On Homecooking

My mother makes the best comfort food. I’ve got 4 brothers spread out over the planet, so it’s getting increasingly rare for us to all get together and have a “family meal”. But when it does happen; my Mom swings into action, drawing upon 35 years of experience as a mother to bring out a whole assortment of dishes to create our perfect family meal. The smorgasbord of meat, vegetable and starches she puts together takes a full day to make; but is devoured in less than an hour. Koshary, Chicken Pane, Lasagna, Stuffed Potatoes, Okra Stew (Bamia), Macaroni with Béchamel Casserole, Smoked Kofta in Red sauce with White Rice, Gratinated Potato Casserole, Goulash (minced beef and vegetables layered under filo pastry), Molokheyya with Red Sauce and a huge bowl of Garden Salad. Neither the table nor our stomachs have room for dessert.

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On Egyptian flavors, and Caramelised Onions

<Originally Published in G-Mag>

Everyone is aware of the four basic taste families – Sweet, Salty, Sour and Bitter. There also happens to be a fifth, called “Umami”. This is a Japanese term which describes the “meatiness” that you taste when eating a steak or grilled mushrooms. A great tasting dish typically has at least 3 of these different taste profiles.

Egyptian food hasn’t got the most glamorous reputation, but the flavor profiles can be astounding; let’s take a look at two of them:

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Om Ali Vs Bread & Butter Pudding

<Originally Published in Campus Magazine, September 2009>

On the left - Om Ali! On the right - Bread and Butter Pudding!

Ramadan – or as I like to call it: “Radamaddacanman” – is on its way (don’t worry, it takes some time to pronounce correctly). We all know that Ramadan is more about feasting than fasting; and no feast is complete without a rich dessert that sticks to your thighs.

Om Ali is synonymous with richness and a staple of many a Ramadan Fitar table – even though it is readily available at other times of the year. It’s simplest incarnation is toasted Filo pastry pieces, buttered and covered in a spiced milk mixture and baked in a ramekin. Typical toppings include raisins, walnuts and coconut, and some recipes call for cloves or cinnamon in the milk mixture.

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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.

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Tamarai Egypt: Now serving BS!

I reviewed Tamarai at the Nile Towers earlier this year and did not enjoy it. I will tell anyone who is generous enough to listen that Tamarai is the embodiment of pretentiousness and should be avoided if you are going there for the food. I still maintain that the Bar is quite good, but by no means should it be considered as a Restaurant that serves good food.

The Daily News Egypt has seen it fit to interview the Managing Partner of Tamarai, Mr. Vincent Guillou. The man is not a Chef; he is a restauranteur – it is very clear in the way he talks about Tamarai. He seemed more passionate about the misguided decor than about the food he allows to leave his kitchen. Especially galling is his claim that he wants to bring food to “the people”. Last time I checked, Tamarai was not hosting a Ma2edat Rahman (free dinners for the underprivileged). Mr. Guillou even has the audacity to refer to himself as Egyptian – nay, Egyptian-French – yet nowhere in his food do I see an Egyptian influence.

I’ll let the video do the talking. I’m going to sit back in disgust and watch the comments roll in.

Cooking Time: 4 minutes

The Koshary Quandary, Revisited

I mentioned very early on that finding the greatest plate of koshary out there was one of my purposes in writing this blog. To chronicle the Hunt. To search High and Low for that perfect plate of pure Egyptian goodness. And after I’ve found it, devise a way to bring it into the 21st century.

To understand Koshary is to understand the Egyptian psyche. We need a feast for the eyes, and also a feast for the stomach. This is evident when we sit down at a family dinner: the table is covered end to end in different varieties of food – mountains of rice, Penne and béchamel casserole, Molokheyya soup, plates of chicken and beef and okra stew in a bright red tomato sauce – all vying for valuable real estate in our stomachs, hearts and memories.

Koshary is like a huge dinner table, except its all in one plate. We’ve got the pasta. We’ve got the Rice. We’ve got the bright red tomato sauce. Koshary is a poor man’s dish, so there is no meat or vegetables, but to make things interesting, we’ve added lentils and chickpeas, and topped it with inexpensive fried onions, and drizzled a garlic vinaigrette on top for that extra “kick”

Meanwhile, the French are using soy sauce (!), Italians are making bolognaise ragù with Kobe beef and the Americans sit somewhere between continental and oriental cuisine; the culinary equivalent of an identity crises. One thing all American food has in common, however is that it’s all invariable fatty. Kind of like the American people. You are what you eat after all.

But I digress.

I decided to begin the hunt at Abu El Seed, ostensibly a monument to Egyptian cuisine. Since I had never been there, I spent these past few months asking around, and the feedback I received was generally positive, notable for the fact that while everyone recommended the Sherkasseyya (Chicken with walnut sauce) no one had actually ordered the Koshary. “Why not?” I asked. Responses ranged from “I don’t like koshary” to “why would I pay so much for such a cheap dish?”

I thought to myself: if Abu El Seed was making koshary using the exact same ingredients as Sheikh El Balad or Koshary el Tahrir, then we’ve got problems.

At long last, after enjoying sushi, raving about C+G’s and a thinly veiled rant about the sexuality of beef, I have finally gotten around to telling you, my nonexistent reader, what the Koshary in Abu El Seed is all about.

In a word? Disappointment. Much like Lucille’s “world’s greatest hamburger” moniker, I was promised so much by the hype surrounding the restaurant itself and let down.

It didn’t taste nearly half as good as the cheaper alternatives at KT’s or Abu Tarek. The plate had very little rice, very little lentils and was little more than a bowl of slimy spaghetti strands swimming in a sea of garlicky water. There were so many transgressions committed against this venerable dish:
– The use of spaghetti pasta – cooked al dente, no less! (Koshary is the exception to the Al Dente rule).
– Incorrect proportions of fried onions, lentils, chickpeas, rice and pasta.
– drowning the plate in Garlic water: I’m sure we all agree that the application of the hot red pepper sauce, garlic vinaigrette, and tomato sauce should *always* be left upto the consumer.

In the end, I realized I need to be more selective of whom I ask for restaurant recommendations. Unfailingly, the first thing mentioned is the dessert they “loved”, the fact they were starving when they got there and that the decor is “really cool”. Well, it turns out the dessert they loved was a 2 day old apple tart bought in from the Marriot Bakery and the decor is a cross between a suburban coffee outlet and a sheesha joint, complete with Bamboo chairs.

For Koshary, Abu Seed fails miserablty. And the search continues..

Cooking Time: 45 Minutes.

Using Pastirma

What the hell is Pastirma anyway? And shouldn’t I be saying Pastrami?

While both share a very similar origin, and actually taste very similar; they are two seperate types of salted red meat. Pastirma, available in all former Ottoman countries, is stronger tasting and darker in color than the western Pastrami. These former Ottoman countries are for the most part Muslim, and share with the Jewish faith the tenent of eating only Kosher/Halal food – with a special ban on eating Pork products. Muslims also do not drink alchohol, so for a gourmand like myself, cooking with wine is out of the question – more on that later.

Here in Egypt, Pastirma is used in a similar fashion to Bacon – as a breakfast meat, and is commonly seen mixed in with scrambled eggs. But it has almost no use in an egyptian kitchen otherwise.

I’ve been thinking – why dont we use Pastirma as a substitute for Pork Bacon? The fat content in Pastirma is actually high enough to provide its own cooking oil, and yet it still retains a distinctly beef flavor. It is certainly alot more flavorful than the Breakfast Beef strips available at your local Stop and Shop.

To that end, I’ve started using Pastirma in my own modified recipe for Chateubriand, as well as using locally made cheese and mint as a stuffing for chicken breasts wrapped in Pastirma. It has worked beautifully. But the fun doesn’t stop there: do you want to elevate your mashed potatoes to a new level? Take a few strips of pastrami and put them on a tray in a 350F oven for about 7 minutes. when they come out, just break them into pieces and mix them in with sour cream, butter and chives. Viola! Heavenly creamy mashed potatoes.

Here are some tips for buying Pastirma here in cairo:

1- Make sure your Deli is clean – ideally, the pastirma should be a deep red color, not brown. If possible, ask the man to wipe down the cutting machine before preparing your order.
2- Tell him to cut it thinly. I mean THIN. Paper thin. there’s alot of flavor in there, so having a thick slab of pastrami even 3mm thick will overpower anything you wrap it in. Also, cutting it thinly makes it easier to use as a wrap, since thick slices tend to break up along the lines of fat in the meat.
3- If possible, ask for Garlic free pastirma – or just buy the Al-Marai brand. This brand tastes perfect – mild, yet still distinctly pastirma, and without leaving that lingering smell on your fingers. Its texture is also perfect, very smooth. Plus, it actually cuts alot better than the other brands; so the Deli man won’t have a problem cutting it thinly.
4- If you live in Nasr City/Heliopolis, just go to Spinney’s. The Deli there is fantastic. Tell the man you want Al-Marai Pastirma sliced “like paper”, and make sure he shows you a sample. It’s not being mean – it’s being assertive. While you’re there, pick up their Beef Filets cut conveniently into round steaks. They will come in handy very soon!