Plant-based diets have spread across the West, with meat-free restaurants and product seeing meteoric rises in sales. According to Google Trends, interest in “veganism” – eating and living without animal product - increased seven fold in the five years spent between 2014 and 2019 as concerns for personal health, animal welfare, and environmental sustainability coalesce. You would be forgiven for thinking that a meat-free lifestyle is a relatively new internet-born trend, but in Egypt, where many people eat a mostly vegetarian diet by chance and not by choice, and the modern-day concept of being vegan would be considered alien to most, a plant-based diet is in fact a return to their dietary roots.
Egyptians love meat. Ask anyone what their favorite dish is: they’ll probably say “kebab w kofta”, which are the population’s two most popular meat. But in a country where there is extreme poverty and rising food prices, meat is increasingly seen as a luxury and a sign of wealth and therefore many Egyptians who are following a mostly vegetarian by default see it as something to aspire to.
Yet, many Egyptian staples and specialty foods are typically not meat-based.
Meals usually center on stews and vegetables. Street food is what most Egyptians can afford, and they happily wait in line for the best kushari, the country’s national dish originating in the 19th century, made of rice, macaroni, and lentils mixed together, topped with a spiced tomato sauce and garlic vinegar and garnished with chickpeas and crispy fried onions. Egyptian specialties include molokhiyya; a garlicky leaf soup which was known to be part of the pharaohs’ diet, mahshi; rice stuffed vegetables, foul; mashed fava beans that are a mainstay of any proper Egyptian breakfast, and deep-fried crunchy falafels; made only of fava beans and herbs, not of chickpeas like in other Middle Eastern countries.
Traditional Egyptian cuisine has partly been shaped by the country’s indigenous Coptic Orthodox population, which make up 10-15% of the country, who fast for between 180 and 200 days of the year, abstaining from all animal products and adhering to a plant-based diet on fasting days. These fasting periods are exceeded by no other Christian community except the Orthodox Tewahedo. While the principle behind fasting is limiting indulgent foods in the name of religious piety, fasting practices also led to a boom in plant-based offerings year-round for the general public.
Research also suggests that Egypt’s veg-friendly origins date all the way back to the Ancient Egyptians. According to several findings, including research that looked at the carbon atoms in mummies that had lived in Egypt between 3500 B.C. and 600 A.D, relied mostly on cultivated wheat and barley rather than meat and fish. This might be surprising considering the civilization's proximity to the Nile, but researchers theorise this was for religious reasons. Cows, rams, pigs and geese were all considered sacred in ancient Egypt. Not only did Egyptians at the time rarely eat meat (only during festivals and special occasions), they also frowned upon the wearing of animal flesh. One notable vegan-learning leader was the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten who banned animal sacrifice because he thought it was sinful to take away any given life by the Aten god.
Although on a lesser scale, the modern vegan movement is also growing in Egypt’s capital, where there is a small elite following, but more people beyond that privileged group are embracing the trend. “When I first got into the food business in 2013, I was probably one of 20 vegans in Egypt! Now I can guarantee there are thousands, and still growing! It’s amazing to see this transformation in our society, even if it’s on the small scale, it’s relatively a huge shift in the past five years,” Yasmine Nazmy, a young Egyptian food entrepreneur who founded Egypt’s first vegan and organic restaurant, told Majalla.
One of the most common myths about going vegan is that you spend much more on groceries as a vegan than you do if you buy animal-based products and therefore it is only an option for the middle/upper class, but Nazmy believes that veganism can easily be tailored to fit into most people's lives, regardless of income.
“Vegan food basically means plants, right? And plants are cheap, they always will be - unless you’re importing something from 2 continents away! What costs a lot are products. products include packaging, marketing, salaries, bills, transportation and other fees! As long as you’re sticking to buying fresh food, it won’t cost much at all. You can easily be vegan on a budget,” she said.
“The better question here would be how to remain carnivorous on a budget!” - A question that is practically pertinent to Egypt’s accidental vegetarians.
Despite Egypt's cuisine traditionally involving many vegetarian options, there remains a stigma against vegetarians who are often met with resistance. “When I ditched meat and dairy in 2013, people saw me as extreme and I felt quite isolated, I would only eat with vegan friends or impose vegan food on my guests. I became known as "the vegan girl” or "Yasmine the vegan,” explained Nazmy, who has a brand of raw vegan frozen foods, KAJU, which is available in supermarkets across the country.
But when Nazmy became less restrictive with her diet, she noticed her family become more accepting of her lifestyle choice: “I was a strict vegan for about 2 years until I slowly started to taste some dairy foods, and some fish, but never ever going back to meat again. I feel that allowing myself some flexibility has tremendously changed the way my family and friends deal with me - they just seem more accepting, and alienate me less.”
It is important not to undervalue the importance meat has in Arab and Islamic culture. During Eid al- Adha, also known as the Festival of Sacrifice, animals – most commonly lamb, though sometimes goats and cows - are slaughtered by millions of Muslims worldwide. It is a highlight of the Egyptian year for most where people save up to eat meat, or are given it by richer neighbours. But for vegetarians and vegans, the day is not solely a cause for celebration; the sight of animals slaughtered street, and the meaty meal that follows, causes understandable distress. “I always leave the country during Eid el Adha, I can’t tolerate the bloodshed. Like seriously for the past 5 Eids, I’m not in Egypt!” said Nazmy.