Every year, an ancient foodie festival leaves hundreds of Egyptian diners clutching their stomachs and writhing in pain. In some cases, the celebrations can even lead to premature death. The reason has nothing to do with religion or a wild national party culture, but a small rotten fish that, despite all advice to the contrary, people keep on eating.
Fesikh has been a feature of Egyptian culture since the 1st Century AD. Forming a key part of the Christian festival of Sham El-Nessim, the dish consists of fermented and sometimes even rancid grey river mullet that has been left to dry on the baking banks of the River Nile for as long as a year before being eaten. The result is one of the most pungent and unappetising foods on the African continent.
For Egyptians, the Sham El-Nessim festival is all about celebrating the start of spring. Families spend all day picnicking outside with loved ones, eating lettuce, onions and, most importantly, fesikh. The name Sham El-Nessim actually translates as “the smelling of the breeze”. This name, in part, helps to explain why the notoriously pungent fish plays such an indispensable role in the event.
The key to avoiding poisoning from Fesikh is all in the preparation. Experts know that there is a fine line between preparing a harmless plate of horrible fish and a plate of horrible fish that has the power to kill. After being left to dry in the sun, the mullet are placed in barrels containing carefully measured quantities of salty water for 45 days. The key, according to industry insiders is include enough salt to cure the flesh, without over salting the delicate fish. If you get this balancing act wrong the results can be disastrous.
The anaerobic conditions found within the fesikh barrels are a ripe environment for botulism bacteria to thrive. Botulism, a constant threat in countries all over the world, causes symptoms of nausea, vomiting, blurred vision and speaking difficulties. In between 5-10% of cases, the disease causes death. Though it’s impossible to say how many Egyptians are accidentally poisoned every year, according to official records the deadliest year on record was 1991, where 18 confirmed deaths were caused by this unusual dish.
The Egyptian relationship with fesikh is extremely complicated. Though many locals insist that they despise the food, and despite annual government warnings about the risks associated with eating it, there are several successful businesses in Cairo that specialise in serving it to an enamoured public. Indeed, in an interview with the BBC, one business owner went so far as to claim that the furor around the fish actually helps his business. Savvy Egyptians know that, though there are unscrupulous vendors looking to make a quick buck, the well established businesses have a hard earned reputation for quality. The food may be unpleasant, but at least by buying it from the right place you can avoid a trip to the hospital.
All across the planet, people celebrate with food in an array of unusual ways. Wherever you come from, there are foodie customs and traditions that will leave the rest of the world scratching their heads. However, when it comes to pure danger, than can be few more bizarre practices than this strange fish from the Nile.