In a bustling marketplace in a lower-income district in Cairo, Noura Refaey, 43, appraises bunches of spinach before apprehensively asking the salesman how much they cost.
Her three children protest as they would rather eat beef, chicken or fried aubergine — all of which have become too expensive for Ms Refaey to buy regularly. For the third time in a week, lunch will consist of a spinach dish served with a side of rice.
Millions of Egyptians such as Ms Refaey have made drastic changes to their diets in response to worsening inflation.
Most have cut down on more expensive foods, while others have started growing what they can, even in urban environments, to feed their families.
A rise in global food and energy prices brought on by Russia’s war with Ukraine — Egypt’s two largest suppliers of wheat and other commodities — has significantly raised the country's import bill.
The higher import bill, along with a flight of foreign capital, has depleted foreign reserves and created an economic crisis, although analysts also blame government spending and ineffectual economic policies.
Repeated devaluations of the local currency have also helped to push up prices over the past year.
Ms Refaey, a resident of the densely populated neighbourhood of El Talbia in Greater Cairo, says she used to feed her family beef once a week to “fortify their bones”. Today, she can afford to do so only once a month.
Despite government attempts to control prices, inflation reached a five-year high of 25.8 per cent in January.
Beef now costs twice as much as it did in January last year — between $8 and $10 per kilogram. Ms Refaey’s monthly household income is about $220.
While meat is available for about 40 per cent less at outlets run by the Ministry of Supply or the armed forces, both of which own food companies, even this is beyond the reach of many consumers.
The price of chicken has tripled since last January to about $3 per kilogram. Egg prices have also tripled.
Poultry farmers have been particularly affected by the economic crisis. The devaluation of the Egyptian pound raised the cost of imported corn and soybeans, two essential components of chicken feed, while a government ban on imports has raised prices even higher.
Ms Refaey says she used to feed her family chicken dishes two or three times a week, now she can afford to do so twice a month.
“I feed my family more fish than ever before now because it’s the cheapest available protein and it’s nutritious, which I think is important now that my family cut down on a lot of other foods,” she said. “I try to feed them fish once a week.”
Fish prices have tripled since early 2022, but they remain quite low compared to meat and chicken.
On the other days, Ms Refaey cooks various kinds of vegetable dishes and serves them with rice or pasta on the side.
“I make spinach in tomato sauce a lot because it’s very cheap. I try to mix things up by also cooking potatoes, aubergine and lentil dishes,” she says. “The worst part about it is how much my children complain.”
One change that her children particularly hate is how much she has cut down on fried foods, as the price of cooking oil has doubled.
Ms Refaey receives one litre of cooking oil each month through her state-issued ration card, which allows holders to purchase subsidised food items at outlets nationwide.
“Last year, I used seven litres of cooking oil each month,” she says. “Fried potatoes or aubergine are a quick and easy dish that everyone likes. But we can’t have it as often now. I started to roast more food but my kids don’t like it as much.”
Now she buys ready-made fried potatoes or aubergine from local vendors because it costs less than buying more oil.
Ms Refaey and many of her neighbours have also taken to making some ingredients at home.
Besaria, or sand smelt, a small Mediterranean fish that is eaten salted or fried, has been growing in popularity because of its low cost. Previously, people would buy the final product at the grocer's because it needs to be brined for days in advance — but Ms Refaey has begun to buy the fish fresh and brine it at home.
A kilogram of pre-salted besaria is three times as expensive as buying fresh fish.
In the same vein, Ms Refaey and others have bought live chickens and ducks and housed them in an unused part of their multistorey residential building.
She says her hens lay an average of four eggs a day, which is enough to feed her family if she supplements it with other breakfast dishes such as fava beans, cheese or potatoes, all of which remain relatively cheap.
The birds are fed with leftovers from her kitchen and she supplements their feed with yellow corn.
“What I am hoping for is that some of the hens will brood and I’ll get some hatchlings. I want to slaughter a couple during Ramadan so I am hoping some eggs to hatch before then,” she said.
He older sister, Azza, is growing potatoes and sweet potatoes in a plant bed she has placed on her roof. She told The National she wanted to ensure her family had a source of carbohydrates now that rice prices are increasing.
The sisters also get help from relatives in the rural province of Fayoum, where the majority of their family still lives. They often send food items, such as cheese, honey, jam and ghee, which are much cheaper in Fayoum than in Cairo.
“A lot of families in the provinces make their own food. My family is the same, so they have been sending me food whenever they can. The cottage cheese they send me sells for 45 pounds a kilogram in Cairo. It costs 30 in Fayoum — the same cheese,” Ms Refaey said.
Another item that Ms Refaey and her sister wait for their mother to send each month is a special kind of bread that she bakes in a domed mud oven.
Holders of state ration cards in Egypt’s cities are allowed to buy five flat loaves per person per day at subsidised prices. In the provinces, they are given 10kg of flour per person at a reduced price each month to bake their own bread.
“I would much rather they gave me flour at the outlets in Cairo because then I could make much better bread and freeze it for later,” Azza Refaey says.