Welcome to Africanews

Please select your experience

Watch Live



Egypt: Feseekh, the fish staple of Sham al-Nessim celebrations

A fish monger prepares to salt and barrel mullet fish known in Egypt as "fessikh" at a shop in the town of Nabaroh, near Egypt's northern Nile Delta city of Mansoura.   -  
Copyright © africanews


In Nabarouh, in the heart of the Nile delta, you could think you were in a coastal town, as the streets are dotted with stalls that give off a powerful aroma: the typical scent of the salted and fermented fish that the Egyptians call fessikh.

The technique has been the same since the time of the pharaohs: this freshwater fish is first dried and then dipped in salt for several weeks before adorning the table of the Egyptians, who delight in it despite its odour which catches your nose.

"The ancient Egyptians salted the fish to extend its shelf life, so that the workers could eat it while they were building the pyramids," says the highly publicised archaeologist Zahi Hawass, who claims to have found traces of this salted fish during excavations.

Today, while the dish -- and especially its smell -- is divisive, it is still a staple of the Sham al-Nessim celebrations, which will take place on Monday this year.

The festival, whose name means "smell the breeze" in Arabic, has been marking the arrival of spring since Pharaonic times. It is still celebrated today by the 105 million Egyptians, both Muslim and Christian.

On Monday, in every house, they will form two camps: those who complain about the pungent smell of the salty fish and those who enjoy it with bread and green onions - but this time, for the Muslims, no picnic in the open air, they will have to wait for the dinner to break the Ramadan fast.

- No improvisation -

"Nabarouh is the capital of fessikh in Egypt," boasts Sherif al-Yamani, 44, owner of the most famous salted fish shop.

Mr Yamani says he is descended from one of the families that helped forge his city's reputation for the delicacy at the turn of the century.

"During the celebrations (of Sham al-Nessim) as well as the rest of the year, we receive customers who come from all over Egypt," he told AFP while serving a customer from Cairo, 150 km south.

Karim Abdel Gawad, drove the 55 km that separate his town of Gharbia from Nabarouh, "because here it's really something else," he told AFP.

"There is no room for improvisation with fessikh, you have to buy it from a place you can trust," he said.

This fish is prepared according to very precise rules and any mistake -- a fish that is still too wet or a salting that is too light -- can make this typical dish a carrier of botulism, a sometimes fatal food infection, as the Ministry of Health reminds us each year.

"It all depends on how the fish is prepared," confirms Mr Yamani, who warns potential buyers against open-air markets or other vendors where the quality may not be there.

- The smell of success -

Although fasting people fear that the high salt content of the fish will make them thirsty the next day, Yamani says that this year he has received orders a week before Ramadan begins.

The love for the dried fish seems to overcome fears of dehydration, and his shop is always full, even in the middle of Ramadan.

"We never thought we would sell so much" in a country where inflation is close to 34% and poverty is on the rise, "but it seems that sales of fessikh have not been affected too much" - despite the seven euros you have to pay for a kilo -, says Mr Yamani.

With a sharp eye, ready to spot the slightest mistake, Mr. Yamani supervises his employees as they stack the fish in large wooden barrels, under thick layers of coarse salt, so that his customers can soon adorn their tables in Sham al-Nessim with the best fessikh.

View more