A taste of nostalgic dishes from childhood
After she got married, Dyna Eldaief, the daughter of Egyptian immigrants to Australia, realized that she couldn’t reproduce the range of meals that her mother had made “because she made them without a recipe.” And so the idea for a cookbook was born, one made up of the recipes that “my mother cooked for us when I was growing up.”
In The Taste of Egypt: Home Cooking from the Middle East Dyna takes us through her recipes for some 100 traditional and more unusual dishes, meals which she changed and adapted over many years based on her childhood taste-memory. An act of the imagination as well as of remembrance The Taste of Egypt is about how food can tie us to a particular time and place—and, also through our love for family, to a world a step removed from the one in which we grew up. “If I had to think of my most nostalgic dish from childhood, it would have to be mesa’aa (Egyptian moussaka). It reminds me of warm weather and of homegrown eggplants, sliced, salted, and set out in the sun before being fried and layered with minced meat. When I came home from university to visit my parents, my mum would make this for me because she knew I liked it so much.”
Dyna’s degree in physiology left her with a lasting interest in the human body and with matters relating to nutrition and health, and this is reflected in her writing. A career in cooking wasn’t always on the cards but “cooking was what I did to relax and unwind. I found cooking in the kitchen my way of being creative. I experimented with ingredients and never felt bound by a recipe. So I guess it was always there in the background.”
In Melbourne, Dyna’s three children’s favorite dish is the quintessentially Egyptian molokhiya, a mucilaginous soup made from the finely chopped leaves of the herb also known as molokhiya (Corchorus olitorius) and cooked with coriander, ghee or butter, garlic, and meat stock. “My children all love molokhiya with chicken and even ask for it as their special birthday dinner. I’ll be going to my son’s preschool to make some Egyptian food with the kids in a few weeks’ time. It is my hope that many of them will try the food and enjoy it.”
Then there is the humble taro, or ul’as, the particular variety cultivated in Egypt being Colacasia esculenta. It grew along canals in pharaonic times together with the papyrus plant (Cyperus papyrus) and was possibly even then used as a vegetable. In her notes to her recipe for Taro and Swiss Chard, Dyna describes it as “a somewhat ugly-looking root that exudes a sticky sap when cut,” but when properly cooked “makes a delicious and unique-tasting meal.” Taro also grows in Lebanon, where it is traditionally cooked with chickpeas and tahini sauce, making it ideal for vegans and it is therefore often consumed during Lent. In Egypt, it is consumed without meat and is traditionally made with a green, not tomato, sauce.
In addition to classic Egyptian favorites such as ta‘miya (falafel), fuul medammis (slow-cooked fava beans), and the popular hawawshi (spiced-mince flatbread parcels), The Taste of Egypt includes recipes that even more clearly reflect culinary features that are common to the Middle East as a whole. Vegetables and leaves stuffed with rice together with minced meat and/or vegetables and nuts (mahshi) are eaten throughout the region. The much-loved Egyptian riff on stuffed cabbage leaves, mahshi kromb, is characterized by the distinctive, grassy-sweet flavor of dill.
Fatta, made in The Taste of Egypt with chicken stock, bread, ghee, garlic, vinegar, rice, and shallots, and served with the chicken from which the stock was made, falls under a broad class of dish known as tharid, and composed, at the most basic level of flatbread, meat, and broth. Variants of it are ascribed different names in the Arab world, including tashrib in Iraq, tharid in the Gulf, and rfissa in Morocco. “Variation in Egyptian cooking is as wide as the Nile River is long,” writes Dyna in the introduction to her book, so even her fatta recipe will inevitably boast rich variations within Egypt itself.
Some of Egypt’s most popular street foods, like koshari—a hearty assemblage of lentils, rice, and pasta given smoky depth by a garnish of fried onions and served with tomato and garlic sauces—are meatless; but chicken, rabbit, red meat, and pigeon form an important part of Egyptian home cuisine, and appear in the variety of stews and bakes included in The Taste of Egypt.
Alongside classics such as macarona forn, or pasta bake with béchamel sauce (the jury is probably still out on how béchamel entered Egyptian home-cooking) are dishes more closely associated with Levantine cuisine. These include lahma bi-l-zabadi (lamb and yogurt), known in Lebanon as laban ummo (literally ‘his mother’s yogurt’) and tabboola, a salad that has become well known internationally in recent years.
Dyna’s passion for cooking is also intimately tied to a childhood spent in close contact with plants and animals, whether in Australia or during family holidays in Egypt. “I loved being around the kitchen and watching my mum cook, tasting things and enjoying the wonderful aromas of mum’s cooking. While I didn’t actually cook in the kitchen I would always ‘cook’ on the weekends, after my dad mowed the law. It was the perfect time to get my fresh ingredients. Cut grass, flower petals, seeds, or whatever I could find. Those are some of my fondest memories of being a small child.” She tries to encourage her children to do the same by getting them to walk around the garden and water the plants, and to pick from them when the time is right. She also loves having the children with her in the kitchen: “I often have two or sometimes three things being made at once while my kids each take charge of their own mixing bowl. Coordinating the next step for each child is rather stressful but it means everyone is kept happy.”
Cooking from scratch is fun but that doesn’t rule out the occasional takeaway treat. “I absolutely can’t go past hot chips. But when I’m being good I try to stick to brown rice sushi or sashimi. I studied Japanese language in high school and in my first year at university so I like the culture and food.” What about cooking when time is tight? “Usually eggs are a great quick meal. We all like them fried. I cook them with onions and serve them with chopped tomatoes, cucumber or avocado, and sliced cheese.” Given a little more time, cake is a happy indulgence. “I love to make cheesecake but that’s probably because I love to eat it too.”
The legendary Egyptian sweet tooth is well represented in The Taste of Egypt, which features four different kinds of basbousa (semolina cake cooked in syrup), including a dairy-free version, and fitir, a type of flaky pastry that can be prepared as either a sweet or a savory dish. The labor involved in making fitir “may explain why ancient Egyptians served this as an offering to the gods,” writes Dyna wryly in the notes to her recipe. Quicker dessert options include cookies such as ghurayiba (butter cookies) and biscote shamar (cookies with fennel), as well as kahk (shortbread cookies), long associated with festive seasons in Egypt.
The creative possibilities in cooking are endless, and tinkering with traditional recipes is one way of finding new sources of inspiration. “I make a tahini dip with butter beans instead of chickpeas as my twist on hummus. It’s nice and creamy. Look out for it in my next book.” How would Dyna sum up the essence of The Taste of Egypt? “It isn’t about exotic ingredients or complicated methods but about simple, hearty food that warms the soul and nourishes the body.”
By Nadia Naqib
AUC Press senior commissioning editor
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