Traditions Field Note: Let’s Eat Together!

In many Middle Eastern cultures, including Egyptian culture, family is very important. It is not common for people to move out of their parents’ house when they leave for college.  They either go to college in their hometown, commute from their parents’ house to their campus in a nearby city, or sometimes their family will even move with them!

It is also very important to spend time with one’s family.  Even when children get older and want to become more independent and spend more time with their friends, they usually cannot wander very far from their family.  Holidays, free time and all meals are typically spent with the family and close friends.

A part of this close tie to family and friends also means that people do not spend very much time alone. In Egypt as well as other Middle Eastern cultures, it is seen as a bad thing if someone wants to spend a lot of time by themselves.  These traditions of a strong family unit and a close group of friends are also true when it comes to meals.   Most meals are eaten with the family, especially dinner.  It is very important in most Egyptian families that all members of the family are present for dinner.  Even when meals are not eaten with the family, there is still usually a big group of people that gather together to share a meal.

Today I will be explaining more about how communal eating and sharing of food is such an important tradition in Egyptian culture.

What tradition did I learn about?

Communal eating!  What do I mean by communal eating?  It is very important in Egyptian culture to share meals with those around you.  This includes family, close friends, neighbors, and even complete strangers!

The other part of this tradition includes eating dishes that everyone shares at the table.  People do not have their own plates, or if they are at a restaurant they do not order individually.  This is the friendliest and most intimate way to share a meal with those around you.

This is part of a bigger tradition that I have witnessed and been a part of in many different aspects of Egyptian life: what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine.  People are very generous. It is seen as the proper thing to do to offer friends, family and even complete strangers something of yours as a gesture of hospitality.

Since people who live in the dorms like I do are not living with their families, we often eat food together in this style.  Sometimes we all go to a restaurant together, or we order food in the dorms and eat downstairs together in our dorm lounge.  Other times we participate in the full experience of communal eating and go to a restaurant where we order dishes for the entire table and we all share.  Some people even eat with their hands so it can get quite messy!  Do you ever get to eat with your hands?  How is this tradition different from how you eat dinner with your family?

Aside from using hands, it is very common to use bread as a utensil as well.  Many dips and sauces such as hummus and tahini are eaten with bread.  Bread is also used to scoop up dishes such as chicken and rice, or lamb and vegetable dishes.  Eating with your hands is very common and many of the region’s dishes are designed for this purpose.

Why does the community have this tradition?

Food is very important for building and maintaining friendships and relationships.  People will almost always invite new acquaintances into their homes or businesses for tea or coffee.  Sometimes they will even invite you in for an entire meal!  This is their way of them welcoming you into their home and close circle of people.

Family is so very important in Egyptian culture. Sharing a cup of tea or a meal with someone is the way that Egyptians grow closer and learn more about each other, keeping friendships and family ties strong.  Food is central to nearly all Egyptian and Middle Eastern celebrations and holidays.  Weddings, Easter and many other holidays all have very specific foods that are associated with celebrating that holiday.  What holidays or special occasions do you celebrate and what foods do you eat during on those holidays?

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