Today (2017) is Easter Monday in many Western countries – typically (but not everywhere) a national holiday for kicking back and enjoying the good weather in some easygoing way. For a good part of my life (as now), Easter Monday was folded into the Easter holidays in general (usually a week or more), so it’s not been particularly special for me. But I get it. Having an extra day before heading back to work (similar to Boxing Day) is a great idea. I’m all in favor of extra days. By happy coincidence today is also Sham El Messim in Egypt. The festival normally follows the Eastern religious calendar which, for reasons I have not figured out (readers can help me), coincides with the Western one this year.
In Egypt, the ancient festival of Sham El Nessim ( شم النسيم, literally meaning “smelling of the breeze”) is celebrated on the Coptic (i.e. Eastern) Easter Monday, though the festival dates back to Pharonic times (perhaps to about 2700 BCE). It is celebrated by both Egyptian Christians and Muslims as an Egyptian national holiday rather than as a religious one. Traditional activities include painting eggs, taking meals outdoors, and eating fesikh (fermented mullet). If I had not been renewing my passports in anticipation of my upcoming migration to Asia I would have been in Cairo today visiting family. Oh well.
The name of the holiday is derived from the Egyptian name of the Harvest Season, known as Shemu, which means a day of creation. According to annals written by Plutarch during the 1st century CE, the Ancient Egyptians used to offer salted fish, lettuce, and onions to their deities on this day. After the Christianization of Egypt, the festival became associated with Easter. Over time, Shemu morphed into its current form and its current date, and by the time of the Islamic conquest of Egypt, the holiday was settled on Easter Monday. The Islamic calendar being lunar and thus moveable relative to the solar year, the date of Sham el-Nessim remained on the Christian-linked date. As Egypt became Arabic the term Shemu found a rough phono-semantic match in Sham el-Nessim, or “Smelling/Taking In of the Zephyrs,” which fairly accurately represents the way in which Egyptians celebrate the holiday.
In Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, (1834) Edward William Lane writes:
A custom termed ‘Shemm en-Nessem’ (or the Smelling of the Zephyr) is observed on the first day of the Khamaseen. Early in the morning of this day, many persons, especially women, break an onion, and smell it; and in the course of the forenoon many of the citizens of Cairo ride or walk a little way into the country, or go in boats, generally northward, to take the air, or, as they term it, smell the air, which on that day they believe to have a wonderfully beneficial effect. The greater number dine in the country or on the river. This year they were treated with a violent hot wind, accompanied by clouds of dust, instead of the neseem; but considerable numbers, notwithstanding, went out to ‘smell’ it.
Traditional foods eaten on this day consist mainly of fesikh, lettuce, scallions or green onions, tirmis, and colored boiled eggs. I’ll leave making fesikh to the experts. Fesikh (فسيخ pronounced in Egyptian Arabic like “physics”) is a traditional Egyptian dish consisting of fermented, salted, and dried gray mullet, of the genus Mugil, a saltwater fish that lives in both the Mediterranean and the Red Seas. Some Egyptians make their own, but the process is lengthy and can be hazardous. Reports of food poisoning from incorrectly prepared fish show up in the news every year. The traditional process of preparing fesikh is to dry the fish in the sun before preserving it in salt, and a few families still take pride in doing it themselves. Most buy it already prepared. The occupation has a special name in Egypt, fasakhani.
Preparing tirmis is no less exacting and time consuming than preparing fesikh, and I don’t recommend it for the novice.
Tirmis is made from lupini beans. Rather surprisingly, lupini beans, in the genus Lupinus are indigenous to the Old and New Worlds. How did that happen? The Old World variety, L. albus, is high in alkaloids and so are extremely bitter unless soaked for 5 days or longer. The New World beans, L. mutabilis, are also bitter, but much less so, and, therefore, do not need as much soaking before preparing. I can get prepared as well as dried lupini beans in Italy. I’m pretty sure that they are L. mutabilis because they are not especially bitter.
Lupini beans have a venerable history: one of the oldest known domesticated plants in the Old and New Worlds. Archaeological reports record seeds of L. digitatus Forsk showing up in the tombs of Twelfth Dynasty Egyptian Pharaohs (over 2000 years BCE). Apparently they were already domesticated in those times. Seven seeds of this species were also found in the tombs of this dynasty dating back to the 22nd century BCE. Lupini were popular with the Romans, who spread their cultivation throughout the Roman Empire.
The Andean variety of lupini beans was domesticated by pre-Incan inhabitants of present-day Peru. Rock imprints of seeds and leaves, dated around the 6th and 7th centuries BCE, are exhibited in the National Museum of Lima. Cultivation was widespread in the Incan Empire, and beyond. Lupini were also used by pre-Columbian Indians in North America, such as the Yavapai people of the Grand Canyon region.
The traditional method of preparing L. albus in Egypt is to first soak the dried beans for 24 hours. Drain them, cover with fresh water, and boil them for 1 to 2 hours. Drain them again, and cover with more fresh water. Then soak, rinse, repeat for 5 days (changing the soaking water every 24 hours). The process is not tremendously time consuming or difficult – just a long, drawn out affair. I don’t quite see the point. Buy them in brine and be done with it.
The skin of lupini beans is tough, so to eat them you need to bite a hole in the skin and squeeze the inner part into your mouth. Traditional condiments, as with ful medames, include salt, olive oil, lemon juice, and powdered cumin. Very Egyptian.