A long time ago back in my college days, I was hanging out with a friend. We had just finished eating off a cart somewhere in the streets of Cairo, and the satisfaction of the meal inspired us to playfully contemplate the subject of food, but mind you, with some serious undertones of identity search.
“Name a dish that is purely Egyptian to its roots, a dish we eat today that is quintessentially Egyptian,” my friend challenged me. Going over a myriad of locally popular dishes, the first dish I thought of was Molokheya, but then I remembered that they make it in the Levant very similarly. Falafel is everywhere. Koshary seemed like a good candidate.
“Well there must be something that we can call pure Egyptian cuisine, something with an Ancient Egyptian kind of authenticity,” he replied to my bewilderment.
“Look buddy, the only thing I can think of that is Ancient -in more than one sense- and purely Egyptian is Fesiekh,” I said. “Other than that it’s impossible to say which is ours and which is the others’.”
It’s not hard to believe that in the melting pot that is the Middle East, tracing a dish to its origins is a scholarly undertaking worthy of a research paper, and in the process, the lines dividing nations would surely blur to mist.
Shawerma, Döner, and Gyros are Arabic, Turkish, and Greek names for marinated meat, flame-grilled on a vertical rotisserie and wrapped in flat bread with dressing. Even more amusing is the fact that pulverised roasted coffee grounds brewed by decoction (boiling) is called Turkish coffee, Greek coffee, and Cypriot coffee in the respective nations. Mah’shi, Dolma, and Yemista for peppers or other vegetables stuffed with rice. The list goes on.
Thousands of years of cultural exchange have blended the ancient flavours of the region into hues of the same light, and the modern age with the advent of globalisation has blurred the lines even further.
So it’s safe to say that there is no such thing as a purely Egyptian cuisine, and that distinction can only be by name. Right?
Wrong. Dead wrong.
Tell me, how good is your mum’s cooking? The best, right? Were you ever invited to a friend’s house for a meal, and your favourite dish was on the table, yet you take the first bite only to find that it’s not nearly as good as your mum’s?
I bet you the recipe was exactly same, just as the name of the dish was no different. Nobody reinvents the classics, you know that.
So what’s the difference, I ask. You may feel inclined to opt for the simplest and most obvious answer: the flavour.
You might say the reason is that your mum always cooks it with love -which I’m sure she does. Romantics aside though, I’d say the reason is more scientific, yet far from dull. It’s all about the variables: the technique, the sequence, the timing, the quality of ingredients, the source of ingredients… etc. In other words: the devil is in the details.
Your mum may have made that dish a thousand times. The basics must have become obvious by the 10th time she made it, and the focus became more and more on the slightest details, with decisions that would become significant as she defines her signature touches.
What is equally important is that you have tasted her dish a thousand times. Your senses have been trained and honed to detect the slightest change, and with that training comes expectation on the same level of detail.
The analogy applies to the collective taste buds of groups of people who live in the same town, city, or country. As a people, we have very specific expectations of what food should look, smell, and taste like. We have expectations of a unique flavour in our collective mind.
But that wasn’t the impression I had back that night with my friend, and certainly, that’s not what most people think. The layman will say it’s all good or it’s all bad, or so I thought back then.
I didn’t know then what I know now. You see, I’ve tasted all those Shawermas, and there is a world of difference.
The common Egyptian and Levantine offering would be slightly charred chicken slices, dressed with garlic aioli or mayonnaise and pickles, or beef slices with tahini dressing, flat leaf parsley, dill, and chopped tomatoes. The meat marinade is vinegary and heavily seasoned. The bread is traditionally flat Saj bread wrap, with some versions substituting it with kaiser rolls or crusty French bread.
The Turkish version is dressed with raw sliced onions, sumac and lemon juice. In some regions they dress the beef with cooked tomato sauce. The marinade is subtle, almost unnoticeable. The wrapped version (dürüm) is ubiquitous, but can also be served in white bread rolls (Ekmek), or on a plate with tomato sauce, yogurt, and grilled bread beneath it all, to soak up the juices and sauce (Iskender Kebap).
The Greek version (apart from the obvious difference that it’s commonly made with pork, in addition to beef and chicken) is not wrapped fully in the bread (more like a taco), and is dressed with seasoned yogurt and salad.
At this point, I think I can rephrase my friend’s question to reflect a more educated outlook: what is the quintessential Egyptian flavour? Not dish.
If you’re Egyptian, ask yourself that question first: what would you say is definitively Egyptian? What ingredients? What cooking technique?
I have a personal experience that makes me inclined to give a very specific answer to that question – it’s toasted coriander seeds, garlic, and the colour green.
Yes, that’s right, the ubiquitous Taqlia – ground coriander seeds and minced garlic fried in clarified butter. The essential element of Molokhia, Bessara (broad beans paste), and Khubaiza (minced spinach-like leaves), and all sorts of green goodness. But it’s also the fried coriander and seeds in Ta’meya or Falafel – depending on your nick of the woods – made with green fava beans, unlike the Levantine chickpea based Falafel.
Let me tell you the story of why I choose coriander seeds and garlic as the essential Egyptian flavour. My mother makes a dish called Sharkaseya (chicken with walnut sauce). The dish is originally a Turkish dish (çerkez tavugu) that was brought from the Caucasus. I wanted to cook the same dish once, and being the rebel I am, I refused to use my mum’s recipe, opting for what I believed to be the authentic recipe. The dish called for sweet paprika as an essential spice for the sauce. My mum never used paprika, she used coriander seeds fried with garlic paste.
She decided to make her version alongside mine, and we tried both. What I didn’t know back then was that paprika is considered a defining flavour of Ottoman cuisine (and later and more prominently of Hungarian cuisine), which speaks true to the authenticity of the recipe and faithfulness to its origin.
And it hit me: just one ingredient will bring the dish home to the Caucasus, and another will take it thousands of miles to distinct Egyptian ground, equally delicious, if not better – which it was.
The trained palate will differentiate, analyse, and appreciate the subtle -or not so subtle- variations of ingredients and method. New profound appreciation of culinary arts is found through exploration, experience, and experimentation.