RECENTLY MY husband, Allan, and I took a tour of the treasures of Egypt that line the Nile. Our boat sailed for five days from Aswan to Luxor with 200 other passengers from the United States, France, Spain and Italy.
In the morning we would leave the boat to view the unbelievably well-preserved tombs and temples of the Egyptian pharaohs. The walls of these monuments were covered with hieroglyphics depicting the journey to the afterlife. Food played an important role.
In the Egyptian museum in Cairo we had already seen the mummified barley, wheat, pepper, melons and squash seeds as well as the onions and raisins. Ducks and geese also were embalmed to provide for the pharaoh on his journey.
As if this mummified food were not enough to document the culinary mores in that time, the offering tables depicted on the temple walls gave us even more vivid examples: Round flat bread similar to the Arabic bread eaten throughout the Middle East today, pomegranates, grapes, dates, figs, squash, melons, fish, gazelles and geese were repeated as well as clay pots with simmering stews. Recipes for beer and bread were written in hieroglyphics.
As we glided along -- sometimes sleeping, sometimes swimming or sunning on the deck -- we passed present day food sources, majestic date palms and green fields of rice, lentils, leeks and sugar cane.
At one stop, in the open marketplaces of Aswan, Nubian merchants had goods for sale. The beans mentioned in the Bible were there in many kinds and colors. Not only the large humus or chickpeas that we know, but tiny chickpeas were tossed in large sieves to remove the dirt and stones. Colorful piles of Oriental spices -- cinnamon, red pepper, turmeric, dried ginger and saffron strands -- were available. Fresh Nile perch were for sale, too, in spite of the lack of refrigeration.
At the ports, the ship's 28-year-old chef, Abdul La Tif, replenished his provisions. His menus included many Egyptian foods in an otherwise continental table. At breakfast we could have either international fare or Egyptian, which was fool (dried fava beans or broad beans with black eyes). Often called "the meat of the poor," these beans have been eaten in Egypt for the last 10,000 years and remain the popular mass food. But even the rich eat fool for breakfast.
Abdul, a veteran chef, prepared other ancient/modern foods beginning with his spicy salads of chickpeas or eggplant.
Stews were prepared in a tagen, a clay pot similar to those depicted on the temple walls. Before being used, the pots are seasoned with oil and honey and baked. Rich lamb stews with okra or peas were updated by adding tomatoes, probably not brought to Egypt until the 16th century.
One of the best culinary links with the past is the Egyptian onion. Onions, as well as garlic and leeks, had religious and medicinal significance in ancient Egypt. Wall paintings show priests holding up bunches of onions; papyrus texts tell of special days for chewing onions, days for tying onions around the throat or stomach, and a day for carrying onions in procession. Abdul provided us with koushry, the ancient onion, lentil and rice dish that is supposedly the same red potage eaten by Esau on the death of his grandfather Abraham.
Flat bread similar to that drawn on the temple walls was served with milookhiya, a soupy, stringy green vegetable with aspects of both spinach and okra. When mixed with rice it is unusually tasty.
But my favorites were the refreshing fruit desserts. The walls of the tombs show that fresh fruit was the prime ancient Egyptian dessert. Grapes, guavas, melons, pomegranates, figs and dates were eaten as were some "newer" tropical fruit brought with spices from the Orient -- oranges, mangoes, limes and apricots. From Abu Simbel to the Valley of the Kings' tombs, we found huge columns representing the trunk of the date palm.
Although we cannot share the synthesis of history and culture, we can share some favorite recipes prepared by Abdul. SALATA BEDINGAM (Eggplant Salad) 1 medium eggplant 2 tablespoons olive oil 1 tablespoon chopped parsley 1 clove garlic, crushed Juice of 1/2 lemon Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Either price the eggplant and place in a 450-degree oven for 20 minutes until soft or place the eggplant over a gas stove and char the skin all over. Cool.
Put the eggplant in a wooden bowl and scoop out the interior, removing any excess juice. Add the oil slowly, stirring constantly, then mix with the parsley, garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper. (The freshly ground pepper adds a special flavor to this dish.) Mash everything together or blend in a food processor.
Serve as a first course salad or as a dip with pita bread. KOUSHRY (Rice with Lentils) (6 to 8 servings) 1 cup brown lentils 2 teaspoons salt 1 cup long-grain rice 2 large onions, sliced 2 tablespoons oil
Pick over the lentils; wash and drain. Boil in water with 1 teaspoon of salt until tender (about 30 minutes). In another pan bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Add the rice and remaining teaspoon salt. Turn off heat and let sit until lentils are ready. Drain, rinse and combine lentils and rice. Bring about 1 1/2 cups water to a boil. Add the lentils and rice, cover and simmer slowly for about 20 minutes or until the rice is cooked. Saute the onions in the oil until golden. Add to the cooked rice and lentils. BA BAMIA (Okra and Meat Casserole) (4 to 6 servings) 1 pound fresh okra or 1 large can okra 1 large onion, chopped coarsely 2 cloves garlic, minced 3 tablespoons butter or oil 1 pound stewing beef or lamb, cubed 1/2 pound ripe tomatoes, sliced 1/2 cup water or tomato juice 3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley Salt and pepper Juice of 1/2 lemon (optional)
Wash the fresh okra and cut off the stems. Set aside. In a large, heavy frying pan saute the onion and garlic in the butter or oil until golden. Add the meat and brown. Then add the okra and, turning, fry gently. Add the tomatoes, simmer a few minutes and cover with the water or juice. Add the parsley, salt, pepper and, if you like, the lemon to taste. Cover and simmer for 1 1/2 hours or more or until the meat and okra are tender, add water or tomato juice if necessary. Adjust seasoning.