Sham el Nessim

شم النسيم

sham el nessim, which translates to ‘smell the breeze,’ is an egyptian national holiday that commemorates the start of spring. its origins and name stem from shemu, the ancient Egyptian season of harvest.  sham el nessim falls on the monday after orthodox easter, this year, on may 02; its date is subject to change annually and next year should be on april 17th.  it is celebrated by both egyptians in the motherland and in the diaspora and its commemoration transcends religious identity. growing up in new york city, my immediate family didn’t celebrate it, but that’s one of the woes of acculturation, mixed marriages, and the adoption of ultra orthodox religious traditions. i have vague memories of my aunt dying eggs, my father eating ringa, and summers in alexandria eating termis, but that’s the closest. this year i’m definitely going to make sure to smell the breeze.

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this year, withstanding first-year finals (yikes!) i’m excited to be celebrating with my father for the first time ever. it’s a nice way to connect with both each other and and reconnect a land of which we have different relationships to. often, on sham el nessim, families and friends commemorate with a picnic outdoors, often in the early morning; but alas, this year it is rainy and cold in the diaspora, so indoors we stay.

traditionally,  foods that were in abundance around harvest time are eaten on sham el-nessim. faseekh (salted, fermented mullet) and/or ringa (smoked herring), termis (lupini beans), dyed eggs and greens in abundance are eaten.

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faseekh is mullet (a type of fresh water fish) that has been dried in the sun and salted, in time for arriving festival. it is notorious for its very, very pungent smell (which is perhaps rather ironic, because we are smelling the breeze, after all). ringa is smoked herring and is often a more tolerable alternative. until today, i hadn’t had ringa since i was about 7-8 years old, at which age i swore off seafood. i’ve since started eating seafood again, and the regret is real.

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fish was thought to be symbolic of fertility, so was and is also eaten on this day. as an alternative to faseekh and ringa, people will also often eat smoked sardines or anchovies. my father, who hasn’t had faseekh in eons had recently bought some from a local store and kept it in the fridge. when my mom found it a few days later, she thought the smell was so horrid that she threw it away immediately. sorry baba, no faseekh this year. to be honest, i’m still a light-weight and not sure if i was ready, anyway.

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termis, which makes an appearance on this day, is eaten all throughout the mediterranean coast. my fondest memories of egypt are at the beach in mamoura, eating termis. termis, along with fresh greens eaten on sham el nessim symbolizes new life and hope for the days to come.  spring onions are also eaten, as they are believed to protect against the evil eye.  if you’d like to read more on sham el nessim, i.e. want to know where i sourced most of this information from, or want to read some cool origin stories (like the significance of green onions in pharaonic times), click here.

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eggs are often dyed or painted and sometimes inscribed with wishes for the coming season. eggs represent new life and luck. coptic egyptians generally make a braided-around-dyed-eggs brioche, called fresca, for easter, as well as sham el nessim. many egyptians, regardless of religious identity, will also make this bread; here’s a recipe for fresca.

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a lot of these dishes require little to no cooking and minimal prep, especially in the new york city diaspora; most items for sham el nessim can be found at your local middle eastern grocery store, which around this time of year, cater to new york’s large egyptian community. if you’re based in brooklyn, i recommend bay ridge’s balady foods, currently undergoing an expansion (so psyched!). as an addendum, if making ringa, although there is little prep involved, there are small thread-like bones in the smoked herring, that is a little time-intensive to remove, but i do suggest doing so. serve with lots of toasty pita, and enjoy!

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here’s a list of items to buy if you want to commemorate sham el nessim this year: 

faseekh
scallions/green onions
lemons and limes
romaine lettuce (or any other leafy green)
good olive oil 
herbs of your choice
chili peppers
dyed hard boiled eggs
termis (sprinkled with cumin and lemon juice)
dyed or painted hard boiled eggs
good pita bread

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hope the smell of spring is ever so sweet for you this year. kul sana w intu tayyibeen!

constantine p. cavafy’s sham el nessim 

Our pallid Egypt

the sun scorches and scourges

with bitter and spite laden arrows

and exhausts it with thirst and disease.

Our sweet Egypt

In a gay fair

gets drunk, forgets, and adorns itself, and rejoices

and scorns the tyrannical sun.

Joyous Sham el Nessim, innocent country festival,

announces the spring.

Alexandria with her many dense roads empties.

The good Egyptian wants to celebrate

the joyous Sham el Nessim and he becomes a nomad.

From everywhere pour out

The battalions of holiday lovers. The Khabari fills

and the blue-green, musing Mahmoudiya.

The Mex, Muharram Bey, the Ramleh are jammed.

And the countrysides compete to see which will get 

the most carts, loads with happy people, arriving

in solemn, serene merriment.

For the Egyptian preserves his solemnity

even at the festival;

he adorns his fez with flowers but his face

is immobile. He murmurs a monotonous song

with gaiety. There is much good spirit in his thoughts,

least in his movements.

Our Egypt has no rich greenness,

no delight creeks or fountains,

it has no high mountains that cast a broad shade.

But it has magic flowers fallen aflame

from the torch of Ptah; exhaling unknown fragrance,

aromas in which nature swoons.

Amid a circle of admirers the sweet singer of the

widest fame is warmly applauded;

in his tremulous voice pains of love

sigh; his song bitterly complains

of the fickle Fatma or cruel Emineh,

of the wiliest Zainab. 

With the shaded tents and the cold sherbet,

the scorching head and dust are routed.

The hours pass like moments, like steeds hastening

over the smooth plain and their gleaming manes

fanning out gaily over the festival

gild the joyous Sham el Nessim

Our pallid Egypt

the sun scorches and scourges

with bitter and spite laden arrows

and exhausts it with thirst and disease.

Our sweet Egypt

In a gay fair

gets drunk, forgets, and adorns itself, and rejoices

and scorns the tyrannical sun.

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