Got Soul?

<Originally Published in CAMPUS Magazine>

I’ve been asked to write about what makes Egyptian food special; to observe and report on what gives our food it’s “Edge”. For a person more interested in the classical school of French Cuisine, this was a bit of a curve-ball. Do I look at the techniques or the ingredients? Should I focus on the tastes and textures and presentation? Or should I look at food history and come up with some bizarre and probably far-fetched theory about why Egyptians eat what they eat? No, the real question is this: Why would I choose to walk into a restaurant serving Egyptian fare as opposed to a French Bistro? After much artery clogging soul searching, I’ve come to a realization:

Egyptian food has no “Edge” – but it’s got soul. Lots of it.

If you look at the food that we call “Egyptian”, you’ll find it mirrors the mosaic character of Egypt’s long history. We haven’t been “Egyptian” since the Pharaohs. Since then, we’ve been part of a revolving door of world-wide empires: from the Romans and Greeks to the British, French and Ottoman empires.  Add to that the sporadic incursions made by the north African Berber tribes, Arab traders and Kurdish descendants and you’d be naive to think that all that culture wouldn’t rub off on us.

Last month, I argued that Om Ali was actually an Egyptianized version of Bread and Butter pudding. I could probably make similar arguments for Besara and Fatta, but I won’t; because they are different beasts today. As the different colonizers have come and gone, Egyptians have absorbed these foreign food cultures and incorporated them with the Egyptian taste and flair, making it their own.

I’d rather not get into a pissing contest on who makes the better food, either; it’s a like comparing apples to oranges; it comes down to a matter of taste and not a matter of fact. I give all props to the Lebanese for being the standard bearers of Middle Eastern Cuisine, and while their food can be akin to eating ambrosia, it lacks a certain something; it doesn’t feed my soul the way a steaming bowl of Molokheyya (Jew’s Mallow) or ‘Ads (Yellow Lentil Broth) does. A Falafel made with pureed chick peas doesn’t wake me up like a good Egyptian Taameyya. And the Ramadan Fitars are not complete without a casserole of Macarona bel Bechamel. For me, and for most Egyptians, it’s comfort food at it’s best.

A few months ago, I was turned onto Anthony Bourdain, Americanized Frenchman and former Michelin-starred chef, and his travel/food show called “No Reservations”. I recall this particular episode in which he went to Saudi Arabia, and sampled traditional Saudi food like kabsa and slow cooked meats. Even though Saudi food can be very tasty, for me it doesn’t have the same comfort as Egyptian food; and I was not surprised to see that on every table; next to every plate of rice and lamb, was a bowl of Molokheyya. The Saudi hosts introduced the dish “This is an Egyptian Soup, called Molokheyya”. Did I detect a hint of jealousy in that statement? Mr. Bourdain, of course, was familiar with Molokheyya, having traveled to Cairo in a previous episode. He knew what the score was and made sure he got his Molokheyya fix before somebody else beat him to it. Smart Man.

But there can be a dark side to Egyptian food. The most common complaints are that it is “too heavy” and or that there is “too much Samna” (known in the in English language as “Ghee”).  Messa’a is the poster child for this sort of ham-fisted cookery. And everyone who likes food will proudly announce that they have a “great recipe for Messa’a that has no oil”. The statement is immediately qualified by “but it still tastes great”. I’ve never tried any of these recipes myself, because the qualifying statement does not inspire confidence.

Another dish is Macarona bel Bechamel, which is quite often a bland and overcooked mishmash– a far cry from what it should be. There are two forms, and both are called Macarona bel béchamel or even Macarona fel forn (Macaroni in the Oven): the first is made with a thick béchamel sauce and put in the oven to bake, and the second is made with a meat and tomato sauce, and covered with cheese, and a béchamel batter.

Some recipes even call for shredded mozerella cheese and stir fried chicken breast in to be mixed with the pasta. Excuse me, but doesn’t that make it a bastardized Negresco? Nevertheless, I do like the initiative, but the execution tends to be lacking. It’s not like the béchamel sauce is made properly anyway; it’s more of a flavorless pancake batter that bakes in the oven, providing that dry, bready layer on top. The pasta is almost always overcooked, and the only flavor you can count on getting from a heaping serving is Salty gumminess.

To me, Macarona Bechamel represents fusion cuisine in its earliest form – combining Italian ingredients with French techniques, but it’s essence seems to have been lost through the generations. I’m going to try and give it a refresh, and drag it into the 21st century. I can promise you one thing: This is not your mother’s Macarona Bel Bechamel. The easiest way to make this is to construct it; we prepare each component separately, and bring them together for the final bake.

Bon appétit, or as we Egyptians say: Bel hana wel shifa.

Pasta and béchamel au gratin with stir fried garlic chicken thighs.

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Step One: Begin with the Bechamel

Wet Mix                                                              Dry Mix
1 cup of Milk                                                      2 TBSP white Flour
1 Small White onion, sliced                          2 TBSP Butter
2-3 Bay leaves                                                   ½ Chicken Stock Cube
Dried Cilantro
Black Pepper

Add all the Wet mix ingredients into a saucepan over high heat, and bring to a boil.

Remove it from the stove and let it cool down and infuse for about 20 minutes.

Next, in a sauce pan, melt the butter over medium heat and add the flour, whisking it constantly to prevent the flour from clumping.

Crush the Stock cube into the flour and butter mixture, and keep stirring it in. if it starts getting too “dry” add a little bit more butter.

Keep stirring till the color of the dry mix begins to turn a light caramel color, about 5-10 minutes.

Add the wet mix slowly, stirring the whole time.

Keep stirring the sauce over medium heat until it just coats the back of a spoon. Don’t worry if It seems too thin – it thickens as it stands.

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Step Two: Put the Pasta On.

A simple rule of thumb is 1 liter of boiling water and 10 grams of salt (about ¾ TSP) for every 100 grams of pasta. Remember to add the pasta only once the water has come to a boil. Cook it for 7-10 minutes to get “al dente”.

Don’t be shy and test it while it’s cooking to make sure it’s cooked right. Instead of the boring Penne pasta, try mixing it up with some shells or farfelle; it’ll be a very nice surprise for your guests.

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Step Three: Stir and Fry the Garlic Chicken Thigh

4 boneless chicken thighs, skin removed and chopped into rough bite sized bits.
1 clove of garlic, sliced thinly.
1 small white onion, sliced thinly
1 tsp soy sauce
½ cup of chicken stock
Olive oil, salt and pepper.

Heat your skillet over a high heat. Add olive oil and sliced onions.

Cook the onions until they start turning color, about 2-3 minutes.

Season the chicken with salt and pepper, and add it to the skillet along with the garlic and soy sauce. Stir constantly!

Cook for another 5-7 minutes, until the chicken just start to develop some color on their surface.

Add the chicken stock and turn down the heat to medium-low, and let it simmer until the liquid has reduced by two thirds.

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Step Four: Bring it all together, and bake.

1/3 cup of crushed Bake Rolls.

Preheat the oven to 180C.

Add the chicken to the cooked pasta, and mix it well. Add a little of the béchamel sauce as well.

Layer that on the bottom of a casserole dish.

Pour over the remaining Bechamel sauce and sprinkle the crushed bake rolls on top.

Place in the oven for about 10-15 minutes, or until the top is golden brown.

.

.

Devour.

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About Wesam E Masoud
Chef Patron of @chefsmarketmasr, Host of @CBCSofra's #matbakh101. I have one degree in Medicine & 3rd degree burns from cooking.

11 Responses to Got Soul?

  1. Moussaka is moussaka. There isn’t a separate dish in Egypt that just happens to have a similar sounding name.
    Also, am I to understand that your idea of Egyptian cuisine consists of MB, Tameya and “Messa2a2a?”
    Try again b, your effort has been found wanting.
    Oh and don’t forget:
    We own this b and we be takin; over! Dunt be forjet yaud!

    • Wesam Masoud says:

      Stick to Chinese takeout and reruns of “A Knight’s Tale” on the USA Network; or fapping to “Giada at home” if that’s your thing.

      I’ve only given examples of what Egyptian Cuisine is; there are a myriad of other dishes, but I don’t have to list them, do I? I’ve focused on what are the most easily identifiable.

      Ok, B?

  2. Abissada says:

    I like your spin on Pasta & Bechamel. I’ve just started posting my recipes for more egyptian food; in case you tire of bistro food!

  3. Parquet says:

    dats za truus ya mano. wut a shit for eaten zat. oh damn.

  4. Peter Frumpkin says:

    This new website really sucks. I hate the layout.

  5. Sayed Kalala says:

    You have ONE more day, then it’s all over. I abandon you and your site.

  6. Wesam Masoud says:

    Happy now??

  7. the layout is pretty hard to navigate….
    you ever looked up the history of koshary? very interesting stuff. egyptian cuisine is generally ghalbaan awi tho.

    • Wesam Masoud says:

      Koshary history was something i glossed over a couple of years ago in a really early post. I don;t agree that Egyptian Cuisine is Ghalbaan – I like to think of it as simple and honest 🙂

  8. anne-marie says:

    hey,
    where is this article of yours on umm ali? i’d love to read it! and which campus magazine is this?

  9. Sam Bader says:

    Thanks Wesam, I could not agree more that Egyptian food has “soul” and not necessarily “edge”. Egyptian food is more context, than definition. Thanks for the recipie – loved your article.

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