منبر معارف الزراعة الأُسرية

''A taste for tradition - Reviving traditional diets using video''

We were launching a rural tourism project just as the Covid-19 pandemic startled the world. How ironic, after waiting years for funding for our local organization Nawaya, we were incapable to do basic fieldwork. We were excited and decided not to delay important work. As we were unable to meet women, cook and share meals together, we decided to create recipe videos instead. 

The videos would focus on heritage dishes, and the aim was to trigger a discussion and brainstorm healthy recipes that were exciting enough to attract visitors seeking a unique dining experience in rural Egypt. We made eight recipe videos with skilled rural women, and we screened them in a safe outdoor setting, wearing masks, to discuss the potential to replicate the recipes at home or for sale.  

You can watch the videos here.

The women at the screening were attentive! They did not chat away as the video played. Some recorded the session on their mobiles phone and some took notes. Most of them are illiterate but imprinted the recipes in their minds. After watching the videos, we would open the floor to women to propose heritage recipes they knew and could share, not only with their families but proudly to visitors from Cairo or even the world.

“So, who here will try these recipes at home?” we asked at the end of the screening. “I will try all of them for sure!” “Tonight, I will cook the fereek and liver dish. It looks so easy and I never thought of cooking fereek like rice”! Another lady said she sprouted Fava Beans but never thought to use their stock for molokhia soup. The screenings felt like a great success! We felt confident that upon returning home the women would dig deeper into their parents' and grandparents' memories for forgotten recipes. 

© Laura Tabet

Videos with impact

It has been almost six months since the screenings, and we wanted to gather the women again to start working more seriously on the heritage food menus that would become the centrepiece of our rural tour itinerary. Around twenty women were invited to be part of a focus group to assess the impact of the recipe videos.

I was excited as we had just onboarded Hanan to the Nawaya team, an experienced Monitoring and Evaluation Officer. Hanan is also a nutritionist, so I knew the discussion would be rich. I was excited to see which recipes inspired the women and uncover with them recipes they could proudly serve on a heritage food menu. 

We hosted the focus group on the land of a village leader, Om Abdallah, who runs a collective food enterprise with the help of her daughter Fatma. Cairo traffic was terrible, so we were late, and arrived as the women were sitting impatiently in the shade. 

We sat quickly, avoiding small talk and dove straight to the heart of the matter: a woman’s main responsibility as a cook for the family. Men rarely help with anything kitchen related. So it was our prerogative to do two things – to revive heritage foods as a means for women to find work in rural tourism; to revive heritage foods and improve family nutrition. Tourism is also a great mechanism to educate eaters and shed light on how seasonal recipes and locally processed foods hold the key to stronger health and community. 

Abandoning tradition

We quickly discovered that the changing tastes of their children made it challenging for the women to serve these foods at the video recipes at home. Whether young or adolescents, the women ALL agreed that their kids have little or no interest in traditional foods! Actually, some refuse it entirely and leave a nice homecooked meal to eat junk foods. It is so bad that one mother said her son won’t even reheat the food she made him, but instead, he’ll happily spend his pocket money on crepe, koshari, shawerma or pizza instead.

I thought that far away from Cairo the challenge of junk foods wouldn’t be so big. I was wrong. It was worse than I thought. Even at home, the women often buy and cook industrial pasta, white chicken for panée, cubes to replace stock, and regularly buy processed cheese and meats to please their children. Traditions were abruptly eroded by the corporate food brands with colourful fancy packaging, mega billboards, TV adverts with football heroes that attract young people like magnets.   

The mothers seemed stuck between two generations, appreciating the taste of traditional foods, but also accepting that their children want to eat differently.  The women admitted that almost every family has a member with anaemia, diabetes, or obesity and that they often spend money to get dietary advice. The irony is that their struggle with family health can be overcome with a return to traditional diets.  We quickly realized how creating a nice balanced menu for a heritage food tour, would be an impossibility, if people’s diets in the heart of a village, were not traditional anymore.