Tasty Vegan Recipes from Egypt

by Marie Henein


Being raised in an Egyptian family, I soon found out that food was of tremendous importance in our culture. Social and family gatherings were centered around large amounts and various types of food. I found the dishes my mother and grandmothers would prepare quite flavorful and grew up always adding lots of spices to whatever I ate. Spices common to Egyptian foods include cumin, garlic, onion, and allspice, and the list goes on and on.

My family is Christian -- Coptic Orthodox to be exact. This was one of the earliest forms of Christianity and was the religion of the country until the Arab invasions. Many of the following recipes have been passed down from generation to generation.

The Coptic church believes in partial fasting almost 200 days of every year. During about 60 of those days, the members eat a completely vegan diet. The remaining days they are permitted to eat fish, but no other animals or animal products. The reasons behind the fasting vary by interpretation. They look to stories in the Bible for the reasoning behind the fasts.

According to the Coptic interpretation of the Bible, when God first created the world, he gave humans only vegetables as food. It was only later, when people multiplied and became sinful, that God permitted them to eat animals, only because it was in accordance with their sinful behavior. Therefore, the Copts believe humans survived for a great length of time without eating animals. In an effort to purify themselves and to make a sacrifice to God, they give up the eating of animals during these 60 days. The Copts consider the vegan food they eat during fasts to be a sacrifice because they consider such food less appetizing and less nutritious.

A tremendous number of vegan dishes were created for the fasting periods. However, when I became a vegetarian, I realized that these recipes were neither a sacrifice of flavor nor of nutritional value. I have recently become vegan and am truly thankful for all the delicious vegan recipes I am able to enjoy from my culture. Please note, however, that some of my favorite Egyptian recipes were originally prepared with meats, but I have found that they are delicious when prepared without meat.

Less Common Ingredients

Fava Beans

Sometimes called broad beans. Can be found canned in Middle Eastern and some regular grocery stores. Progresso makes canned fava beans. Canned fava beans may also be ordered through the mail by calling the Near East Bakery in Baltimore at (410) 254-8970 Monday-Saturday between 8-6 EST. They will ship via UPS and payments are C.O.D.

Grape Leaves

Can be found in Greek or Middle Eastern specialty stores. Some large grocery stores carry them in the ethnic foods section or they may be found near the section where pickles are sold. They are difficult to order by mail because they almost always come in glass jars.



(Serves 6)

This is a typical dish prepared during fasts. You can substitute one layer of cooked elbow macaroni for a layer of rice.

  • 2 cups uncooked brown or white rice
  • 1 pound lentils
  • 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
  • 1 Tablespoon crushed garlic
  • Two 16-ounce cans of tomato sauce
  • ½ cup water
  • ¼ cup vinegar
  • 1 medium onion

Cook rice according to directions. Rinse lentils and put them in a pot, covering them with water, and bring to a boil. Then simmer on low heat until almost all water is absorbed and lentils are well cooked. Add extra water if longer time is needed. To make the sauce, first saute the garlic in 1 Tablespoon oil until golden. Add both cans of tomato sauce and simmer 10-15 minutes. Add water and vinegar and bring to a boil. Remove from heat immediately and add salt to taste. Finally, slice onion in thin, small pieces and saute in remaining 1 Tablespoon oil until brown and crispy.

This dish should be arranged as a layer of lentils (on the bottom), followed by a layer of rice, then another layer of lentils and another layer of rice. Sprinkle the onions and the sauce on top before serving.

Total Calories Per Serving: 563
Fat: 7 grams


(Makes about 40 leaves)

This recipe for grape leaves has been passed down through my family. Ground lamb is the ingredient I've omitted.

  • 1 cup uncooked basmati brown or traditional white rice
  • (traditionally prepared with white)
  • 2 large tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • ¼ cup chopped parsley
  • 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon allspice
  • One 16 oz jar of grape leaves
  • 1 cup tomato sauce
  • 2 cups water
  • Round sliced carrots, frozen or fresh
  • (enough to cover the bottom of a 3 quart pot,
  • approximately 15 carrot slices, depending on their size)

Mix all ingredients except grape leaves, tomato sauce, water, and carrots in a bowl. Remove grape leaves from jar, unfold, and rinse with water. Place grape leaves with the rough side up, one at a time, on a large, flat plate. Be sure that the pointy parts of the leaf are directed away from you and the flatter edges and stem are towards you. Place one teaspoon of the mixture on the bottom of the leaf, near the stem, and arrange it lengthwise using your fingers. First roll the flat edges near the stem upwards and tuck them slightly under the filling. Then applying pressure to keep the leaves rolled tightly, tuck one side at a time of the two parts of the leaf pointing outwards. Now, roll the rest of the way upwards still applying pressure to keep the leaf tight.

Cook sliced carrots in water until tender. Cover the bottom layer of a large pot with these carrots. Begin layering the stuffed leaves above the carrots and be sure that they are packed tightly together; otherwise they may fall apart during cooking. Each layer of leaves should be in varying directions across the pot. Pour the tomato sauce and water over the leaves and bring the sauce to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, and place a flat plate (glass or stoneware) upside down over the top layer of leaves, and press down as hard as you can. Leave the plate in place during cooking. Cover the pot with its cover as well, and cook for 40-45 minutes. Check one leaf to see if rice has cooked fully. Serve warm.

Total Calories Per Stuffed Grape Leaf: 27
Fat: 1 gram


(Serves 5)

My mother's recipe for a light, tasty potato salad.

  • 2-½ pounds red potatoes
  • ½ cup chopped parsley
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Boil potatoes, and cool. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Chill and serve.

Total Calories Per Serving: 197
Fat: 3 grams


(Serves 4-6)

This is a delightful salad for summertime.

  • One 16-ounce bag frozen French cut green beans
  • One 16-ounce can black eyed peas
  • 2 large ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • ½ cup chopped parsley
  • 4 entire scallions, chopped
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Steam and drain the green beans and allow them to cool completely. Drain and rinse the black eyed peas. Combine all ingredients and mix well. May be served chilled.

Total Calories Per Serving: 233
Fat: 5 grams


(Serves 4)

A delicious dish from my grandmother that is traditionally prepared with ground beef, which I omitted.

  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped fresh dill
  • One 15-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 10 ounces frozen, thawed spinach
  • ½ cup water
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Saute onions in oil. Add garlic and dill to saucepan and continue to saute for two minutes. Add tomato sauce and bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes on low heat. Add spinach and water, then bring to a boil again. Cover and simmer on low heat for 15 minutes. Serve warm over cooked rice.

Total Calories Per Serving: 94
Fat: 4 grams


(Serves 4)

This way of preparing fava beans, which are commonly eaten as a breakfast food in Egypt, is my uncle's recipe. The ingredients tend to be common for the dish but may be varied in their quantities.

  • One 16-ounce can cooked fava beans
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 large tomato, diced
  • 1-½ Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon cumin powder
  • ¼ cup parsley, chopped
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • Salt, pepper, and red chili pepper to taste
  • Pita bread (optional)

Pour the beans into a pot and bring to a boil. Mix them well and add remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil again, then reduce to medium heat and cook for about 5 minutes. This dish is usually eaten with pita bread.

Total Calories Per Serving: 160
Fat: 6 grams

Marie Henein researched and wrote this article while doing an internship with The Vegetarian Resource Group.

CAIROSCENE - V for Vegan

This article originally appeared in the May/June 1995 issue of the Vegetarian Journal, published by:

The Vegetarian Resource Group
P.O. Box 1463
Baltimore, MD 21203
(410) 366-VEGE