the day the whole nation goes outside


In this part of the world, April brings in the feel of Spring. With it comes an ancient and interesting celebration here in Egypt called:

Sham el Nessim.

The best translations of the words are possibly

  • Smelling the breeze
  • sniffing the air
  • inhaling the smell…

which is a wonderful way of describing the first feel and aroma of the beginning of Spring, of life. However, in Egypt, the smell that tends to prevail on this day is actually one of very stinky, smelly fish and onions!


This very distinctly Egyptian day takes place on the Monday after the Coptic Christians celebrate Easter Sunday. The origins of the Sham el Nessim are neither Islamic (which is why certain conservative Muslims will not celebrate this day) nor are they Christian. They seem to originate from Pharaonic times. In those times, there was a celebration as winter turned into spring: it was a time to make an offering to the gods, to ensure fertility and welfare for the agricultural year ahead: the renewal of life. It was said that the offerings made to the gods in those days are the same items that are eaten in the Sham el Nessim picnics! You could say the Pharaonic celebration has morphed into a national picnic day!


It is a day when everyone goes outside: as it is there that you can smell the spring air! People will head to any open or green space: the parks, gardens, beaches and picnic areas will be jam-packed with families, ready for their picnics. Some will head to the beach or the farm areas for a more “rural” feel. Families gather, friends gather.. so they can all breathe the air and enjoy the traditional meal.


This day is very famous because of what is eaten on this day. One of the key foods is a fish called: Feseekh. It has some others names: rotten fish, smelly fish, stinky fish, putrid fish! It is a cuisine that the people either adore or abhor! So what is this offensive fish? The raw ingredient is grey mullet (a readily available and popular fish here.) It then goes through a time-honored many-stepped process of fermentation (waiting for the fish to bloat in the sun), salting and sitting, which lasts either 1 week – 10 days depending on how hot the weather is! It is a traditional process, often handed down from generation to generation. There are a few shops that are particularly famous for this kind of fish (there is one we know of in Fowa) but people in each town are warned to take care where you purchase your feseech from!

If you are interested in the process, look at this excellent page:

The very distinctive “pungent aroma” will begin to permeate the air when it is ready (or so I am told). The unveiling of the fish has seen many people running out of the house, or neighbors thinking there is a dead rat in the house! But most of my friends get terribly enthusiastic in anticipation of eating their beloved faseekh!

For those who cannot eat faseekh (and possibly may be considered wiser when you know that the hospitals increase the staff for the following day as many cases of poisoning from the fish will be rushed in…..) the other options are to eat:

ringa (smoked herrings) or tuna….. some sort of salty fish will be considered a must!

Along with this is eaten:

  • spring onions (thought to ward off evil and sickness)
  • lettuce (a sign of hopefulness)
  • lots of lemon (or vinegar)
  • and as always, bread

There is no traditional dessert or sweets, as on top of the salty fermented fish, onions and lemons I am told there can be no follow on food at all! Only the inevitable cup of black tea!


The breakfast on this day usually involves eating eggs. If there are children in the family, often there is a coloring/painting/dyeing of eggs: it is a fun time for children. These days some simply buy chocolate eggs, which of course the children love! But more traditional is the boiling of ordinary eggs, and then creating a lovely bright, spring pattern on the eggs.


Well….. to be honest, I stay very far away from Feseekh! But give me ringa any day! What I do enjoy about this day is seeing families celebrating and having fun outside, breathing in the Spring air and saying goodbye to winter. This is a good thing….

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