Uprooting a sweet tradition

Egyptians have been drinking erk sous, a licorice juice, from street vendors for generations. This cultural trade-mark is being affected by the onslaught of urbanization and a demand for diversification.

Clank clink clank clink… The rhythmic clanking of his cymbals resonates distinctively through the thick noise of Cairo’s busy downtown streets on hot summer days.

ErkSousStreetSellerWhen a thirsty passerby stops him for erk sous, a cold licorice juice, the street vendor, in his baggy Turkish-style pants, thick cloth belt, little vest, and rubber boots, tilts his heavy ice-filled copper container decorated with a bunch of colorful plastic flowers that is strapped to his chest, and pours the brownish juice into a glass held way below his waist so as to foam up the liquid.

After rinsing the used glass with a dash of water sprinkled from a plastic jug slung over his shoulder, he tucks it back into a small rimmed tray fixed to one hip, and then bangs his cymbals again.

Erk sous, a healthy drink sold by the glass for 25 piasters in the streets of Cairo and across the country, is loved by all Egyptians – rich and poor.

“I work all day in the heat and sun, and I’m really happy when I see the erk sous coming my way so I can quench my thirst,” said El Shahat Mohamed. “I usually find the erk sous sellers in popular areas and sometimes I even go there on purpose to have a drink.”

But the erk sous seller perhaps has an even more special place in the heart of Egyptians than the drink itself.

“One of the best moments of my day, especially if it’s a hot day, is when I hear the erk sous seller clanking his cymbals together to draw people’s attention,” said Walid Abdel Ghany, a trainee lawyer. “I know then that I’m going to have a nice cool drink.”

The seller of erk sous is like a fixture in Cairo’s street life.

ErkSous“If a day goes by in the summer and the seller doesn’t pass under our building, we feel there’s something missing,” said Amina Ibrahim, a house wife from Aboud suburb. “I make sure I buy a kilo of erk sous each day for my husband and children when they get back from work and school. It keeps them patient till I finish preparing the lunch.”

The root of the drink

The medicinal use of licorice can be traced back to many ancient civilizations. Babylonians used it some 4000 years ago as a drink to strengthen the body and its immune system. Ancient Egyptians would prepare a licorice drink as a ritual to honor the spirits of the Pharaohs. Raw erk sous was also found in the tomb of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun.

“Ancient Egyptian doctors used to mix erk sous with various medicines to treat stomach and liver problems,” said Dr. Mohamed Nafady, an expert in alternative medicine, who practices herbal medicine. “The Greeks, Romans and later the Arabs used it as well to treat coughs, indigestion, vomiting, stomach pains and general digestive ailments. Its health benefits have been mentioned in various old scrolls.”

The benefits of erk sous

Erk sous, extracted from the root of Glycyrrhiza glabra, a plant with blue flowers, has licorice_flowera distinct sweet flavor. It contains sugar, potassium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and others minerals. Still today Egyptians drink it for its health benefits.

“Erk sous strengthens the immune system,” said Mohamed Ibrahim, a spice shop owner and herbal medicine practitioner from the district of Shubra. “It is a natural antibiotic that helps treat infections in the respiratory system.”

“It is also very useful for coughs and throat soars. Some people used it as well to regulate the digestive system and for constipation,” added Ibrahim.

Preparing the drink

Preparing erk sous is very easy and only takes a few hours to make.

Abdo Faheem Shehatah, an erk sous seller from Souhag in Upper Egypt, has been doing it for years. He buys the raw ingredient from the spice shop. He places it in a bowl and sprays it with water and sodium carbonate, leaving to sit over night for seven or eight hours until it ferments.

LicoriceRootSodium carbonate helps in the fermenting process. Erk sous’s original colour is light brown but turns dark as a chemical reaction to the sodium carbonate and the water.

“The next morning, I rub the erk sous together a little in my hands until it turns dark in color,” said Shehatah, who learned the trade of making and selling erk sous while studying commerce. He then places the raw erk sous in a sieve lined with fine gauze fabric, and pours water over it. The drink is then ready to be served.

Many Egyptian families prepare this favored drink in their homes. Some say making it themselves is cheaper than buying it, while others feel it is more hygienic than drinking it from a street seller.

“I don’t like drinking erk sous from the street,” said Ramadan Mabrouk, a science teacher. “I think it’s safer when my wife makes it for us at home. It’s cleaner that way.”

Safeyah Helmi, a tax authority employee from the district of Shubra, is used to making erk sous at home. Because her family drinks so much of it in the summer, she says it is more cost effective home made.

“My husband and kids like to joke about how well I make it, and they keep telling me I should buy an urn and go and sell the drink,” said Helmi.

The demand and consumption of erk sous vary according to the time of the year.

LicoriceJuicesCart“Our sales of raw erk sous go up especially in the summer and of course during Ramadan,” said Mahmoud Abdel Awy, a spice shop owner in El Khalafawy, Shubra, adding that his customers generally buy depending on the size of the family.

Sales increase in summer because erk sous is served ice cold and is therefore very refreshing when the temperatures soar.

During Ramadan, Egyptians also drink more erk sous because it helps them prepare for the next day’s fast, as it lessens their thirst.

Hanaa El Sayed, a hairdresser who works in a salon in Kholousy Street, Shubra, is one of those women who never learned how to prepare the licorice drink herself. “Maybe because I’m always outside my home busy with my work,” said El Sayed, who prefers to buy it from the street vendor and whose customers frequently ask her to get them a glass as well.

Times are changing

Today however, things are changing for the wandering erk sous sellers. Many have given up this job, finding it difficult to walk the streets with the heavy urns on their backs amidst Cairo’s crowded streets and traffic. Others on the other hand have opened juice shops where they can sell a larger assortment of drinks that better suits the demand of customers.

LicoriceDrinkCart“Life is hard nowadays and with the hot weather in the summer, the traffic and the bustling streets, who could stand walking around all day with that weight on their back,” said Ahmed Mokhtar, a juice shop owner in El Khalafawy, Shubra.

“That’s why my dad and I decided to open this shop to sell erk sous and other refreshments as well.”

Other sellers haven’t given up wandering the streets completely. Instead they have opted for a wheeled cart to help them reduce some of their works’ strain.

Licorice story 001_0008“In the past people used to take better care of their health, so it wasn’t difficult for them to walk around all day, but nowadays things are different,” said Ayad Faheem Shehatah, brother of Abdo Faheem Shehatah, who has been selling erk sous for 10 years.

“I built this cart with wheels, which makes it a lot easier for me now to walk around from street to street without getting too tired. It also allows me to sell more than one type of drink at the same time, so today for example I have erk sous, tamr hindi (a tamarind fruit ice drink) and sobia (a sweet drink made of grinded rice, coconut, sugar and milk mixed together in water). Also I have blocks of ice in the cart, to keep the drinks nice and cool.”

Article and video by Ingrid Wassmann and Karim Gohary

4 Comments

  1. ahmed hassanin said,

    May 27, 2009 at 12:41 am

    waw it’s very very very interested
    but i want to ask some thing !
    are you( Ingrid Wassmann and Karim Gohary ) egyptian ?
    or live in egypt ? i think no ! but
    it’s nice to see people from foriegn countries make a story about custems of egypt

    i wish you can do some thing about konafa and kattayef in ramadan

  2. Saied Kayd said,

    August 31, 2009 at 8:26 am

    Sobia. It’s a spicy root drink that reminds me of my childhood in Cairo Egypt, which I have not seen since I came to England in 1966 and I am 55 years old now. I really would like to know everything about that heavenly drink, Sobia. What kind of root is it? Where it originated from? Full recipe please and how to make it please.
    Regards
    Saied Kayd

  3. Brigitte Meindl - Marx said,

    November 6, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    Hi Ingrid, great article. Would love to hear from you, hope you’re fine. Greetings from Bavaria, GY, Brigitte

    • Pombero said,

      November 11, 2009 at 7:39 am

      Hi Brigitte,
      Nice to know that somebody is interested in this part of the world. Indeed Cairo has many fascinating features. Unfortunately globalization is slowly encroaching on many of the local traditions…. so instead people are drinking pepsis, cokes, and mcshakes….


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