Soups

Soups

By
Suzanne Zeidy
Contains
9 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742708027
Photographer
Jonathan Gregson

Shamsi bread

The women of Upper Egypt, who today bake the region’s delicious sun-proved shamsi bread, would recognise the same ingredients and processes that they use if they could see the bread-making of their ancient ancestors.

No other country can trace their food traditions back quite so far as Egypt and although Turkish and Arab trade and conquests have brought many changes, this continuity in the simple everyday food that ordinary Egyptians enjoy – breads, beans, vegetables and fruit — is remarkable.

Since the days of the first pharaohs, Egyptians have farmed wheat in the fertile land around the Nile. The grains were then ground and sieved to make just enough flour for each bake. This process is rarely done today thanks to the ease of opening a packet of commercial flour, but the rest of the process is largely the same. The wives mixed the flour with salt, water and yeast, then proved it in the sun (‘shamsi’ means ‘sun’ in Arabic) to make a bread very similar to today’s.

Shamsi bread is at its heart a rural bread, unlike the puffy baladi breads that dominate urban Cairo and are seen baking in street ovens all over the capital. The bread is usually baked in the villages, a batch big enough to feed family and neighbours made every two or three days, with two women working together over many hours to tend the oven, mix the dough and prove the loaves.

The women first mix unbleached flour with salt, water and yeast to make a soft dough. The yeast is important as the ancient shamsi loaf may well have been the world’s first leavened bread. In the past, a yeasting agent would be made from warm water and barley flour or grains and goat’s milk. Nowadays, live or dried yeast is used. The dough is then kneaded by hand for half an hour and left to prove, covered, for two hours in a warm place.

After the first proving, the dough is punched down and divided into tennis ball-sized pieces, before being flattened out a bit and arranged on boards filled with a base of non-stick bran. Sunlight is crucial for developing the bread’s trademark cracked and sun-baked crust and the loaves are left to prove in the sun for another two hours, being moved to a sunnier spot if they are not getting enough of this vital ingredient.

The traditional dome-shaped clay oven the bread is cooked in is recognisable from the hieroglyphs, though today indoor gas ovens are often used instead. The steady hot temperature cooks the bread in just 5 to 10 minutes, the result a naturally brown bread, its crusty outside encasing a soft interior speckled with tiny air pockets. The ancient Egyptians added dates, seeds, spices and honey to their bread for special occasions. At Cairo Kitchen we have experimented with mixing walnuts and olives into our shamsi dough for our very own special variation.

Recipes in this Chapter

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