In celebration of Easter and Sham el Nessim we thought we would bring this article back to life and enrich everyone about the pleasures of the Egyptian Tradition of Feseekh – EEEEK
During the festival of Sham el Nessim (21st April) a must-have dish is feseekh – but what is it? The first problem I encountered when trying to find out about this Egyptian delicacy was how to spell it. I came across ‘feseekh’, ‘faseekh’, ‘fiseekh’ and ‘fasikh’ – but feseekh seems most popular so I’ll stick to that until I can write it in Arabic!
So first hurdle dealt with I could now go and find out more. Feseekh is basically salted fish, but many countries salt fish and none seem quite like feseekh. In Thailand you can get plara, kusaya and funazushi in Japan, rakfisk in Norway, súr hákarl in Iceland and the Swedish have surströmming (which I’ve heard smells dreadful) – but back to feseekh which must surely be the oldest fermented fish – almost literally.
Evidence has been found that the fourth-dynasty Egyptians who built the pyramids between 2613 and 2494BC produced feseekh, so it’s been around a while. Traditionally eaten with lemon, onions and lettuce it apparently has a love it or hate it quality akin to Marmite.
Along with the dissension about spelling, I also found differences in what fish should be used. I found references to bouri (grey mullet) as well as the Nile fish kass and kawwara , but knowing me these could all be the same fish (let’s face it I’ve been calling Sgt. Majors ‘Zebra Crossing Fish’ for years). So let’s just accept its fish and move on.
Preparation starts in the normal way, i.e. you catch your fish. From there it gets a little scary; instead of doing the decent thing by cleaning it and putting it on ice, it gets laid out in the sun until it swells up. (hmmm health and hygiene?). Once nicely swollen it’s opened up and filled with salt then wrapped and put to one side for a number of weeks (yes folks weeks) to get it’s distinct flavour. The preparation is obviously a fine balance between botulism and bliss, so it is normal to buy it from a trusted specialist known as a fasakhani. By all accounts this is not a Gordon Ramsey or Rick Stein recipe and carries a definite ‘don’t try this at home’ warning.
So after all the weeks of ageing and fermenting what do you get? Something with a kind of yellowish hue with the consistency of cream cheese. As expected it is extremely salty and eating it with the lemon, lettuce and green onions is said to help the digestion or kill any potential bacteria depending on who you believe! An acquired taste with it’s yeasty, fishy, potent effect on the tongue, it’s not surprising that many prefer something a little more tame to celebrate the feast – like ringa – a nice smoked herring. Me …. Let’s leave it with “I love marmite”.
Smoked fish in its various forms can be bought at all the Sharm supermarkets. You will notice that especially during this period there are more varieties to choose from. Ask any of the Staff and they will most probably be so amazed that you are interested in Feseekh that they will be happy to help. You can also buy the Egyptian version of caviar for Easter. It is not in small pots but more a solid lump of roe sealed in wax. Just words of warning if you do decide to take the traditional plunge; make sure that ‘IT’ (as something akin to the horror movie) is hermetically sealed in your fridge – or why not just store it outside in the sun for another few days! Another suggestion after purchase and its long stagnated journey; is to put it in olive oil and leave for another few days. This apparently turns it into a more palatable mush. Either way unless you want your whole abode, fridge, or self to smell of a non too delicate aroma of weeks old fish, then make sure it is sectioned. One final note to help in your decision to take the plunge or not, is when one old lady was asked ‘why do you eat Feseekh?’ her reply was not ‘its delicious’, ‘I love it’, but simply ‘it’s a habit’.