Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Dinner: 'Olass wa sal' (qolqass wa salq) - taro root with swiss chard

I've been trying to chase down this recipe for months now. Though I ate it back in 2010 for the first time during Christmas dinner in Cairo. I thought it was molokhia, a green soup made from the fresh leaves of the molokhia plant. Not at all, though the spicing is similar.

I was told it was 'olass. And that it is normally eaten on special occasions, like Christmas. But after some research between both sides of the family, and my Arabic tutor, turns out everyone eats 'olass all the time and its a favourite dish of most households.

We never had it at home. When I asked my mother the reason, without missing a beat she scrunched up her face and explained "I hate that dish, I never liked to eat it". And hence a childhood deprived of taro root.

My aunt on the other hand reminisced with my father on this and said my grandmother made this dish often, but couldn't remember how. My father had little recollection of liking or disliking it, which means it wasn't a favourite, but it was tolerated as part of the usual repertoire of weekly meals. In his own words it's good, but "it's no molokhia".

But what is it?

It's taro root cut into chunks, boiled in water then thrown into a mix of swiss chard and spices.

That's it.

It's not a dish, however, that you'll find in restaurants or on the streets. It's really at home that this is eaten. And the prime time for this dish among Christian households is especially during epiphany, which comes at the end of Christmas. If you want to get into religion, it's the time when Jesus was baptized, i.e. plunged under water for purification purposes. So the idea of eating taro, which has to be boiled in water before it's edible (fun fact: raw taro contains calcium oxaltate, which will make your mouth go numb, so raw taro is in fact toxic), is representative of Jesus's baptism. In fact there's a little rhyme my aunt said would often be heard by children around that time of year: "aid el ghotass, yakul 'olass" which literally translates into "at festival of epiphany, one eats taro". Clever,

But taro is eaten in all households, regardless of religion. The root itself grows in Egypt after it spread via cultivation from its origins somewhere in India. Taro itself is a popular root found in many African dishes and with the trans-Atlantic slave trade, made its way into the Americas, where taro is also popular in many Caribbean and South American countries. The true name of taro is coloccasia, and in arabic 'qulqass'. And then in Egypt, because we shorten words when possible, is known as 'olass, or 'ulass.

Swiss chard, or in arabic "salq" or  sal' in egyptian arabic, grounds the taro root to a tasty base. Swiss chard, is often referred to as 'silverbeet' or 'whitebeet' because it is related to the beet family. The Swiss adjective comes from a Swiss botanist who studied the plant.

But the plant itself is native to the southern Mediterranean region, namely Sicily, but according to articles I consulted, Aristotle apparently mentions it in his writing, so it has a place in ancient Greek history as well. Swiss chard likely found its way into Egypt via the Ancient Greeks or the Romans later on. Either way, the plant itself  is not native to Egypt, but it thrives there now.

And after all my extensive research, it was my cousin (an amazing cook) who sent me THE recipe. It's likely a mix of our family's traditional one coupled with her ingenious additions.

So you're in for a treat.

*Bear in mind that this recipe is using a chicken broth; but you can easily go fully vegetarian and use a vegetable-based one.

Total cooking time: 1.5 hours
Yield: four persons


7-9 taro roots

1 head of Swiss chard

1 handful of fresh coriander leaves
1 handful of fresh dill

1 tablespoon of oil
5 cloves of garlic
2 teaspoons of ground coriander seed
1 tablespoon of butter
2 cups of broth (chicken/vegetable)


1. Peel the taro

2. Chop into cubes

3. Add taro cubes into a pot of salted and boiling water
4. Leave to cook on medium heat for about 20  minutes (until taro is soft)
5. While taro is cooking, chop Swiss chard into small strips

6. Chop up dill and fresh coriander
7. Chop up garlic
8. In a pan, add oil and sauté half the amount of chopped garlic along with all of the Swiss chard, dill and fresh coriander
8. Add a bit of salt to flavour
9. Continue stirring greens until they are soft and have significantly reduced in size

10. Take off heat

11. In a separate pan, add ground coriander and dry roast it until it starts to change colour
12. Take off heat and add butter and remaining garlic
13. Continue to stir on low heat until the coriander/garlic mix has absorbed all the butter.

14. Drain taro root and set aside
15. In a pot, or blender, add one to two ladles of broth to the chard mix and purée it
16. Add pureed chard mix to a pot and add another 9-10 ladles of broth

18. Consistency should be thick soup
19. Cook slowly on low heat and add cooked taro and taqliya mix
20. Leave to cook on low heat for 10 minutes (do not let it boil)
21. Serve with rice

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Condiment: Betengam Milkhalil (Pickled Eggplant )

Would you believe I've had this recipe ready for months now? T'is true...but life and likely laziness got the best of me.

But here we go.

Today's recipe is so simple to make it hurts, but if you can't stomach spicy ( chili), then you'll have to sit this one out.

Egyptian cooking is by no means spicy. In fact, the spiciest it normally gets comes from lots of garlic, or up north in Alexandria, where chilies sometimes create a more punchy ful madammas.

But by comparison to our other north African neighbours, who came up with Harissa (red chili paste), our cuisine is far from hot and spicy.

Except for this wondrous condiment.

My mother used to make this for us as children. It wasn't one of those items we knew she was making, or even asked about, but you would open the fridge and see the these little eggplants glistening in their juices and bursting at the seams with chili and garlic. And the smell.....oooo such a smell that you'd have to eat one then and there.

First bite. Heaven. Then five seconds later, it hits you. All that garlic and chili...but the subtle eggplant to balance it out and give it an underlying sweetness is what made you come back for more. But this time armed with a hunk of bread.

And so it goes. And that's how we had pickled eggplants. As a side dish with your meal, as you would with some olives, or in sandwiches for some extra kick Or I now add it to salads for some punch.

In Egypt, you'll find this as an extra condiment that you would normally add to any meal for some additional kick. It's not terribly popular....or not that I've noticed, but it's common enough that most people know about it.

I've discussed before the origins of eggplant or  betengam in arabic. You can read about it here:

In this particular recipe, it's best if you can find the baby eggplants or the small ones (the size of a finger). But they are not easy to find, so I've adjusted this recipe to be used with regular fat ones.

But ideally the small ones are best since you can slice the open and stuff them.

Now as I mentioned earlier, chilies or hot peppers do not play a major role in Egyptian cooking. But they are readily found across other North African countries. How did they worm their way into Egypt? Easy: the Ottomans.

Chilies were first cultivated in Mexico as far back as 7000 B.C, but it wasn't until our friend Christopher Colombus, who encountered them during his voyages in the Americas, brought them over to Spain at the end of the fifteenth century. The Portuguese then took them over to India, Asia, and Africa which were then was picked up by the Ottomans. With Egypt being a province in the Ottoman empire, and with much of its innovative cuisine being centralised out of Istanbul, the use of chilies eventually made their way into Egyptian homes.

I initially thought it would have been via the Moors after they took over Spain in the early 700s, but that would have been before the Americas were discovered, and thus no chilies in sight to be brought over.

As for the pickled eggplants, try to make them a night in advance, so they have time to soak in the flavours.


Total cooking time: 1 hour
Yield: six plus people


4 large eggplants OR 15 small eggplants
1/2 cup olive oil (if using regular eggplant)
3 tablespoons chopped garlic
3 tablespoons chopped green chili
white vinegar


Regular Eggplants
1. Keep the skin on and cut into round slices
2. Cut the slices into halves
3. Place the halves onto a baking sheet and brush each side with olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper

4. Place in the oven under grill, until both sides are cooked (around 10 - 15 mins)
5. When done, place eggplant in bowl and add chopped garlic and chili
6. Add a tablespoon of vinegar
7. A pinch of salt
8. Mix and taste. Mixture should be the consistency of a relish
9. If too vinegary tasting, add a dash of olive oil

10. Cover bowl and let set overnight  (in fridge or on counter top)

Baby eggplants
5. Boil the eggplants in salty water until soft in the middle
6. Remove from water and slice a small hole in each one
7. In a separate bowl, add chili and garlic with a tablespoon of vinegar and a pinch of salt
8. Mix and taste; mixture should be the consistency of a relish
9. Place eggplants in a bowl and stuff each with one the mixture
10. Add remaining mixture into bowl
11. Cover and let set overnight (in fridge or counter top)

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Dinner: Maashi Kromb (stuffed cabbage)

Aaaaaaaaaand nearly a year later, and here I am writing up my first recipe for 2015. I did work on other recipes, but none of them were worthy of this blog, so I finally came across a great recipe during my visit a few weeks ago to Egypt: Maashi Kromb, or stuffed (maashi) cabbage (kromb) in arabic.

I was having lunch with my cousin and she said this was her favourite dish. I've never been a huge stuffed cabbage fan, having only tried the Eastern European I tried to hide my glimmer of enthusiasm, until I bit into one. Wow. It was amazing. And, unlike all the other maashi dishes I've written up about, the stuffing for this one is without meat (though you can add some if you really want).

After eating this, I found the woman responsible for the meal, the hired help in the house: Umm Mohammed (or Mother of Mohammed, as tradition dictates). I found her in the kitchen and told her it was one of the best meals I've had and asked for her recipe. She was a bit overwhelmed with the sudden attention, since she prepares the main meals every day, but after a bit coaxing, Umm Mohammed got down to business and gave me the details.

But cabbage in Egypt you ask? Actually, good question. I asked myself the same thing and in fact, contrary to what I had originally thought, cabbage has a long history in egyptian cooking. Wild cabbage is a native of the mediterranean, southwestern europe and southern england. All variations thrive along the ocean, where it can receive lots of moisture. So our friends, the Ancient Egyptians, considered cabbage to be one of the most delicate vegetables, and ate it boiled before the rest of their food.

During a visit to ancient Egypt, the Greeks believed their cabbage was superior to that of the Egyptian variety, so they brought along seeds with them from Rhodes. They revered cabbage for its medicinal properties.

All that to say cabbage does in fact have a place in Egyptian cuisine, and it dates back to the ancient times.

But of course,  now, it's more of a question how it is eaten.

As I've mentioned before, egyptians will stuff any vegetable or animal cavity with rice. Hence my previous recipes for stuffed pigeon, stuffed peppers, and stuffed grapeleaves. But this recipe is a rice mixture with dill, parlsely and tomatos.

The tomatos we know came from the new world via the explorers to Egypt.

Rice has been eaten and grown in Egypt since the days of the Pharaohs since it grows in the country.

Dill weed is a member of the parsley family which is native to the eastern Mediterranean region (and western Asia). According to one article I read, the word 'dill' comes from the old Norse (old german) word 'dylla' meaning to soothe or lull, which was found written around 3000 B.C. where it was also mentioned in Egyptian medical texts.

So dill is widely used and historically for centuries.

Parsley, is a native of eastern Mediterranean countries.  It isn't used as much as other herbs in Egyptian cooking. It was likely brought to Egypt by the ancient Romans who may have been the first people to eat parsley. Whereas the Greeks only used parsley for medicinal purposes, as they viewed it with superstition considering it an omen of death.

But it does grow around the mediterranean basin, and was introduced to the new world during the heydays of trade.

Parsely-based foods, such as taboulah are more from the Levante region where parsley is more popular.

But back to maashi kromb.....I won't lie, this is one of the few dishes that takes time to prepare and cook, but it's not an overly complicating recipe. But all the effort is worth it in the end!

YIELD: 10 persons

1 head white cabbage

1 onion
1 teaspoon of oil
2 tomatos
2 handfulls of parsley (fresh)
1 handful of dill (fresh)
equal parts of rice to the mixture of short grain rice (italian or egyptian)

2 tins of tomato concentrate
2 cups of water
1 garlic
1 onion


1. Cut the cabbage in half peel back each individual leaf

2. This process can take time....
3. Once you have your individual leaves, place them in a pot of boiling water with a tablespoon of salt
4. Leave them to cook for about an hour, until all the leaves have turned transparent and are soft in texture
5. Drain and put aside


6. Chop onion and sauté it with a bit of oil until it is cooked
7. In a bowl, add cooked onion, parsley and dill, and chopped tomatos

8. Using a chopper (or a blender) blend all ingredients

9. Add an equal part of rice (approximately--does not have to be perfectly measured)
10. Wash the rice then add to the mix
11. Add salt and pepper
12. Mix thoroughly by hand or with a spoon

13. In a pot, add a tablespoon of oil
14. Chop onions and add to pot
15. Crush and finely chop garlic; add to pot
16. Once onions are cooked, add tomato paste
17. Add water
18. Mix well; if sauce seems too thick, add a bit more water
19. Season with salt/pepper

20. Take a cooked cabbage leaf, add about one teaspoon of the mixture, and fold and roll
21. Unlike grapeleaves cabbage leaves are a bit harder to fold nicely, but don't worry, they stay put during the cooking process.
22. Continue process until either all the leaves are done or all the mixture is done

23. Add all the rolled leaves into a deep pot and cover with sauce

24. Leave covered and on medium heat to cook for at least an hour (or longer)
25. Rolls are ready to eat once rice is cooked

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Breakfast / light meal: Shakshuka (eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce)

This is probably one of the most popular recipes across North Africa and especially in Israel. In my goal to only post Egyptian recipes I consistently refused to do this one dish, until, I found out: it's also popular in Egypt.

Shakshuka. or Shakshouka. I know you've all heard of it, and have likely tasted it too. It's Arabic slang for 'a mixture', or as one entry that I found said, it comes from the Berber word 'chakchouka' meaning a vegetable stew. Or even beyond that, there's thought that the name comes from the Hebrew verb 'leshakshek' which means to shake. But since Hebrew and Arabic are both Semitic languages, then I'll combine the two and translate it to: a shaken mixture. 

In any case, it was a friend of mine who continuously told me of his memories of Israel and eating shakshuka for breakfast. The poached eggs in a tomato sauce that boasted layers of complementary spicing served with fresh pita bread. I resisted.

Not because it didn't sound appealing, but as I mentioned I'm trying to focus on Egypt. But then he sent me a recipe for this dish. I figured why not. So one cold morning, I prepared it. And yes, I was hooked. I think I ate it for three or four days straight. I was so proud of my new discovery that I called my mother to tell her the good news. Before I had told her what the dish was called, she stopped me: "shakshuka? my mother made that all the time for me!"

Apparently my mother may have been a bit of a 'difficult' daughter and refused to eat meat. In an effort to stem any quarrels regarding meals, my grandmother would prepare shakshuka only for my mother so she too would have something delicious to eat. And that's how the meal got its prominence in that part of my family. 

After that, I asked other members of the family and they all nodded in agreement and confirmed to me that shakshuka is a popular dish as well, maybe not as popular as in Israel, or in the Maghreb, but definitely worthy of an entry.

But where did it come from? In Israel, it's thought to have come from either Libyan or Tunisian Jews. So then north Africa really is the origin of the dish. Over in Morocco, it's an egg tomato tagine, in Algeria it's called 'tchaktchouka' or 'tastira' by the Algerian Jews. In Libya it can be served with merguez sausage or dried lamb. And in Tunisia, it's similar to the recipe I'll be sharing with you.

There are variations from country-to-country in the spicing, but the spices I am using are cumin, paprika and cinnamon.

Just like tomatoes, paprika is a 'new world' spice from the Americas brought over by European tradesmen during the days of exploration. It's derived from sweet red peppers. It's not as spicy as the hot pepper; but instead introduces a sweeter heat. 

Because of  the Spanish explorers, many dishes in Spain have paprika. Given the proximity and mixing of cultures between Morocco and Spain, paprika was likely brought over to North Africa via migration, but also through trade between the Mediterranean countries. All that to say, paprika likely made its way into Egypt via other North African countries, since there are not many Egyptian dishes that use this spice.

Cumin is native to the Mediterranean and is found in many Egyptian recipes, as is cinnamon, and dates back to 2000 BC and was used by the Pharaohs.

As for the dish itself, it's hard to know how far back its history goes. It can't be too far back, since the base is tomato which, as I mentioned, is not native to the Mediterranean countries. Likely someone began making it in one of the Maghreb countries (Morocco/Tunisia/Algeria/Libya), and through traffic between the North African countries, found a home in Egypt. 

In keeping with simplicity, I'm not doing it the way that many of the cool kids are doing it: served in an iron skillet. It's a meal that is prepared and cooked in under 30 minutes, uses common ingredients in the house, and should be a no-sweat process. Meaning: not fancy, just tasty.

The key to making it really tasty is serving it with some fresh pita. My grandmother would add parsley at the end to give it just an extra layer of flavour, some people add feta which is also a nice addition.

Total preparation and cooking time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 persons

1 onion - diced
5 cloves of garlic - chopped
(optional) 1 hot green pepper, or jalapeno- chopped
olive oil
1 can (500g) of whole plum tomatoes (or homemade stewed tomatoes)
1 tablespoon - ground cumin
1/2 tablespoon - paprika
1 teaspoon - ground cinnamon
fresh eggs
salt to taste
fresh parsley


1. In a deep frying pan or pot, add enough olive oil to cover pan, then add onions, garlic and hot peppers

2. Sauté until onions are soft
3. Take pan momentarily off heat source
4. Add the canned tomatoes to the pan, but break up each tomato by crushing it with  your hand 
5. Add all the spices

6. Using the empty can of tomatoes (more flavour), add water so it is about half full
7. Add some of this water to to the pan so that the sauce is just a little runny, but not like a juice
8. Return to heat source and stir
9. Cover if possible, but if you can't, then just leave the pan on low heat stirring occasionally until the sauce is a little thicker and bubbling slightly
10. Try not to let the sauce boil too much; otherwise it could burn
11. After about 10-15 minutes, check on the sauce, if it is noticeably thicker then you can add eggs
12. Crack how ever many eggs you want into a separate bowl then pour each egg into a different area in the sauce
13. Leave the egg until it is cooked to your preference (ideally a bit runny on the inside).
14. Serve with some freshly cut parsley and bread

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Dinner: Sherkasia/Sherkaseya (circassian walnut chicken)

Oh sweet mother of god is this dish amazing. I have been wanting to make it for a few years now. And I finally did it, and not only did I realise that it tastes just as wonderful as I remembered it, BUT it's also a lot easier than expected to make. Unfortunately the photo of the final dish (above) is one I took from a while ago, so not as good as I'd like...but you get the idea. I had recent ones but they didn't work out, so I will add new ones once I cook it again.

But circassian you ask? Ah yes....

During my last visit to Egypt, I strayed away from our usual go-to restaurants and came across a few memorable ones. One in particular had this dish on its menu. We all tried it and couldn't get enough of this dish. I then began to notice it on other menus. What really made it click for me though in terms of its place in Egyptian cuisine was while I was reading Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy. In the first book, set during the late teens early twenties in Egypt of the 20th century, the reader is brought to the home of a typical, muslim family living in Cairo. Without turning this into a literature review entry, one of the sons is married off to a woman from a very 'respectable' family, in that she is of Turkish descent, and thus lighter in colour, more European features, and ultimately privy to the culinary recipes of her people. While her mother-in-law is not so much a fan of her, she manages to win over the household with her Circassian Chicken meal...a dinner that ordinary Egyptians rarely get to taste in their lifetime, yet alone in their own home.

How did Circassian walnut chicken enter the repertoire of Egyptian cuisine you ask? Simple. The Ottomans. Let's not forget that Egypt was under Ottoman rule for  nearly 400 years. And the Ottoman empire stretched as far east to the Caspian, which included the region of Circassia. In fact, the region was well-known for its beautiful women, many of whom were married to the Ottoman Sultans and Persian Shahs. 

Walnuts themselves, originate from Persia, so it's easy to see how the nut got swept into regional cuisines.

When the Ottomans took over Egypt, many of its influences soon became part of Egyptian culture, including the food. As with other recipes I've written about, this is one of the ones that is not rooted in traditional and local ingredients, but it has a big place in terms of historical and cultural significance.

I asked around my family for a proper recipe for this dish, and either I got blank stares or warnings of how difficult it would be to prepare. Meh...I found a recipe and modified it to the taste I remember and through research in terms of its ingredients.

Many of the recipes I came across did call for mastic: arabic gum that originates from Greece, but found its way to Egypt since the Pharaonic times. When used in cooking, it gives a pine-tree flavour.

I opted to not include mastic in this recipe because it's hard to find in stores, and is not an ingredient most people will have readily available in their homes. Also, I don't think the pine-tree flavour will add much to this recipe.

It's a dish that can be prepared in a relatively short amount of time, and keeps for a few days afterwards. So don't worry too much if the portions seems large. You can either cut the recipe in half, or eat it, for a long time.

Total preparation and cooking time: 2 hours
Yield: 10 persons


whole chicken
2 tablespoons ground garlic

2 onions peeled and quartered
salt / pepper
cinnamon stick
water to cover chicken

2.5 cups of shelled walnuts (not ground)
1/3 cup flour
2 teaspoons of ground allspice
broth from chicken



1. Add chicken, ground garlic, onions, salt, pepper, and cinnamon stick to pot
2. Add enough water to cover chicken
3. Leave to cook for about 90 minutes, or until chicken is well cooked and broth is flavourful

4. While chicken is cooking, ground allspice if you have whole grains
5. Add flour to a dry frying pan on medium-high heat

6. Keep stirring flour to avoid from burning
7. Once flour starts to change colour, add ground allspice

8. Continue to keep stirring until spice mixture changes colour to a light brown
9. Take off heat and set aside
10. In a food processor or large bowl, add flour/allspice mixture
11. Add walnuts
12. Add one cup of broth to begin with

13. Purée mixture until it is fully blended and has a creamy texture
14. Keep adding small amounts of broth until you get the texture of a creamy sauce
15. Once sauce is done, set aside.
16. Take off all of the meat from the chicken, taking sure to avoid any bones or cartilage.

17. In a large serving bowl, add all the chicken pieces
18. Add sauce on top of chicken and mix
19. Serve chicken and sauce with rice and some cooked greens or salad
20. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Lunch/Snack: Fiteer (egyptian-style pizza)

Snack/lunch: Fiteer (egyptian style pizza)

I'm not going to even try to comment or explain the long absence...suffice it to say that I do apologise. That being said, with all that's going on right now in Egypt, I thought I would focus on a recipe today that takes me to the serene and clear waters of the north coast.

It's a little slice of heaven, an area called Marsa Matruh, and not too far from Alexandria. Here the waters are crystal clear, the sand is fluffy and soft like powder and the villages are quaint, pretty much leaving you with nothing else to do but relax and look out at the waters. And fish.

The area used to be dotted with small fishing villages. My Uncle Fouad (Foo-Foo), told me that when they were younger, they would come up here for a few days of fishing and camping. It was the place to go for reconnecting with nature and escaping the chaos of Cairo.

Forward to the late 1990s, and the idea of restort towns and owning a condominium in the area is in vogue. My first introduction was sadly not to the quaint fishing village of said by-gone era, but instead a tranquil subdivision by the sea. In all fairness, it was beautiful, and simple. Not tacky (suprisingly) and serene. It was just on the sea and at your doorstep was the squeaky white sand and clear waters. That resort town is called Montazah.

However, the loud and obnoxious sister to Montazah is Marina. It's a quick drive away, and it's an overload of the senses....well last time I was there. Suped-up cars, music blasting loud enough to rattle anyone's bones, and young teens/tweens roaming around doing what they do best: talk loudly and and try to get noticed.

But back in the calm and serenity of Montazah, was a boardwalk along the beach. There you can find little stores and grocerers, and food for take-out. When I was there, we were in a big group with family friends, who go there often and knew what snacks were worth the effort to find. And so, while this may have been well over ten years ago...I remember this moment perfectly. We were all out late, sitting on the beach and someone ran to grab a snack. 30 minutes later he returned with what he termed 'egyptian pizza', called 'fiteer'.

It's essentially phyllo (filo) pastry, so flaky layers of buttery loveliness stuffed with either savoury or sweet fillings. In this case, we had both. One had icing sugar, raisins, nuts and shredded coconut, and the other had a type of local feta and vegetables.

To my surprise, when I got back to Cairo, a cousin took me out one day for lunch to a fiteer stand just down the street. And there it was in all its glory: a small hole filled with men hanging about. But you walk in and the guy behind the counter is busy stretching the dough. You say what kind of filling you want, he assembles it, throws into the oven and hands it back to you all wrapped and ready to eat.

Where does it come from though? Well let's remember that the dough is phyllo pastry that is just layered numerous times. So the phyllo pastry likely trickeled down from the Turks under the Ottoman empire.  The idea of stretching dough until it reaches a paper-thin consistency can be traced back to Istanbul, at the Topkapi Palace. This was the main residence of the Ottoman Sultans for nearly 400 years.

Prior to the palace kitchens, the idea of folding or pleating bread could be related to the earlier form of phyllo called 'yufka', which means 'thin' in an older Turkic dialect.

When the Ottoman empire took over Egypt in 1519, as has been the case with many other foods or beverages, the phyllo pastry likely fell into common practice.

Either way, just about every culture has a version of dough stuffed with something, so it's not that much of an original concept; but it's the local ingredients that make it unique.

In this case, savoury or sweet. But the local ingredients for savoury will include feta cheese, torshi (pickled vegetables), olives, tomatoes, cucumbers. The sweet one will have crushed pistachioes, dried coconut, raisins, honey, icing sugar and a local form of clotted cream.

I'll start off by saying buy your own phyllo pastry. I convinced myself it could easily be done at home, and while I did have a tasty version of it, it was not the same light consistency of a traditional feteer.

That being said, here is the recipe:

Total preparation time: 1 hour
Yield: 2 persons

2 1/3 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup water

feta cheese (this is a popular egyptian feta brand...but any feta will do)

fresh tomatoes
torshi (pickled vegetables)

1. Mix flour, salt and water together in a bowl

2. Keep kneeding by hand (you can use a mixer) until dough becomes smooth and stretchy

3. Divide the dough into two equal parts

4. Shape into balls and grease with melted butter

5. Set aside for 15 minutes

6. Preheat oven to about 400 F / 250 C

7. Take one ball and cut into five pieces

6. Grease with butter (or oil)

7. Using a rolling pin, roll out each piece as thin possible

8. Once each piece is thin, try to further stretch it out by hand, taking care not to rip the centre

9.Once all pieces are as thin as possible (it takes a lot of patience and practice to do this easily), then you can assemble all the pieces together to make one big piece

10. Add your filling to the centre

11. Carefully bring up the dough to seal in the filling

12. Once it is closed, brush with melted butter and transfer over to a baking tray

13. Bake in the oven until it is golden (about 15 minutes)

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Spice mix: Du'ah (Dukkah)

Ah yes, already a month into the new year and I've finally sat down to do this entry. And it's one I've been wanting to do for quite some time.

In fact, a few people have emailed me about Du'ah (dukkah, duqqah, dukka). The word derives from the arabic word to pound, since the spices are toasted and then pounded using a mortar and pestle.

And it's a spice combination specific to Egypt. The Levantine region has its own mix, called Za'tar.

To be honest, I never gave du'ah much thought, it was just always something sitting in the fridge. My father, however, has always been obsessed with it, and up until recently I couldn't figure out why. But every time we sit down to a dinner of pasta, he whips out this massive jar of du'ah and instead of grating some parmesan cheese, he proceeds to flood his pasta with mounds of this spicing. Or he simply eats it just as it is with a spoon.

The problem with buying this ready-made is that because it is a mix of spices, there are many, many variations. So to minimize any disappointments at the dinner table, my father has taken to bringing back a few bags to Canada after each visit to Egypt. His cousin has the connections to the person who makes this, so this delicate balance of spices is just perfect.

Apart from its use in pasta, we never used it for any other purpose at home.  Although, growing up, my father said how my grandmother and her friends would all get their du'ah from the same person, or one of them from the group would make a big batch for everyone. Either way, it was kind of a big deal getting your fill of du'ah. At home, she would use it for sandwiches, just sprinkle it on the bread to give it some flavour before adding meats or cheeses.

Not too long ago, I went to some hip bar in New York City two years ago, and on the 'ethnic' menu for starters was du'ah and warmed pita bread with some olive oil. I ordered it and while it wasn't awful....the combination of the spices was off. But I'll admit, hipster joint aside, it was refreshing to see an item like that on the menu, even if the server herself had no idea about the dish.

In fact, it is commonly eaten in Egypt as a starter with some olive oil and warm pita bread. So the hip bar wasn't wrong after all. It's also used during fasting season (any religion) as a light way to break the fast.  But it's not a terribly common sight, nor is it used for spicing in dishes as one would see with za'atar in salads or lebanese-style pizzas (manooshe).

But the different spices used in the mix sort of throw all of the country's history into one even blend.
While the mix differs from person to person, at the base of it are: sesame seeds, cumin seeds, coriander seeds and pine nuts. These are all items that can be traced back to the times of the pharaohs, and have been found in ancient egyptian tombs.

However, either hazel nuts or peanuts are used as the main nut in the mix. The one I grew up with had peanuts, but many recipes call for hazel nuts. Either way, neither nut is native to Egypt. Peanuts originate from South America and were brought over by the European explorers and eventually traded around the Mediterranean.  Hazel nuts can be traced back to Syria, Turkey and even further back to China. So the nut component of the mix is a relatively new addition, and was probably introduced to egyptian foods through trade due to its geographical position.

Whether you opt for the hazel nut or peanut version, the best thing about this mix is that the flavouring comes from its dry roasting, so it is about as healthy as you can get and it can keep for a very long time.

The recipe I am using is one based on the mix I have always had; but getting the recipe was another story. It was a no-go. My cousin in Egypt was unable to really pinpoint the exact recipe, so after some trial and error in the kitchen, I managed to recreate what tastes familiar to me. All that to say is that you can change the proportions around to suit your tastes.

Also, the recipe I have makes enough for a little jar of spice. But you can double the proportions for more, or half them for less, just make sure the ratio stays the same.
Total preparation time: 20 minutes

1/4 cup ground peanuts (or hazel nuts)

1/4 cup sesame seeds

2 tablespoons coriander seeds

1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon pine nuts

pinch of salt (to taste)



1. Using a frying pan, dry roast on medium heat, the sesame seeds.

2. When the sesame seeds have begun to change colour, add the peanuts (or hazel nuts).

3. Allow these two to mix for about a minute.

4. Add remaining ingredients, except the salt.

5. Continuously stir ingredients to prevent burning.
6. After about ten minutes, the roasting should be done. Taste the mix to make sure you can taste the smokiness from roasting, and not something burnt. The colour should be significantly darker at this point.
7. If you have a mortar and pestle, add everything to the mortar with about a teaspoon of salt.
8. If you don't have a mortar and pestle, add everything to container for blending. Add a teaspoon of salt.

9. Grind everything to a powder. You cannot get too fine of a powder with this mix.
10. Because of the nuts, there may be a bit of moisture in the beginning making the mix clump a little, that's alright, let the mix dry out first, and then you can keep it sealed in a small jar.