Sun Bread from Luxor

A papyrus of Dynasty 20 lists about thirty kinds of bread from ancient Egypt. The ancient Egyptians made everyday bread from wheat or barley flour, but dates, honey, spices, and seeds were added on festive occasions and the bread could take many shapes. The ancient Egyptians were the first to produce leavened bread in a manner very similar to the sun-raised shamsi (meaning "sun" in Arabic) bread baked in clay ovens in Upper Egypt today. Herodotus mentions this sourdough bread of Luxor, very different from the more familiar pocket bread of Cairo.    
Bread is baked every two or three days in an Upper Egyptian village house and it is a two-person job, requiring the entire day to mix the dough, gather the fuel, prepare the oven, and bake the bread [14483]. In the recent past, families often gathered and ground their own wheat and corn into flour. Today, commercial white flour may also be added. It is then sifted in a large sieve, the coarser grains left to dust the hands and homemade clay bread platters. After washing the hands, a prayer asking God’s blessing is usually said to ensure a proper rising, as bread is considered a gift from God.     14483
The flour is mixed with water, a bit of salt, and in the past a lump of dough saved from the previous batch as a leavening. Increasingly, however, dried instant yeast is available in shops and thus, the distinctive sourdough taste is being lost.    
Fist sized lumps of dough are made into balls, dusted in flour, patted out to about 12 cm. loaves, and laid out on the platters to rise in the sun for about 45 minutes [14486, 19602]. They may be turned over or shifted to a sunnier spot.     14486 19602
There are several shapes of shamsi bread depending on how the loaf is scored with a large needle or pin. Often, it is scored all around the top edge to ensure a uniformly round loaf. A second way is to make three crescent-like cuts that form three corners as it rises. This is done by Muslims. Coptic Christians score the loaves to make four corners, forming a rough cross. Ancient tomb paintings of bread offerings show these pin prick patterns similar to bread baked today [17585].     17585
The domed ovens are made from Nile clay with several small openings at the top to let the heat and smoke escape [10173]. There is a big opening to put the bread in and one near the ground to stoke the fuel. Often, a metal or ceramic floor is incorporated for strength and heat retention. Ovens have to be replastered and repaired every few years. The fuel is normally dried plant material, usually corn and cane stalks, and the heat must be a low, steady 350 degrees. Then the oven floor is wiped clean with a wet rag on a long stick, and the loaves put in with a long paddle. The opening of the oven is closed with a piece of wood or one of the bread platters. During the baking process (about twenty minutes), the loaves may be shifted around for even browning, The average bake produces about 25 loaves, which seems a lot for a family, but bread is eaten as the main part of every meal and shared with relatives and neighbors.     10173
Another kind of bread is often baked directly after the shamsi bread. Dough is rolled out thinly with a very long rolling pin on a low wooden table sprinkled with flour. The dough is carefully rolled around the pin, then flipped back onto the table, rolled again until it is very thin and about 50 centimeters wide. It is gathered skillfully onto the pin and flipped onto the oven floor [10195]. It bakes very quickly and is folded warm into a large waiting basket. On Luxor’s West Bank, it is called raqaq. Another variation of this flat bread is prepared for feasts and special occasions, its layers smeared with oil or ghee, and is called fatir.     10195
Other kinds of breads that are produced locally from white flour by commercial bakers and are sold from carts at the weekly market include sesame seed rings (sameet), twisted egg loaves, fine soft sandwich rolls, and cumin-seeded bread sticks [15249].     15249
But to all Upper Egyptians, their wives’ or mothers' home-baked shamsi bread is the best bread in all the world [19601].     19601
by Susan Weeks    

Published or last modified on: June 20, 2004
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