Africa, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Food and Agriculture, Headlines

EGYPT: Food For The People

Aya Batrawy

CAIRO, Oct 22 2008 (IPS) - Caught between low wages and rising prices, many Egyptians have had to replace meat and vegetables with cheaper food.

Egypt has recently expanded food subsidies to cover 15 million additional people.  Credit:  Aya Batrawy/IPS

Egypt has recently expanded food subsidies to cover 15 million additional people. Credit: Aya Batrawy/IPS

Kushari, often referred to as Egypt's national dish, has become a staple food for many. Usually served in a plastic container, it is layered from the bottom with rice, followed by macaroni, then lentils and chick peas and topped off with a hot sauce, tomato sauce, garlic and fried onions.

One celebrated place to order the dish is at Kushari Tahrir, located in the heart of Cairo's downtown. No one really knows exactly how long this quick-stop restaurant has been around, but employees who have been here for over 25 years say the place was there long before they joined.

There's just one item on the menu – kushari. The sound of the chefs hectically putting together one kushari dish after another to satisfy the hundreds of orders every day rings throughout the restaurant.

Kushari has remained a staple of Egyptian diets due to its low cost. At a time when food prices are quickly rising in Egypt, but wages have remained mostly stagnant, the cost of food has just as quickly become an added burden to the nearly 45 percent of the population that either lives around the poverty line.

According to one man ordering the dish, kushari is for rich and poor alike. "Every food has its own people, though. The person who eats kushari cannot necessarily afford to eat meat. You will pay 30 to 40 pounds for meat and here you just pay 3 or 4 pounds to eat and be full," he said.


With a kilo of meat costing a minimum of 35 Egyptian pounds – around seven dollars – and the daily earnings of millions of Egyptians being little more than one dollar a day, eating meat and vegetables becomes a luxury rather than a daily habit. Kushari, which is meat and vegetable free, has remained reasonably cheap – the rise in wheat and grain prices has been offset by government subsidies.

As the world's largest importer of wheat, Egypt has spent an additional 850 million dollars on wheat due to its worldwide rise in price. The wheat is then used to bake subsidised bread. This is expected to cost the government a total of nearly $2.67 billion this year. Without the subsidy, millions of people simply would not be able to afford bread.

Egypt has expanded the register of people eligible to receive subsidized goods such as oil, sugar, rice and tea to cover 15 million additional people.

But even with all of the government's subsidies in place, the food crisis has continued to hit Egyptian homes hard. To counter this, the more affluent classes have stepped in to help.

One such organisation is the Egyptian Food Bank, run by local businessmen and volunteers. It has a large warehouse in Cairo where rice, wheat, sugar and other goods are packaged for distribution to those most in need. The Food Bank also has drivers who pick up sandwiches and food left behind by the rich from hotels to distribute to the poor daily.

A volunteer, working at a nearby mosque, is busy packaging up free dinners that will be delivered to poor areas of Cairo later. In Islam, charity is a duty among Muslims and so in this predominantly Muslim society, it is common to find people donating their time and money to help others. The volunteer, who wished to remain anonymous in hopes of increasing her good deeds, explains that it is her responsibility as a Muslim to help others in need.

"I don't want to be eating while my brother in Islam doesn't have the same or his children need clothes, meat or a loaf of bread," she said. "We try as hard as we can to reach the largest number of people. Everyone here is doing charity either by donating their time and effort or by donating money."

One man was waiting for a free dinner that included juice, bread, rice, vegetables and a little meat at a charity table alongside dozens of other men waiting for the meal. As he waited patiently for his free meal that day, he explained how difficult it has been to eat well on his salary and how rare it is to find free meals like this one, unless it is during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan when charity tables are available every night of the month.

"Meat costs 35 Egyptian pounds. I'm not going to eat meat everyday. Every Friday I eat meat, or even from month to month not week to week," he said. "Life is expensive. A man like me cannot eat meat daily. Everyone is tired."

With prices continuing to rise, cheap, filling foods such as bread, rice and lentils continue to be the primary sources of nutrition for millions of Egyptians. They turn to dishes like kushari for its taste, filling ingredients and affordability.

As one employee at Kushari Tahrir explained, kushari is an authentic street food for the people. "It's as Egyptian as you can get," he said.

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