nessim, who like to colour them as part of celebrations.”

Health professionals advise feseekh eaters to drink a lot of water and natural juices as well as eat leafy vegetables to detoxify the body. They are also strictly cautioned against overeating.

Wary of potential food poisoning, some Egyptians, nonetheless, shun feseekh in favour of herring. The dish is usually cooked by grilling the fish and then soaking it in a mixture of vinegar and lemon. Other people just eat tuna on the occasion.

Sham Al Nessim is a national holiday in Egypt. Many flock to seaside resorts, or spend the day enjoying a boat ride in the River Nile. In a bid to lure customers on Sham Al Nessim, classy restaurants serve the feseekh dish with its appetizers including onions and lemons.

The feast is long seen as a symbol of national unity, being marked by the country’s Muslims and Christians alike.

However, in recent years, ultra-conservative clerics in Egypt have dismissed Sham Al Nessim as unIslamic amid a rise of Islamism in the country.

According to historians, Sham Al Nessim derives its name from an ancient Egyptian harvest festival, which was known as “shamo”. The occasion is believed to have been celebrated in ancient Egypt starting from 2700 BC. Ancient Egyptians used to provide salted fish, onions and lettuce as votive offerings to their deities on this day, historians say. Salted fish symbolised fertility in Pharaonic Egypt.

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