Egyptian cheese

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Egyptian cheese
Egyptian Cheese.jpg
Country of originEgypt
RegionMiddle East
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Egyptian cheese
Egyptian Cheese.jpg
Country of originEgypt
RegionMiddle East

Egyptian cheese (Egyptian Arabic: جبنة gebna  pronounced [ˈɡebnæ]) has a long history, and cheese is an important part of the modern Egyptian diet. There is evidence of cheese-making over 5,000 years ago in the time of the First Dynasty of Egypt. In the Middle Ages Damietta was famous for its soft, white pickled cheese. Cheese was also imported, and the common hard yellow cheese takes its name "Roumy" from the word for "foreign". Cheeses may be made from the milk of: buffaloes, cows, sheep, goat or camels. Although many rural people still make their own cheese, notably the fermented mish, today a growing quantity is produced in modern state-owned or private processing plants. Cheese is often served with breakfast, is included in several traditional main course dishes, and is an ingredient in some popular deserts. There is a range of different varieties of Egyptian cheese.


Ancient Egypt[edit]

Cheese is thought to have originated in the Middle East. The manufacture of cheese is depicted in murals in Egyptian tombs from 2000 BC.[1] Two alabaster jars found at Saqqara, dating from the First Dynasty of Egypt, contained cheese.[2] These were placed in the tomb about 3000 BC.[3] Probably they were fresh cheeses coagulated with acid or a combination of acid and heat. An earlier tomb, that of King Hor-Aha may also have contained cheese which, from the hieroglyphic inscriptions on the two jars, came from Upper Egypt and from Lower Egypt.[4] The pots are similar to those used today when preparing mish.[5] Cottage cheese was made in ancient Egypt by churning milk in a goatskin and then straining the residue using a reed mat. The Museum of Ancient Egyptian Agriculture displays fragments of these mats.[6]

In the 3rd century BC there are records of imported cheese from the Greek island of Chios, with a twenty-five percent import tax being charged.[7]

Middle ages[edit]

In Egypt Water Buffaloes and cattle are the two sources of milk for Domiati cheese.

According to the medieval philosopher Al-Isra'ili, in his day there were three types of cheese: "a moist fresh cheese which was consumed on the same day or close to it; there was an old dry cheese; and there was a medium one in between." The first would have been unripened cheese made locally from sour milk, which may or may not have been salted. The old dry cheeses would have often been imported, and were cheeses ripened by rennet enzymes or bacteria.[8] The nature of the "medium" cheese is less certain, and may have referred to.preserved fresh cheeses, evaporated milk or cheese similar to Indian paneer, where the addition of vegetable juices makes the milk coagulate.[9]

Medieval Egyptian cheese mostly used buffalo or cows' milk, with less use of goat and sheep milk than in other countries of the region. Damietta on the Mediterranean coast was the primary area where cheese was made for consumption in other parts of the country. Damietta was well known not just for its buffaloes but also for its Khaysiyya cows, from which Kaysi cheese was made.[10] Khaysi cheese is mentioned as early as the eleventh century A.D. A fifteenth century author describes the cheese being washed, which may imply that it was salted in brine.[11] It may therefore have been an ancestor of modern Dumyati cheese, produced today in the Damietta district.[12]

A 17th-century writer described mishsh as the "blue qarish cheese which was kept for so long that it cut off the mouse's tail with its burning sharpness and the power of its saltiness". The Egyptian peasants ate this cheese with bread, leeks, or green onions as a staple part of their diet. It seems that the mishsh made and eaten by country people today is essentially the same cheese.[13] The Egyptians also imported cheese from Sicily, Crete and Syria in the Middle Ages.[10]

Recent years[edit]

Production of pickled cheeses rose from 171,000 tonnes in 1981 to 293,000 tonnes in 2000, almost all consumed locally. Imports of cheese to Egypt peaked at 29,000 tonnes in 1990, but with establishment of modern factories the volume of imports had dropped to under 1,000 tonnes by 2002.[14] Between 1984 and 2007 production of cheese of all types in Egypt rose steadily from about 270,000 tonnes to over 400,000 tonnes.[15] In 1991 roughly half of the cheese was still made using traditional methods in rural areas, and the other half was made using modern processes.[16] The common Domiati cheese was being manufactured by private dairies using small milk batches of 500 kilograms (1,100 lb), and in large government plants in five tonne batches. The government owned Misr Milk and Food Co. had nine plants with an annual capacity of 13,000 to 150,000 tonnes of dairy products.[17]

Annual consumption of pickled cheeses was estimated at 4.4 kilograms (9.7 lb) in 2000.[14] In 2002 it was estimated that more than one third of Egyptian milk production was used in making traditional pickled cheeses or ultrafiltered feta-type cheeses.[18] The domiati cheese now contains less buffalo milk than in the past. The fat from cows' milk is replaced in part by vegetable oils to reduce cost and retain the white color expected by consumers. Various other changes have been introduced such as mandatory heat treatment of the milk, but manufacturers have striven to retain the familiar taste, texture and appearance of the cheeses.[14]


Fried cheese
Cheese sandwich with pickles in downtown Cairo, 2013

Egyptian cuisine has much in common with the cuisines of Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Israel and Iran.[19] The early Greek author Pherecrates talked of melted cheese, still made in Greece and called saganaki.[20] In Medieval times fried cheese (جبنة مقلية gebna maqleyya) was a common food in Egypt, cooked in oil and served with bread by street vendors.[12] Fried cheese was eaten by both poor and rich, and was considered a delicacy by some of the Mamluk sultans.[21] Another medieval food in Cairo was bread made of wheat, eggs, spices, fresh milk and fried salty Khaysi cheese.[22]

Cheese is often served with breakfast in modern Egypt, along with bread, jams and olives. Both gebna bēḍa and gebna rūmi may be eaten on a pita or in an ʿēsh fīno, a small baguette.[23] An imported cheese such as La Vache qui Rit ("The Laughing Cow") may be served. The name of this cheese is often used to refer to former President Hosni Mubarak.[24] The Egyptians have their own version of moussaka, a casserole of eggplant with cheese and ground lamb.[25]

Fiteer is a flaky filo pastry with a stuffing or topping that may include white cheese and peppers, ground meat, egg, onions and olives.[26] Sambusak is a flaky pastry that may be stuffed with cheese, meat or spinach.[27]

Qatayef (قطايف), a dessert reserved for the Muslim holiday of Ramadan, a sort of sweet crepe filled with cheese or nuts

Qatayef, a dessert commonly served during the month of Ramadan, is of Fatimid origin. It is often prepared by street vendors in Egypt.[28] Qatayef are pancakes stuffed with nuts or soft cheese, deep fried and covered in syrup. In Egypt, Ibn al-Qata'if, or "son of the pancake maker" is a Jewish family name.[29]

Cheese varieties[edit]

The main types of cheese in modern Egypt are gebna bēḍa (white cheese), which is similar to cream cheese, and gebna rūmi (Roman cheese), which is hard, sharp and yellow in color.[30] Gebna bēḍa, also called Domyaṭi after its main place of origin, is made from a blend of milk obtained from cattle and buffaloes. This is salted, heated, coagulated using rennet and then ladled into wooden molds where the whey is drained away over the next three days. The cheese may be eaten at once, or first stored in salted whey for up to eight months, then matured in brine.[12]

Varieties of Egyptian cheese include:

See also[edit]