Monday, July 30, 2012

Finding Ramadan

As featured in The Egypt Monocle
My first Ramadan in Cairo after years away has rolled in and with it a slew of television shows crammed with farcical advertising that I don’t watch, extravagantly sweet desserts that I haven’t eaten and a generous spirit of camaraderie that has me puzzled as to where it annually disappears after the boisterous celebration of Eid.
Restaurants have asked their social media accounts to bombard those unfortunate enough to be following them with incessant updates on iftar and sohour menu rotation schedules along with everything in between: sugar, shisha and Ramadan tent reservations. In a month that is revered for the calm it brings, many instead go into overdrive, exhausting their bodies with food and fruity clouds of smoke.
Remembering the first Ramadan in Kuala Lumpur, I realize now that it was quite dismal. We missed our bustling city, our nosy people and the feeling of our energy plummeting after a heavy family meal. Being invited out for iftar or what they call “berbuka puasa” — literally “to open the fast” in Bahasa Melayu, an anxious wave undulated through me hinting that I was on foreign ground, that the Egyptian Ramadan traditions that had long been implanted in me were shaken.
This unfamiliarity eased as the years passed and we gradually fell into a not-so-Egyptian, not-so-Malaysian routine that suited our recent married-couple habits. We’d begin with a soup poured steaming into a mug then would sit in the humidity, looking out at Kuala Lumpur from our balcony on the 21st floor. A proper iftar was to follow two hours later, after the karkade and the tea with milk; and in this way, my body would not drag and would not crave a hazelnut-studded round of basboosa waiting in my dreams to be consumed in its entirety. My stomach had adapted and my traditions had been reset.
Coming back to experience the same Ramadan buzz, the hard sell that Cairo shoves at the fasting, I feel out of place. I now yearn for a smoking hot chicken tikka colored bright red for my eyes to eat too, a South Indian sambar for my taste buds to dance and to finish, a delicate roti gula, a sugary bread, similar in appearance and flavor to our local feteer.
In time, I will get reaccustomed to my original home. I will find my appetite for konafa and tiptoe to the fridge for secret spoonfuls of leftover rice but for now, I will accept iftar invitations with a smile and an inner desire to stay home until my mind wraps itself around the traditions that it has lost touch with. I will make rice that you might not be used to but it will, to me, signal the smells of a recently lost home. It’s good to be back Cairo, but in my home this Ramadan, I need to reinvent your flavors, taking ingredients in an Egyptian kitchen and giving them a little Indian twist to answer to my Asian cravings.
Tomato Almond Basmati
You’ll need:
1 cup of basmati rice, uncooked
2 tablespoons of ghee
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 small onion, finely diced
½ cup of almonds, peeled and halved
Juice of half a lime
¼ cup + 2 tablespoons of tomato paste
1½ cup of water
1 teaspoon of sugar
½ teaspoon chilli powder
½ teaspoon of ground cumin
1 bird’s eye chilli, finely sliced
1 cinnamon stick, around 10 cm in length
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Rinse the basmati rice in cold water until the water runs clear then drain. In a separate pan, toast the almonds until golden and set aside.
In a medium heavy-bottomed pot, melt the ghee on medium heat. Add the cumin, cinnamon and chili powder and stir to combine. Add the garlic and onions and cook until fragrant. They should not get any color on them. Add the tomato paste and stir the contents of the pot together then add the rice, water, lemon juice, sugar, salt and pepper. Bring to a rapid boil and leave to boil for a minute. Lower the heat and cover. Do not disturb the rice or lift the lid for around 12 minutes. Turn the heat off and leave to stand covered for another 5-10 minutes. Fluff with a fork before serving and top with toasted almonds.

Figs & Fear

I stepped into the kitchen, freshly cleaned for us, the new tenants from Egypt. Grey corian countertops, white cabinets and an aging fridge welcomed me into the square room that I would now force myself to enter routinely. Dishes would eventually pile up and we would, sooner than later, need to stop eating out like tourists every night.There were no mommies to send the newly married couple food to hoard in our freezer. 

There was no Cairo where I lived in the office and everything was delivered. This was the reality of things. For my first week in Malaysia, there was only a fancy supermarket across the street and shelves to fill to inhabit this space I’d learn to call home.

This is how I started cooking — out of obligation and the need to learn a new skill that I didn’t expect would keep me entertained.At first, I dumped ingredients familiar to me into the shopping cart, reaching out for things I’d see in my mother’s kitchen. I started stocking spices in bulk and bought herbs in quantities so absurd, they’d go to waste. It would take a while before I learned to properly use these integral elements I had lying around, but after weeks of cutting chicken like a caveman, overcooking beef and under-baking cake, I got the hang of it, albeit with a little help from the internet, some classes and a few aggressive songs blaring on my kitchen speakers.
Today, you could say that I was lucky to be allowed that faraway space to create, to absorb from my foreign surroundings and remove myself from the way things were done back home; but I wouldn’t agree. I would tell you that it was not Malaysia that drove me to find my devotion for cooking but instead, a longing to dislodge a disability of mine, a fear caught at the base of my throat, that of never being able to feed myself properly in my own home.
I have been approached by many wanting to cultivate their kitchen skills — through emails, at dinner parties, in passing. Each used it as an opportunity to find out what it was that made me “kitchen-confident” but in truth, there are no secrets, only a few additional observations that helped me.
Read: The more I got into those books and online articles, the faster I understood technique.
Practice: The faster you’re able to quarter a whole chicken, the quicker you’ll be able to progress to levels that require lesser amounts of fear.
When looking at a food item, think of different uses for it. A bottle of milk is not designed to be an afterthought in your morning coffee but a silky béchamel, a trembling crème caramel and with a little added acidity, paneer, a non-melting Indian cheese.
Realize that many dishes are simple to make despite their intimidating appearances while others that look casually thrown together are not so easy to achieve.
This recipe may interest your guests in Ramadan, one that is bold in flavor, basic in concept and does not require much skill, just some focus. You can use it as a jam for your midnight snack, stir its chunkiness into yogurt, or serve it with a creamy scoop of vanilla ice cream after iftar. Purée it and you’ll have a rich syrup that would comfortably pair with fried qatayef, a dollop of thick cream and a sugary drizzle of a karkade and fig blend to top it all off.
Spiced Karkade & Fig Compote
You’ll need
4 cups of prepared karkade, sweetened
8 cloves, whole
3 whole bay leaves
⅛ teaspoon of ground cinnamon
A pinch of ground black pepper
6 grams of ginger, minced
360 grams of dried figs
The juice of 1 lime
70 grams of almonds
1½ teaspoon of white sesame
1 teaspoon of nigella seeds

In a medium-sized pot, pour in the karkade along with the cloves, cinnamon, black pepper, ginger and bay leaves. Bring to a rapid boil then lower the heat and leave to simmer for 20 minutes. In the meantime, quarter the dried figs and roughly chop the almonds. Set the figs aside. In a separate pan, toast the almonds lightly. Remove from the pan then add the sesame and nigella seeds to the same pan and toast until the white sesame seeds begin to change color.After your 20 minutes have passed, remove the bay leaves and cloves then add the lime juice. Add the figs to the karkade then the almonds, sesame and nigella seeds. Stir then simmer on low heat for 40 to 45 minutes. Once your compote becomes sticky and begins to pull away at the sides, remove from the heat and leave to cool before serving. To store, spoon into a jar and seal tightly.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Way to Eat

If I were to map out my life through the memories of my stomach, I would pair my fondest moments with one particular element — my hands needing a good wash from the powdery leftover wheat bran of baladi bread, a staining turmeric-rich sauce or the fatty gloss of deep-fried chicken skin.
It is true that I might not appreciate the drippings of a wet burger slithering down my forearm, especially in public, but there is an increased feeling of well being, of being human, of connecting with where I came from by eating with no cutlery.
Growing up in an Egyptian-Indian household, I learned early on that there were dishes — curries, pizzas and tacos — that we could eat with our hands while other meals subjected me to the rigid rules of table settings, which fork goes with what coupled with stern looks from my mother.
I noticed that we would dip our fingers into plates far more often when we’d visit India. While in Egypt, we rarely used our hands as we grew older, to ghammes, to dip our bread into a sauce of some kind; although Om Khaled, our housekeeper, insisted that in her home, she had to make a side dish for her husband to dip his bread into if what she was making included no sauce. His meal would never be complete without it; such was tradition.
Several years ago, my mother observed at a family lunch that using a torn piece of bread, I scooped up my bamia, an Egyptian tomato-based okra stew, with my thumb, pointer and middle finger alone, in the same fashion as my father, whom I have not seen for many years. This habit starting generations before me, as a part of North Indian etiquette, was transferred to me without much of a thought on my part. And as I partake in eating with my hands, pigeon and fuul, among Egyptian friends, I realize that the way I ghammes is not so Egyptian after all.

Guests in Kuala Lumpur were always more laid-back than in Cairo, taking off their shoes as they enter your house, eating with no pretensions, gauging the temperature, the heat of the chili and the initial textures of my food with their hands. It was comfortable to have people over for dinner; none of the excessive pleasantries and politeness we enforce upon ourselves when invited into another Egyptian home.
What is apparent is that more nationalities than not eat with their hands, from a simple metal bowl or a banana leaf, in a thali or from a carefully constructed sushi platter. I am not advocating a complete switch but would like to see things eaten the way they should be, at least somewhat. It would also be nice to teach our children that eating with your hands is not something to look down upon and that there’s no better way to eat a paper dosa, a fermented rice and lentil crispy crêpe, than feeling the crunch with your fingers first.
As featured in The Egypt Monocle

Basic Breadsticks
You’ll need
1½ cups of all-purpose flour, sifted
½ teaspoon of salt
½ teaspoon of instant yeast
1½ tablespoon of honey
1 tablespoon of olive oil
½ cup of room temperature water
1 egg + 1 tablespoon of cold water, whisked together
Sea salt
Freshly ground pepper
Nigella seeds
Caraway seeds
Combine together the flour, salt, honey, yeast, olive oil and water and mix to form a ball. Dust some flour onto your counter and move the dough onto it. Knead the dough until everything is mixed together and you get a dough that is medium in firmness.
Transfer to a greased bowl and leave to rest for an hour and a half or until it doubles in size. Preheat oven to 175 degrees Celsius and line a baking sheet with baking paper before working for a second time with the dough.
When done rising, punch down the dough and transfer it back to the counter. Knead for 8 to 10 minutes until it gets pliable and stretchy. Divide it into equal pieces. Make sure to cover the pieces you’re not working with. One at a time, roll each piece out into a rectangle and brush it with egg wash. Sprinkle on adequate sea salt, pepper and both nigella and caraway seeds. Cut the dough with a pizza cutter into equal strips and twist each one. Place them on the baking sheet with equal widths between each. Bake for approximately 15 minutes. Allow to cool completely before serving.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Kahk for a guest post

Yasmeen over at Wandering Spice had asked me to guest post for her while she was busy getting married. For this post, she asked me to focus on Middle Eastern dishes or ones that were wedding-related. I chose both and used a simple enough recipe for Kahk, an Egyptian biscuit/cookie that's dusted in powdered sugar and is a symbol of celebration in our big, beautiful country. For the recipe, please visit Yasmeen's blog. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Rave Reviews & a 3-Bean Salad

It is a rare occasion to find me visiting a Cairo restaurant based on a local review; but how much of this is my fault, this fear that I should not trust what is seemingly penned down without an afterthought? Do I skip over errors in technique descriptors and succumb to a world of uninteresting words that gives me nothing but cues that the reviewer cannot move past terms like “mouth-watering,” “amazing” and, I say this with a sigh, “perfect”?
Today, many Egyptians who have not stepped foot in a kitchen have decidedly taken on the online job of restaurant critic, with a virtuoso opinion that is customarily courteous and inclusive of the word “yummy,” that disregards the gray and congealed sauce that has been served atop a dry and under-seasoned steak.
It is known that the internet has opened doors to many who would in the 1980s have had no place to sound their voices. Food blogs and restaurant review aggregators have come to Egypt. We are now able to click through a multitude of links that invite us to eat at neighborhood restaurants through our screens and other people’s palates but most of the verbiage dedicated to restaurants ends up similar in style: dazzled amateurs happy with their cozy new positions, preferring not to write anything if they didn’t like the food.
It takes thick skin to tell the truth and most reviews have been ultimately forgiving about the food and service. On some days, the glorification and praise know no bounds and we are left to wonder how many of those favorable reviews are concealing a simple monthly fee.
There are ways to fix this doomed scenario we’re living in. It just takes some effort in between eating and kowtowing to the popular.
If you’re planning on becoming a published restaurant critic, begin to draw on your experiences as both an eater and a cook. If you have never cooked, get yourself into the kitchen and begin following tested recipes from reputable sources, both traditional and others with international flavors that may be fresh and unusual when paired. Learn what the world considers good.
Work on your writing skills; poorly constructed reviews will often be taken less seriously. Prove yourself through detailed pieces over a lengthy period of time. Visit the restaurant at least three times before liberally handing out your review, cover as many menu items as possible and check for consistency. If you’re going to be reviewing, no free meals should be accepted.
Do not hide behind your reviews claiming that you are only an amateur. If you’re regularly providing the market with reviews, you’ll need to get better. Recognize how hard the process can be: eating, having a critical opinion, maintaining anonymity at the restaurant, taking notes, revisiting and writing as honestly and intricately as possible to convey the atmosphere of said place.
Finally and for the love of our country, find a better word for “delicious.”
Three Bean Salad
You’ll need
70 grams edamame, shelled and cooked
90 grams black eyed peas, cooked
70 grams chickpeas, cooked
2 tablespoons of scallions, chopped
1 small onion, diced
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 medium red pepper, diced
1 tablespoon of sugar
2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar
1½ tablespoon of vegetable oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
In a pot, boil some salted water and add the edamame in small handfuls. Cook for 4-5 minutes and drain in a colander. Set aside to cool. Once cool, remove from their shells and place in your salad bowl.
Prepare another pot of salted water. Place the black eyed peas in the water then bring it to the boil. Allow to boil for 3 minutes then lower the heat. Simmer for another 30 minutes then drain. When the black eyed peas have cooled, place them with the shelled edamame in the salad bowl.
If you’re using canned chickpeas, drain and rinse before using. If you’re using fresh, allow to soak overnight before cooking the next day. To cook, place them in a pot of cold water and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat immediately and simmer until tender and plump. Drain and cool. When they’ve lost some heat, add them to your salad bowl. Toss the beans together.
In a small bowl, mix together the sugar, vinegar, oil, salt, pepper, onions, scallions and garlic and pour over your salad. Mix and chill before serving.
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