The Diet of Abûnâ Abd el-Mesih

The diet of Abûnâ Abd el-Mesih has been discussed for more than half a century. It seems clear from most sources – Ethiopian, Eritrean and Coptic-Egyptian – that he was not simply a vegetarian, who abstains from animal food, particularly that from slaughtered animals, but that he was a vegan who will not use or eat any other animal products like milk and cheese. He also ate no fish. He liked to affirm short phrases from St. Isaac the Syrian: “There can be no knowledge of the mysteries of God on a full stomach.” “There can be no weapon more powerful to the heart than hunger endured for Christ’s sake.” After more than three decades in the Wadi el-Natroun, Abûnâ Abd el-Mesih usually ate and drank alone.
el habashi1
In common with other monks by the Red Sea, in the Fayoum Basin and in Upper Egypt, Abûnâ Abd el-Mesih’s favorite dish was Mulukhiyyah, a leafy summer vegetable that is extremely popular throughout the Middle East. Only the leaves are edible. They are usually available fresh, dry or frozen, though in the Wadi el-Natroun it is most likely that they were simply dry – there were no refrigerators in desert caves, at least not in the time of the Ethiopian mystic! These tasty leaves were the most important ingredients in the stable diet of Abûnâ Abd el-Mesih.

He also ate lentils (lens culinaris). He cooked alone in his desert cave, lighting a fire at night for cooking and maintaining the flames in the desert winter so that he could be sufficiently warm. Although he liked to drink tea, it is sometimes reported that he used salt rather than sugar in his drink. But bread was more important, and was supplied freely by the kitchen of the Monastery of the Romans. We may see that the bread that he ate was not simply mundane but mysterious: “God sends bread to me every day.”

He obviously remained in the desert cave close to Deir el-Bârâmûsi for a very long time, and, apart from one brief period of sickness in the 1950s when he was taken to Alexandria, he only left his cave for Jerusalem in 1970s. He was certain that he needed to fulfill the classical Ethiopian monastic injunction to “stand in the Holy City of God”. A monk who leaves the silence of the desert dies, but Ethiopian Orthodoxy speaks of a hermit who must travel “to find the City of God, coming down from God out of heaven”. Abûnâ Abd el-Mesih was not alone in his conviction that he should travel beyond the earthly Jerusalem to the heavenly revelation of that city.

Alone, at home in Ethiopia, bidden in the monastic wasteland of Egypt and finally on pilgrimage to Israel-Palestine, the desert father Abûnâ Abd el-Mesih el-Habasbi did not welcome earthly companions but frequently affirmed the presence of “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” who joined him daily in their hymns of praise.

From the article by John Watson reprinted, with permission, from Coptic Church Review: A Quarterly of Contemporary Patristic Studies, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Summer 2006) at

(i) Mulukhiyyah
“Mulukhiyah, mloukhiya, molokhia, molohiya, mulukhiyya, malukhiyah, or moroheiya (Arabic: ملوخية‎) is the leaves of Corchorus species used as a vegetable in Middle Eastern and North African cuisine. Mulukhiyyah is rather bitter, and when boiled, the resulting liquid is a thick, highly mucilaginous broth; it is often described as “slimy,” rather like cooked okra. Mulukhiyyah is generally eaten cooked, not raw, and is most frequently turned into a kind of soup or stew, typically bearing the same name as the vegetable in the local language.”

(ii) Lentils
kushari 2
For traditional Egyptian lentil recipes see including the traditional monastic dish;

“Kushari, also koshary, kosheri or koshari (Egyptian Arabic: كشرى, [ˈkoʃæɾi]), is an Egyptian dish of rice and lentils cooked together, topped with pasta—some add spaghetti—a garlic tomato sauce, and garnished with chickpeas and crispy fried onions, with a sprinkling of garlic juice.”

(iii) Tea

Egyptian tea comes in two varieties: Koshary and Saiidi. Koshary tea, popular in Lower (Northern) Egypt, is prepared using the traditional method of steeping black tea in boiled water and letting it set for a few minutes. It is almost always sweetened with cane sugar and is often flavored with fresh mint leaves. Adding milk is also common. Koshary tea is usually light, with less than a half teaspoonful per cup considered to be near the high end.
Saiidi tea is common in Upper (Southern) Egypt. It is prepared by boiling black tea with water for as long as 5 minutes over a strong flame. Saiidi tea is extremely heavy, with 2 teaspoonfuls per cup being the norm. It is sweetened with copious amounts of cane sugar (a necessity since the formula and method yield a very bitter tea). Saiidi tea is often black even in liquid form.
egyptian tea
Egyptian Red Tea is an infusion beverage made from the calyces of the Hibiscus Sabdariffa flower (crushed). It is a caffeine-free, (certified organic) tea that possesses a number of therapeutic benefits. Egyptian Red is considered to be an all-purpose medicinal plant that can be used to remedy various diseases and health conditions.

(iv) Bread

“Bread made from a simple recipe forms the backbone of Egyptian cuisine. It is consumed at almost all Egyptian meals; a working-class or rural Egyptian meal might consist of little more than bread and beans.

The local bread is a form of hearty, thick, glutenous pita bread called Eish Masri or Relish Salad (Egyptian Arabic: عيش [ʕeːʃ]; Modern Standard Arabic: ʿayš) rather than the Arabic خبز ḫubz. The word “[ʕeːʃ]” comes from the Semitic root ع-ي-ش ʕ-Ī-Š with the meaning “to live, be alive.” The word ʿayš itself has the meaning of “life, way of living…; livelihood, subsistence” in Modern Standard and Classical Arabic; folklore holds that this synonymity indicates the centrality of bread to Egyptian life.”
egyptian bread
“The ancient Egyptians had a varied diet, but most importantly their food was bread and beer. Each meal was accompanied by them, and meals were considered incomplete without them. Wheat and barley were the main crops cultivated wheat was used to bake bread and barley for making beer.

The bread was the staple food of the Egyptians. Much of our knowledge about ancient Egyptian bread comes from archaeological digs have found bread dried in the tombs. The bread was placed as a funerary offering to feed the dead in their journey to the afterlife.
The process of baking bread is known from sources such as statues of the Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom models, tombs of Beni Hassan etc.

Egyptian bread was made almost exclusively from emmer wheat, which was more difficult to process into flour from most other wheat varieties. Emmer needed a complete treatment, which was usually done by women in large families.

Egyptian bread was very different from bread we eat today. The gritty and hard bread was very dangerous for your teeth. Many Egyptian mummies show severe abrasion of the teeth to eat bread with sand and particles from the wheels. Even Amenhotep III suffered a lot of these problems.

The ball is in spikelet which needed to be removed by moistening and pounding with a pestle to avoid crushing the beans inside. It is then dried in the sun, winnowed and sifted bleached and finally on a wheel seat, which operated by moving the wheel back and forth.
Grinding was hard work, taking hours of hard work. Grit stone grinding wheel was released in flour and was baked in bread. Cooking techniques varies over time.

Flavorings used for bread included coriander seeds and dates. There were other flavors such as honey, butter, eggs, oil and herbs, and fruit that were added to the occasion. Yeast could also be added to some recipes. But whether they were used by the poor.
The most common type of pita bread is a type made either with refined white flour called aysh Shami, or with coarse, whole wheat, aysh belly. There were over thirty different types of bread.

More than forty varieties of bread and cakes were made in the New Kingdom. There are many types of breads, including those shaped like animals. Breads also the form of human figures, fish, all of varying the texture of dough.”

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