Cairo Stories and Tips

Eat Like an Egyptian

Having lived in Egypt for over twenty years, I thought I would like to write a review of Egyptian cuisine. For the first few years I lived with my in-laws, and it wasn't exactly a typical household as my mother-in-law was a French Jewess, but I believe she had begun life in Turkey and moved to Cairo at the age of about three. She did not work and her kitchen was her palace.
My husband loved his mother's cooking: he wanted me to eat traditional Egyptian food from the start and eventually learn to cook it myself. I resented somewhat his refusal to try any of my favourite recipes, but I wasn't averse to learning new ones.

One noticeable difference between Egyptian and British cuisine is the way vegetables are cooked. Green beans, the ubiquitous courgettes, or possibly peas with carrots would first be sauteed. Something called samn, similar to ghee, would normally be used, but we switched to oil as a healthier option. Tomato puree and just a small amount of water would be added, the vegetables then being left to simmer gently until tender. Sometimes small pieces of beef, or mince in the case of peas and carrots, would be added at the start as well as a grated onion. (How many buckets of tears did I cry over grating those onions?)
Artichoke hearts were available fresh or frozen. Again they would be sauteed with some mince and a little flour, but this time lemon juice would be added with a limited amount of water for simmering. I soon learned to cook these successfully and remember the day when my other half said my artichokes were better than his mother's. Her reply was 'il baraka fil 'usta' - congratulations go to the master (who taught me).

Stuffed vegetables are of course very popular - courgettes, or a thin white variety of aubergine, or green peppers. Stuffed vine leaves are usually the favourite. I had had these at a Greek restaurant in Manchester's Oxford Road in my student days, but I remember how large they were. The Egyptian ones must be as slender as a finger: a time-consuming process that is often carried out the previous evening. I remember once serving meat with stuffed vegetables and being told that anything stuffed counted as rice; I should therefore have cooked a separate vegetable as well. Considering how long I had spent preparing the meal, I thought that was a tall order.

A version of lasagne using penne rather than sheets of lasagne is one of the most filling dishes. Like most main courses, it would be served with a salad of lettuce, cucumber and tomato, perhaps grated carrot or sliced onion, to provide vitamins. Those wealthy enough to buy meat might serve it as an accompaniment, probably as escalope fried in egg and breadcrumbs.

One of my favourite winter starters was lentil soup, the lentils being boiled first in a pressure cooker. Then the usual grated onion was sauteed in oil and the lentils added. It was served with ground cumin. I think I miss this dish more than any other since returning to England.

In the summer we had a soup-like dish that I believe is considered as a vegetable: moloukhia. It is a green leaf that has to be finely chopped and then cooked in chicken stock. A separate, cooked tomato sauce can be added upon serving: that may sound unusual but I found it to be a delicious combination. Bread is served as well. The idea of a hot, soupy vegetable in the height of summer may not seem appealing, but there was something refreshing about it to me.

Chicken was usually a weekend dish in our family. Chickens in Egyptian are usually boiled until the goodness must have gone out of them - the equivalent of what we do with our vegetables. But the stock is always used to make soup, with the addition of rice. My mother-in-law always cooked potatoes in a certain way to go with chicken, but I have a feeling this is a Jewish rather than an Egyptian dish. (I'd be interested to hear from anyone who knows.) The potatoes are cut into as thin chip-shapes as possible and are then deep fried until light golden brown. Just before serving, they are immersed in a small amount of chicken stock which they readily absorb. Unusual, but very enjoyable.

Fish is plentiful in Egypt, especially in Alexandria. It is one of the few foods that can be enjoyed from traditional takeaway shops (as opposed to Macdonalds) in Cairo. It is often fried or grilled, but sometimes baked in the oven with onions, peppers and tomatoes. We usually had rice and tahina as an accompaniment.

Not many Egyptians seem to be vegetarians by choice, but of course many people simply cannot afford to buy meat. You may have come across coshary, which consists of rice with lentils, some short macaroni, a rich, cooked tomato sauce and a topping of crisp fried onions. An inexpensive, very filling meal that provides some protein and vitamins. It is now easy to find felafel in UK supermarkets - Egyptians call it taamiya, and it is a popular breakfast dish eaten with flat bread. I never took a liking to foul, perhaps because I used to see my mother-in-law picking over the beans to see if there were any bugs in them! But foul is an excellent source of second class protein (especially if a few bugs have been missed).

Desserts don't seem to be a big feature of Egyptian meals, perhaps because of the plentiful supply of fruit. Cake shops are common, and birthday cakes are usually enormous affairs. Then at the end of Ramadan homemade 'cahk' are traditionally served, which are biscuity petits fours. During Ramadan (at night of course), baklava and conafa are very common. It sometimes seemed that people were almost eating more during Ramadan than the rest of the year, although I admired the way many people went about their daily lives without so much as a drop of water passing their lips.
Egyptian Christians also observe very strict periods of fasting when they eat no fat or meat of any kind. Olive sandwiches seem to be the norm for weeks on end. I can't imagine many of us being so strict about our food.
There is a wide variety then, and I haven't even mentioned kebabs and kofta, perhaps because we are now so familiar with them. I didn't actually eat them very often while I was in Egypt. On the whole I would say I prefer Indian food to Egyptian, but many women put a great deal of time and effort into their cooking with excellent results. I haven't visited the country for several years now, and I do wonder if ready meals have reached the supermarkets yet or whether tradition still prevails.

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