By Anny Gaul
In the first volume of Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy, Bayn al-Qasrayn (Palace Walk), we meet a family whose daily routines are measured in meals, from the early morning sounds of kneading and baking to the stern, all-male breakfast to the mother’s leisurely afternoon coffee hour. It’s no surprise that the introduction of a new family member brings a change in culinary repertoire.
This dish, sharkasiyya, makes quite an entrance when an aristocratic bride arrives on the scene in Mahfouz’s novel. It’s a fairly simple recipe: poached chicken and walnut sauce, served with rice. It eventually became iconic in Egypt despite its Ottoman origins (the name literally means “Circassian”). As I cooked my way through several versions of recipes collected by Claudia Roden, it struck me how connected sharkasiyya is not only to food culture in early 20th century Egypt, but also to the questions of race, gender, and class that informed that culture.
Çerkez Tavugu / Circassian Chicken / Sharkasiyya
Adapted from recipes in Claudia Roden’s A Book of Middle Eastern Food and her New Book of Middle Eastern Food.
Roden notes that the sauce draws on an old tradition of using nuts to thicken a sauce, and the internet suggests that the dish is of Georgian origin. It gradually became fashionable in Turkish cuisine, and the migration of Circassians into elite Egyptian households (about which more below!) led it onto Egyptian tables, where it signaled refinement and aristocratic taste. Here is the recipe, followed by some thoughts on what the dish might have been signifying in the literature and culture of early 20th century Egypt, and Mahfouz’s novel in particular.
1 large chicken, cut into pieces
2 large onions, quartered
3-4 whole cloves
Salt and pepper
1 cup walnuts
1/4 cup bread crumbs
2 cups rice
The original recipes suggest mixing paprika with oil for garnish, but I preferred the look of sprinkled paprika instead (n.b.: this is a delicious dish but incredibly difficult to photograph!). Recipes also call for celery to be used with the onions in poaching the chicken, but I omitted it. I also used a much smaller quantity of breadcrumbs than the original suggested (although breadcrumbs are apparently optional in most recipes anyway).
- Wash the chicken and place it in a large pot. Cover with water, and add the onions, cloves, salt and pepper.
- Bring to a boil, then simmer on low for about 1 hour (or until the chicken is cooked and tender). Skim foam off the surface as it appears.
- Drain the chicken, but save the stock (that’s really delicious stock).
- Grind the walnuts in a food processor.
- Take two 2 cups of the chicken stock and mix in a saucepan with breadcrumbs (if using) and walnuts and add salt and pepper to taste. Thicken the sauce to a porridge consistency – still a bit liquid-ish, but not too thick. Add broth if needed.
- Prepare rice and then drizzle melted butter on top.
- Place a bed of rice on serving dish, drizzle sauce over it, place chicken on top, drizzle more sauce, and then finish with generous sprinkling of paprika.
Traditionally served cold, but it’s delicious warm as well.
So what is sharkasiyya doing in Mahfouz’s masterwork? While it’s only mentioned on a few pages of a 500 page novel, I want to suggest that it’s a key entry into the broader nationalist narrative that Mahfouz skillfully weaves into a story that details not only protests and marches, but the rhythms of everyday Egyptian middle class life.
When Zaynab Effat, a daughter of Egypt’s Turko-Circassian aristocracy, marries into the Abd al-Jawad family at the heart of Bayn al-Qasrayn, the family’s sharp-tongued daughter Khadija is skeptical. Complaining one morning at Zaynab’s absence from the family’s oven room, where Khadija and her mother are hard at work, she protests sarcastically – “Is our oven room not suitable enough for her?”
When Zaynab does eventually join the other women in the household chores, Khadija finds still more reasons to doubt Zaynab’s skills and abilities. And then Zaynab (who constantly brings up her noble Turkish birth) suggests one day that she prepare sharkasiyya, a dish that she grew up eating in her father’s house, but that had certainly never been made in the Abd al-Jawad home. The dish sparks scorn, admiration and jealousy among the various members of the household. Khadija does learn to make the dish herself, but she also makes it clear that she is mostly unimpressed. She suggests that for all the hype about the dish’s refinement, it is really just like a bride dressed up in splendor for her wedding day, but who is nothing more than a flesh-and-blood girl at the end of the day (“It’s just rice and sauce,” she scoffs). Perhaps Khadija is jealous here not only of her new sister-in-law, but of her beautiful sister A’isha, who has recently married up into a Turkish aristocratic family herself.
Having made the dish myself, however, I have to say that Khadija’s point resonates: I was surprised at how straightforward it was to make. The sauce is delicious – crushing the walnuts you really get a sense of their fragrant, rich oil, and mixed with fresh chicken stock and a pinch of salt, you really can’t go wrong. It is a dish elegant in its simplicity – not something one typically associates with aristocratic cooking.
While frequently the presence of Circassian women (and their cuisine) is mentioned in the context of Circassian concubines brought to Egypt as consorts of its Turkish aristocrats and rulers, it bears keeping in mind that this was not the case for all Circassian women in Egypt, particularly by the 20th century when they formed a kind of indigenous elite. Huda Sha’rawi’s mother, for example, was Circassian, but not a slave: her family had sent her to Egypt for safety, where she lived with family friends until her marriage, and where she was eventually reunited with her extended family years later. (This is not to understate the fact that many Circassian women were indeed forced into concubinage; Sha’rawi’s mother’s account of her flight from the Caucasus is a traumatic one. But it is important to historicize Circassians in Egypt as more than simply a static class of concubines lounging about in harems.)
Also important to keep in mind is that in the elite households that included Circassian members, even when those Circassians were of slave status, they likely did not do the heavy lifting or manual labor in the household (in fact, many of the pupils at the first school for girls in Egypt were Circassian girls, who were taught to be cultured, accomplished ladies at court). We can speculate, therefore, that while Circassians might have directed elite kitchens, infusing them with their recipes and culinary tastes, the ones feeding the fires and scouring the pots were more likely slaves or servants (depending on the time period – slavery was gradually banned in Egypt over the last several decades of the 19th century) of African origin (typically Sudan, Nubia, and Abyssinia, though these distinctions were usually collapsed into a single racial category in Egyptian parlance). The household Sha’rawi grew up in was certainly staffed with an army of servants; although she is silent about their origins, we can assume that at least a number of them may have been descended from Sudanese or Nubian slaves.
This hypothesis finds support in the character of Zaynab Effat. The Abd al-Jawwad household is not an especially elite one; being more upwardly mobile middle class, their one servant is a lower class Egyptian woman. It is significant therefore that Zaynab brings a black maidservant, Nour, into the household when she moves in. Thus with Zaynab’s arrival, the Abd al-Jawwad household comes to encompass the full spectrum of Egypt’s former slave class, from the descendants of Circassians to the descendants of slaves brought to Egypt from sub-Saharan Africa.
What’s more, the entry of Zaynab and Nour into the Abd al-Jawwad household, as well as their exit, is occasioned by acts of gendered violence committed by Yasin, the eldest son of the family. It is immediately after he assaults the family’s Egyptian servant, Umm Hanafi, that his father decides to marry him off; and Zaynab and Nour both leave the household promptly after Yasin assaults Nour. Perhaps coded into this gendered violence are the complex layers of historical violence underpinning the emergence of modern nationalism that comes to the forefront of the novel’s narrative so clearly by its end.
Egypt’s dominance of the Sudan (which had played a key role in the Egyptian slave trade) was a topic of great public concern throughout the nationalist period, as is explained by Eve Troutt Powell in A Different Shade of Colonialism, in which she explores Egypt as the “colonized colonizer” and explains how intrinsic the notion of Egyptian dominance of the Sudan was to Egyptian nationalism. This manifested in various ways: through Egyptian men’s military and government service in the Sudan, in representations of Sudanese and Nubians in the Egyptian press, and in the fact that the Sudanese were often represented as the “servants, guards, and doorkeepers of Egyptian society” (72). That is, Sudanese and other sub-Saharan Africans were not only part of the national imaginary on a discursive level, but part of actual domestic life in Egypt as well. We don’t know for sure from the novel, but one can suppose that one reason it may have been important for Zaynab to bring a maidservant with her into her married home could have been that Nour had been trained to execute the ins and outs of the Circassian delicacies that so enchanted Zaynab’s new family.
From Troutt Powell’s work, I was familiar with the fact that Huda Sha’rawi, who first became politically active around the same time as the action taking place in Bayn al-Qasrayn (leading up to the 1919 revolution), supported Egyptian claims to the Sudan. But it wasn’t until I read Sha’rawi’s memoirs from start to finish that I realized just how deep her support for Egypt’s claims to the Sudan actually ran. In the latter chapters of the memoir, Egypt’s “rights” (huqūq) to the Sudan are a recurring motif. Sha’rawi even recounts an episode in which she berates Sa’d Zaghlul for taking too weak a stance on the issue, and repeatedly refers to Sudan as an inseparable part of Egypt.
By this point in the memoir, Sha’rawi is referencing princesses and aristocratic Turkish ladies of her acquaintance far less than she had in the early chapters of the book, and discusses the nationalist bashas and beys of Zaghlul’s circle far more (in part, of course, because she has married out of a household associated with the former and into a household affiliated with the latter group). The narrative has shifted from largely personal episodes to political ones, and yet keeping in mind Troutt Powell’s arguments, the Sudan might be interpreted, however obliquely, as one theme that connects both aspects of Sha’rawi’s memoir: the inner workings of the Turko-Circassian elite household, and an emerging Egyptian nationalism with imperial aspirations in the Sudan.
Can we read the sharkasiyya in Bayn al-Qasrayn as a dish that connects these two facets of Egyptian identity (Turko-Circassian and African) – elements that had to be assimilated into a purified national unity? Mahfouz’s pairing of a Circassian woman and a maid of African origin in the narrative, and the bookending of their stay in the home with acts of violence, is a reminder of the histories of conquest and domination that accompanied the making of modern Egypt – whose bourgeois cuisine features sharkasiyya to this day. It is a reminder, too, of the need to explore not only the cultural and literary stories behind a recipe’s origins, but the domestic economy that went into producing it. The dish is Turko-Circassian, but whose hands actually shelled and crushed the walnuts, plucked the feathers off the chickens, fed the kitchen fires, and scoured the pots?
Recipes are passed down and practiced and embedded in the lives of flesh and blood people – ordinary people, like the bride to which Khadija compares the dish – who produce and reproduce culinary traditions, but whose voices and stories history so often neglects – particularly when they are of certain racial and class backgrounds.
For more on African and African diaspora foods, see Michael W. Twitty’s excellent blog, Afroculinaria.
Anny Gaul is a cultural historian who studies food and gender in the Arabophone world. She is currently an assistant professor of Arabic Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her work uses food and kitchens to explore how concepts like nationality, gender, race, and class are made meaningful in everyday contexts; other interests include the history of women’s movements in the Middle East and North Africa and learning by making. Her scholarship has been published in Middle Eastern Literatures, Gastronomica, and Mashriq & Mahjar; bylines include Eater, ArabLit Quarterly, and Rawi. She has taught at Georgetown and at Tufts, works as a translator (from Arabic) and has written a food blog since 2010.