Egyptian Fesikh - “The Deadly Fish”
By: Caroline Umphlet / Arab America Contributing Writer
Living up to its daunting nickname, Fesikh (فِسيخ) is an ancient and traditional Egyptian dish that is actually deadly. The particular fish used for this meal is known for its unpleasant and pungent smell. The gray mullet, also called borai fish, is a salt-water fish that lives in the Red and Mediterranean Seas. The dish is usually prepared for the celebration called Sham el-Nassim or Eid al-Rabiya. Sham el-Nassim, “smelling the breeze” in Arabic, is an Egyptian holiday that comes the day after Coptic Easter. It dates back to the Pharaonic times and celebrates the turning of Spring, “when each spring the receding Nile River left behind trails of rotting fish.”
It is celebrated by all, regardless of religion. Although some Egyptians do not partake in the eating of fesikh for various reasons. One being they don’t enjoy it. The taste is definitely acquired, and some find it unpleasant. Another being because it is considered a lower class tradition. Some desire to be perceived and act more similar to “Western” culture and do not want to eat a meal so “Egyptian.”
There are dozens of cases of food poisoning reported each year around Easter from fesikh. Health professionals also advise that it not be eaten in large amounts or at all by pregnant women. In 1991, there was the biggest wave of deaths from fesikh. 18 people fell victim to the dish, according to the Ministry of Health. In 2009, there were two deaths, as well as in 2010.
Cooking this meal is deeply advised against, especially if one is unfamiliar with the risks. It takes a very specialized chef to be able to properly and safely prepare the fish. Despite warnings from the Egyptian government every year, people disregard the advice and eat it anyway.
The fish can then be served with lemon, green peppers, maybe a salad, bread, or other preferred sides. The fish is thoroughly cleaned and left in the dark in salt and other seasonings for 10-15 days, some recipes call for up to 21 days or even a whole year! It is safe, if done correctly, to eat it raw because the salt prevents rotting and essentially “cooks” the meat. Some countries do fry, roast, or grill it after the salt, but it is more traditionally Egyptian to eat it raw. Again, it is highly advised to not prepare this meal if you are not familiar with it, given the risks.
The first fasakhani shop in Cairo, Shaheen for Salted Fish and Caviar, was established in 1912 in Islamic Cairo by Mohammed Shaheen. Sabry Shaheen, continuing the family business, now runs the downtown Cairo branch which was established in 1955. So far, they have no complaints from neither customers nor the Ministry of Health about their infamous fermented delicacy.
This traditional dish is too ingrained in Egyptian culture to be abandoned by the people. They are quite dedicated to upholding ancient customs and practices, no matter the danger. Hopefully, in the future, fesikh will not claim any more lives, nor put any in danger.
Check out Arab America’s blog here!