Cheers & Mouneh in the Mountains

Sawsan and her sweet at the Souk

Sawsan at the Souk

I first met Sawsan at Souk el Tayeb’s Saturday morning market in Beirut Souks.  She and her husband Riyadhh pulled me into to their market table with a gorgeous display of homemade mouneh - traditionally preserved pickles, jams, cheeses and yogurt.  Then they offered samples of baked and fried sweets.  The lure of sweets will always pull me in.

“Mouneh is not only the tradition of making food but a way of life.”

In her book Day of Honey, my friend Annia Ciezaldo describes the importance of mouneh as Lebanese culinary art to store fresh fruits and veggies from the garden and wilderness that can survive the winter and hard times.  The word mouneh not only refers to the tradition of making the food, she explains, but encompasses an entire way of life in which families and communities gather to jar these foods over coffee, tea, and village gossip.  It’s a medium to exchange tales of life and love. In the end, each family can leave with batches  of jams, lebneh, pickles and more that the collective hands of their community created. 

 

20150702_113715

Visually dazzled at her variety of lebneh packed in olive oil, I spent time taking it all in.  Since arriving in Lebanon, this particular preparation of lebneh has quickly become my new favorite addition to salads and sauteed greens when cooking for myself.  Some were coated with za’atar or black seeds or sumac. Some were rolled into small marbles and others into lemon shaped balls like kebbeh.

I finally burst out in excitement in my broken Egyptian Arabic - “Ana aiza an amal kidda!”  (I want to make this).  She giggled.  My particular command of Arabic I’ve learned is quite charming to the locals and a currency unto itself.

“Yella, Ta’ali,” Sawsan smiled, inviting me to join her the following Thursday.  She offered me a hug and more sweets as we parted ways.

Bounty of Mouneh

Thursday morning I set out with my driver from Beirut to Aley, Sawsan’s village in the mountains about a half hour outside of the city. Her husband Riyadhh came to fetch me in his rugged Land Rover when the roads became too complicated.

She hugged me when we arrived and first things first, before we got into rolling the lebneh, she asked, if was I hungry. Did I want coffee? Grapeleaves?  Yes please, I smiled.

Sawsan and Riyadhh did not speak much English. Throughout the day we would communicate in basic heartfelt basic expressions of Egyptian and Lebanese Arabic dialects, smiles, and offerings of food.

“This process of drying the lebneh allowed it to be solid enough to weather all seasons of the year and war if need be…”

As Sawsan prepared coffee, I noticed  she already visually laid out the process of rolling out the lebneh into mouneh. In wide baskets lined with muslin, some lebneh was separated into thick chunks for the first stage, drying for about one day. In phase two the lebneh was rolled into balls drying still another day.

This allowed the lebneh to be solid enough to keep its form in the olive oil and evolve into the hardy mouneh that can weather all seasons of the year, and war if need be. The Lebanese I’ve learned are always prepared. Always have a Plan B in case comforts of state and home evaporate into madness.

 

10995854_977997932228_4988166116071391800_n

She showed me her collection of mouneh, including freshly prepared apricot jam that she’ll only prepare once per year when the the fruit is in season, and preserved hard cheese decoratively preserved in in olive oil with hot peppers and rosemary.

After coffee we got into rolling the lebneh into little balls and stuffing green oilves with lebneh. The practice preparing of mouneh, like rolling grapeleaves, or any of those small delicately prepared fare, can be intensely meditative.  Or the perfect vehicle for storytelling.

We chatted about our families and nieces and grandsons.  I told them about my past lives.  An idealist working on the Iraq War. My days as some man’s wife.  A drunkard, I told them. A ne’er-do-well I picked up in college.  I escaped kid free. We high fived.  Freedom is sweet and delivered me here I smiled.

Sawsan and Riyadhh’s son Anwar came home from his shift of duty in the army as we wrapped up making mouneh.  It was finally time to kick back into family time.

Thyme dries on the balcony

As Sawsan prepared Yerbe Matte, a popular South American drink that caught on in the mountains, Anwar changed out of uniform. He gave me the tour of the balconies with dozens of chirping little birds and bundles of thyme drying for to prepare their family’s own special blend of za’atar.

We relaxed over more of Sawsan’s mouneh: pickled asparagus and olives and leaves of wild sido mido harvested from the backyard stuffed with rice, and saj with fresh jam and hard cheese.

The rest of the family rolled in. Nabil, Sawsan and Riyadh’s youngest son, with his wife Nour and two young boys join over the late afternoon snacks.

“When we discovered we both had the same last name. They decided I was family and couldn;t leave.”

They served beer Mexican style, pouring locally brewed Maza beer over a freshly squeezed lemon juice and sea salt rim on the glass.

The family insisted on feeding me by hand.  “Dahlia, open your mouth!” they would order with glee.  I would oblige.  They would squeal in delight as they fed me olives and simple saj sandwiches.

When we discovered both of us share the last name Shaaban, well, it was a done deal. They decided I was family and I couldn’t leave.

They insisted I join them for an evening barbeque and bonfire in the mountains and spend the night. We’ll have meat and cheers,  slang for libations of arak poured over ice..

I was grateful for the hospitality and the offer and explained I needed to get back to Beirut for the Souk al Akl market that evening.  My hosts at Souk el Tayeb expected me to be there. This conversation would continue for the next 2 hours.

It was 6 in the evening and time for me to head home. I wanted to take a group photo with the family before I called a cab.

Riyadhh crafts the Shaaban family Za'atar

Riyadhh crafts the Shaaban family Za’atar

Of course they agreed.  And they had just the place for it. Just five minutes away on the way to where the cab would meet me.  And it offered a scenic view of the Lebanese countryside.

We all squeezed into the Land Rover, three generations of the Lebanese Shaaban tribe and me, the satellite Egyptian-American member, and all their supplies for Thursday night grilling.

We pull up the mountainside and all funnel out.  Immediately Anwar and his mom begin to set up the campfire and grilling pit. Snacks of chips and homemade hummus and lebneh and mouneh were laid out on a blanket. That group photo… not even on the radar. Hospitality, hoodwinked.

“Dahlia, sit!” They ordered.  They poured me arak. “Cheers!”

“Open your mouth!” They fed me chips and hummus.

Sawsan and Nour assembled skewers of marinated meats and chicken and veggies and Anwar grilled.

When cup was empty and they poured more arak. “Cheers!”

“Dahlia! Open your mouth!” They fed me saj sandwiches of freshly grilled meat off the skewers and garlic sauce.  I truly haven’t had shish tawouk so delicious.  Charred and tender and juicy.

Answar, Grill master

Answar, Grill master

More arak was poured. “Dahlia…” Sawsan winked, “Cheers!”

I was getting full and the hour was getting late.  And I had a night market, and more eating to get to.  I couldn’t disappoint the folks in Beirut.  At the very least I had to show up.  I started asking about my cab.

They looked hurt.  Ok… Another 15 minutes I agreed.  They smiled.

They agreed to take a break from shish tawouk and cheers for a group photo before the son went down.  Sawsan’s grandson Daniel was fascinated with my selfie stick tripod.

Daniel tinkers with the selfie tripod

The feeding continued. “Dahlia OPEN YOUR MOUTH!!!” The meats and mouneh would not stop coming.

My stomach couldn’t handle anymore. I couldn’t breathe.

“CHEERS!!!” Sawsan.  This cycle would continue for the next hour.

I finally negotiated getting a cab, with apologies and regrets. Anwar and Riyadhh drove me to meet my driver.

Family photo

I did end up making it to Souk al Akl in downtown Beirut.  And as the vendors I have met throughout the week insisted on offering their fare, I had to apologize.  There was simply no more room in my belly.

Sawsan and her family got there first, and made sure of it.  Tribal provisions perhaps.

A Celebration of Tabbouleh

20150704_111728

Nadim’s Offering of Tabbouleh from the Mountains

Tomorrow is National Tabbouleh Day Pamela, Souk Manager tells me.  And she informs me that I’m volunteering for the competition in the morning at the Souk el Tayeb Saturday market in Beirut.

I ask what that entails.  “Find a recipe you like and we’ll find you the ingredients at the market to make it tomorrow.”

I’m thrilled at the opportunity, though I have increasingly become more structured in planning and executing cooking demonstrations back in DC.  The impromptu nature of this has me fretting a bit.

“Impassioned Impromptu is something of a Lebanese art form.”

Tabbouleh, a refreshing Levantine salad of parsley, tomato, burghul, and onions dressed simply with lemon and olive oil is in my repertoire back home where I’ve experimented with using amaranth and quinoa instead of cracked wheat.  My first time making tabbouleh 12 years ago was in Amman with my Palestinian-Jordanian host.  She used quick soaked couscous. This week in my stage shift at Tawlet I assisted Head Chef Fadi Ayoub in his classical preparation.  He tossed in the burghul raw, explaining the acid from the lemon would soften it.  A world opened.

Certainly I thought I needed more time to prepare for this competition… This is Lebanon however and I’ve learned that Impassioned Impromptu is something of an art form here.

It’s my last Friday night in Beirut Pamela continues, and we would leave the details for tomorrow morning.  Revelry is another cherished Lebanese art form.  And Pamela takes her role as my river guide quite seriously.

After an evening and dancing and libations, I return home to see an email from Joanne, Souk el Tayeb’s Director of Social Media. She’s excited to finally meet me in the morning.  And oh, CNN will be there.

The next morning I show up at the market without expectation- a practice I am increasingly learning to value.

I’m partnered with Nadim Rawda, a regular chef and vendor with Souk El Tayeb, founding member of Food Heritage Foundation, and a tremendous foodie devoted to wild and sustainably sourced ingredients from the mountains.  I couldn’t be more relieved to follow his lead.

And Impassioned Impromptu begins.

We acquire fresh ingredients from the farmer’s stand a couple feet away.  In addition to parsley he takes mint.   It adds a subtle sweetness he tells me. He inquires into green onions, his preferred ingredient, but settles for yellow.

Instead of burghul, he explains, we’re doing red lentils.  A traditional variation from the mountains.

He gathers rosemary and lavender for ornamentation and a mighty head of cabbage in which to serve the tabbouleh.

 

Nadim and Student

Nadim and Student

Execution begins.  We borrow a bowl from another vendor.

He sends me to fetch water, preferably hot, to soak the lentils.   They only need a half hour he explains. I scurry to the cafe next door and return with lentils soaking.

“But I need a knife and cutting board.” Nadim wonders to himself out loud.

I ask around for from other markets vendors.  None to be spared. A vendor sends me with his daughter to a local supermarket if we can borrow one. Borrowing is a concept lost in translation.

I return back to Nadim. He already has a cutting board and knife and is chopping the parsley and mint.

“But I need to rinse these greens.”

I run back to the cafe that gave us the hot water and ask to rinse. They offer up their salad spinner and I return feeling rather redeemed. Nadim has the rest of the greens chopped, rinsed, and dried.

At this point I can’t help but wonder if I’m in some culinary Sufi parable between student and teacher on the merits of patience.

“But I need a big spoon.” None of the other vendors have extra spoons to spare.  I come back with a humble plastic spoon.

“But I need salt.” Fortunately Oum Ali’s stand has lends us their jar of sea salt.

“I can’t help but wonder if I’m in some culinary Sufi parable between teacher and student…”

The competition begins and Nadim’s offering is a wild and aesthetically dazzling interpretation.  I’m tasked with food presentation and serving while he attends to affairs as usual at his stand, selling his famous savory pastries.  “Tell them the variation with lentils,” he says, “It comes from the mountains.”

The public and contest judge come to taste test the five offerings of tabbouleh, their variations and subtle complexity of flavor.  The ultimate indicator of success is when folks return for seconds.

They inquire into the sweetness of Nadim’s recipe. The mint I tell them.  And the lentils? The mountains I wink.

Oum Ali Soaks in the Accolades

Oum Ali Soaks in the Accolades

When the judge made his final call, it was Oum Ali who earned the title of Best Tabbouleh, dethroning Jamila Nahra who won the honors for the past three years.

Nadim paid no mind the swirling of accolades.  He had stories to tell about the mountains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Day of Kebbeh with Georgina

This week the folks at Souk el Tayeb hooked me up with the ultimate culinary experience: a day with Georgina Bayeh.  A regular visiting chef at Tawlet and vendor at the market, I joined Georgina at her catering kitchen in her hometown of Kfardlekos in Zgharta, about 2 hours north of Beirut.  Her specialty, the regional variations of kebbeh (kibbeh, etc).  And I was about to get an immersion.

Kebbe Feast

A Bounty of Kebbeh

Bright and early- for me at least- I left Beirut with a driver at eight in the morning and set out to meet her in her ancestral mountain village. Georgina’s region of Zgharta, according to Souk, is the kebbah capital of Lebanon, offering 12 variations.  Souk el Tayyeb literature describes Kebbeh as a traditional Lebanese dish with each region and village offering its own interpretation.  Traditionally, kebbeh is a finely minced puree mixture, mainly meat – or pumpkin, lentil, or potato – with burghul (cracked wheat)- seasoned with generous amounts of onion, salt, pepper, and fragrant herbs.

The narrow roads continued to wind up the mountainside getting deeper into the village, and my driver was at a loss navigating. Georgina sent her husband Tony to fetch us and caravan over.  She greeted us in her immaculate, modern kitchen seamlessly integrated into village life.

Today Georgina would expose me to four kinds of kebbeh:  Kebbeh Nayieh (raw), Kebbeh Erras- the more popular variation shaped into lemon-shaped balls,  Kebbeh Sajieh, prepared in flatter patties, and my new favorite Kebbeh b Laban, simmered in a delicate yogurt-mint broth.

20150630_100427

I jumped into cooking immediately.  I helped her prep, stir, and taste test, including samples of the raw meat. In the inner meat mixture, we sauteed onions- lots of them – hot chili peppers, walnuts in olive oil.  Georgina uses olive oil for most of her cooking, she explains, keeping it healthy and fragrant.  To create the outer mixture, we gradually fold the burghul to the high quality beef tartar. Not all at once she cautions… And water, lots of it. Kebbeh loves water.

The electricity generator began to rattle in the background, often to unpleasant decibels.  We carried on resolved not to let it kill our culinary mojo.

The village strolls through

As we cooked, the village came to visit. They came to taste test too. To check in on news. Throughout the day, I met family, neighbors…

Georgina explained that Samir, her eldest son with a shy but generous smile, just finished the last of his secondary school exams before starting his university degree in chemical engineering. Folks stopped in for updates.  And to see if the kebbeh had enough kick to it.

They introduced themselves to me. They inquired into why the generator was creating so much noise. Tony set about to get the repairman in.

The orange groves that surround Georgina’s kitchen

 

When it came time to assemble the kebbeh, I watched Georgina’s hands.  The subtle musculature of her palms was well tuned in uniformly shaping the tartar-burghul mixture into domes and lemon shaped balls. She then filled each with the fragrant meat and walnut mixture. When I tried to replicate, my hands were clumsy.

Georgina decided early on that I would craft the kebbeh for our lunch together but not for her clients at the Souk.  Quality assurance.  She sensed my disappointment. I wear my emotions all over me and I wanted to help. She reassured me that it would be a blessing for her and her family to enjoy the kebbeh crafted from my hands. Baraka.

20150630_131055

Anna frying up the family recipe

Anna, Georgina’s mother-in-law, a woman with wisdom and humor in her eyes, came in to help with final execution.  She and Georgina set up their station to fry up the the various kibbeh. The generator roared.

As they set up the stove, I was still rolling grapeleaves.  Georgina observed that my hands were much more adept in this practice. “Much more intelligent,” she smiled. I explained I had experience – from helping my mother in rolling the heartier Egyptian variation prepared in a tomato broth, to helping a Palestinian friend roll the more delicate Levantine version.

Anna teased that if their family was waiting for me to prepare grapeleaves it would take three days.

Fried up goodness

 

The repairman finally made it in just as we were losing patience. Georgina began to cut the mint for the yogurt broth and as the aroma filled the air everyone in the room was finally able to take a deep breath.  After much tinkering, the generator quieted down, appeased perhaps with the offering.

We ate our lunch in the outdoor patio outside the catering kitchen, nestled beside her family’s orange grove. With the kebbeh, Georgina served loubieh (green bean stew), baba ganough, hummus, lebneh and bread. We all sat and enjoyed our kebbeh feast. I sipped arak with my meal and I ate. And ate. And once sated, ate more.

Georgina and I just before the feast

On the way back to Beirut, I napped with a belly full of kebbeh and arak.  I wouldn’t be able to make that evening yoga class after all.  And that was just fine.

More soon… Next up, reflections on my day with Sawsan and her family making mouneh and kicking it Lubnani style.

Gathering at the Souk

How’s Lebanon you ask?  Pretty incredible thus far. I’ve been tapping in and finding a tribe of healers, foodies, and entrepreneurs rather quickly. Everything here is done over food.  And folks here take their food quite seriously.

Mouleh at the Souk in downtown Beirut

Mouleh at the Souk in downtown Beirut

The folks at Souk El-Tayeb, an organization that reclaims and reinvents the rich and diverse food and land traditions of Lebanon, has been incredibly receptive and flexible in providing me access and exposure to their work.  From meeting the small regional farmers they partner with, to the opportunity to help their regular and guest chefs prepare meals, to breaking bread with communities offering special insight the narratives around food.

I’ve been learning rather quickly to check my romantic projections of food sustainability and culture here at the door.  Assumptions that modern afflictions of food production – for instance use of artificial hormones and antibiotics in raising livestock – don’t exist here.  Or notions that the lifestyle here allows more time to eat mindfully. These are issues of modernity- the priority of production over quality of life – that are indeed everywhere.

1891076_976669489438_6478416909975319680_n

In fact, the reason the team at Souk el Tayeb are interested in my work in the first place, especially in my Yoga of Food workshops, is because it offers that insight into the practice of mindful, healthy living.  An ancestral concept in Western holistic packaging.

In all worthwhile exchanges, the practice of showing up and listening is what creates value.

I still have a full week of immersing in Souk el Tayeb’s work.  And I couldn’t be more excited.

More soon…  Next up:  reflections from today’s cooking lesson with Georgina Al Bayeh, chef at Souk el Tayeb, in her catering kitchen in Kfardlekos, in the Northern region of Zgharta.  Still digesting all of the culinary and emotional wisdom from an incredible experience preparing kibbeh with her and her family.

 

 

 

 

Creating Paradise

جنة بغير ناس ما تنداس

“If your encounter Paradise and no one is inside, don’t enter…”

Paradise-Wallpaper-Full-HD1-300x187

In my time in Egypt thus far, I’m learning personal space is hard to come by.. Indeed it’s a luxury afforded to few, especially women.

I’ve been truly blessed to retreat into the love and generosity of my family here. Reconnecting after eight years or more, they have offered sumptuous feasts, patience and encouragement in practicing my Arabic, and facilitation in making this journey possible. The unplanned sacred moments following them to the Sea and storytelling along the way. And protection… even when I don’t want it.

The project of negotiating space for myself – space in my belly to breath between second and third helpings of meals, space for physical exercise (certainly in the way the works best for me in walking and biking outside), space when I’m not teaching or meeting with colleagues to socialize and adventure outside out the house – has proven challenging at times.

I followed their lead, from the ablutions, to the cycles of kneeling and prostrating that are strikingly reminiscent of a yogic sun salutation.

My first day in Cairo, catching up with my aunts, we talked about my work and the practice of cultivating health and fulfillment… I thought of people who are dear to me that work towards a certain image of success- the big house and flashy cars –  but lack the relationships to fill them.

Immediately one aunt recalled an Arabic adage: “If you encounter Paradise and no one is inside, don’t enter”

An ENFP to the core, it could totally appreciate it.  Where would I be without my tribe of mystics and misfits?

The next morning, as I sat in my regular morning meditation practice, they quietly tiptoed around me… not understanding what I was doing but intuitively understanding that I was holding a sacred space.

Yoga is not a religion but the science of inviting in the presence of the divine.

When I finished, they invited me to join the family one of the five daily Muslim prayers.  I very much anchor my spiritual identity as a Muslim but I’m not traditionally observant. In that moment however, it felt comforting, and familiar to be immersed the community of a ritual I hadn’t practiced for so long.

Rusty, I followed their lead, from the ablutions, to the cycles of kneeling and prostrating that are strikingly reminiscent of a yogic sun salutation.

After prayer one aunt asked why I meditated. She inquired into Hindu and Buddhist origins of a yoga. Why couldn’t I just pray? I’m Muslim after all, and prayer is one of the five pillars.

Meditation and yoga, I explained, is not a religion unto itself but the science of inviting in the presence of the divine into the physical body…My meditation practice, I continued, was intensely personal for me and prayer couldn’t override and replace it.

Ramadan is a communal covenant and celebration of devotion.

Next morning, my aunt and I got into a flare of emotions when I was expected to again join them for prayer.  Truth is … I couldn’t recall all the necessary recitations for prayer and resented the expectation that I would have to.

Why, I argued, is it religiously significant for me to pray with them if the pressure is coming from outside.  What does it matter if I’m just going through the motions?

Her face betrayed legitimate confusion and heartbreak.  “Dahlia, I want to see you in Heaven” she says, pleading in earnest.

“I know…”  I know culturally for her, she truly believes she is not doing her work as a Muslim if she is not trying to steer those around her towards the path to God as she understands it. I again joined them in prayer.

For the rest of my time with them, they never asked me to join them again in prayer. Instead before breakfast, my aunts would remind me to meditate.

We need community for our path. We are social animals and meant to exist in connection with one another. It’s when we come alive. And Ramadan in the Middle East is a nothing short of a communal covenant in ritual observance and celebration of devotion.

But certainly there is space for personal devotion. Space for individual cultivation of what it means to be connected to something greater outside of ourselves… whatever its form.

There is space for all of us.  If only we insist on it.

An Exchange with Cairene Yogis & Mystics

It’s officially been one week since I’ve landed in Cairo and it has been a whirlwind. Personally, professionally, that has now delivered me into the celebration of Ramadan in the Middle East.

11231908_971696515318_5811770195307661635_n

Thai Metta Circle at Ashtanga Yoga Cairo

My workshops at the Ashtanga Yoga Center and Nun Center this past weekend were incredibly successful and rewarding.  The students in each space were ready for fresh perspective and knowledge of integrative health modalities that come from ancient and modern healing traditions outside of Egypt.

As Nada observes her community is thirsty for knowledge but they sniff out bullshit rather quickly…

It is truly an international world we live in… As the West continues to look East for prescriptive ancestral wisdom, how funny it is that in my workshops I bring my Egyptian audiences teachings from Thailand and from India by way of American yoga…

And perhaps more than American audiences I have taught, they want to understand the way  things work.  The science and mechanism of things…

As Nada Iskander, owner of the Nun Center observes, her community is thirsty for knowledge about holistic health, but they don’t put up with bullshit and they sniff it out rather quickly.

This isn’t your LA crowd, I observed.

The thread that tied it all together was inspiring of one’s own agency in guiding the lifelong process of attending to health.

At the Ashtanga Yoga Center, my Thai massage workshops admittedly went much more slowly, as students inquired more thoughtfully into their own body mechanics and awareness- how to cultivate one’s power as a healer from within.  Much more deliberate and less obsessed with doing and performing a sequence for the sake of it than most American crowds.

In my two offerings of the Yoga of Food at Nun Center I taught basic principles of Ayurveda, literally the Science of Life in Sanskrit, or the indigenous medical tradition of India.   In the morning I reached the young, hip yogini moms.  In the evening, came the professionals… and my own tribe (!) including my adventurous cousin Karim and his three kids visiting from Qatar and my friend Karina from DC and her impossibly cool dad.  And with each audience, we explored various applications for Ayurveda. From intuitive approaches to what and how we eat our meals, to body alkalinity, to attending to the quality of life for the elderly, to preserving the traditions of Egyptian cuisine.

The evening crowd @ The Nun Center

The evening crowd at The Nun Center

The thread that tied it all together was inspiring of one’s own agency in guiding the lifelong process of attending to health.

These teaching spaces were nothing short of a revelation in understanding what it takes to be a healer – in different cultural contexts, seasons of life.  Stepping outside of my traditional didactic patterns, to listen with humility and respond.

There is always more to learn.

More soon…

 

 

Vroom! And away we go on an aeroplane…

And I’m off. Excited. Anxious.

Wrapped up the best I could in DC: Clients prepared to work with me on the road.  Classes subbed. Subletter settled in my place. Closure- the good kind – with an ex who still haunted my internal feedback loop. Parting of ways with a beloved mentor- the most foundational in my practice as a healer.

Freedom to explore and grow- without attachment, without the weight of emotional indebtedness, holding onto relationships that had run their course..

Fretting a bit about what’s ahead:

Pushing through my broken, childish Arabic to authentically connect without anxiety or embarrassment.

Traveling and working during Ramadan- an auspicious, devotional time of year for Muslims to bear witness to their attachments and transcend them.. when I haven’t truly immersed in the fasting rituals since senior year in college. And trying to teach nutrition & healthy eating all the while.

The journey begins. Taking off tonight for Cairo. In my practice to balance curiosity & wonderment with savvy, it is still my plan to show up and serve- without preconceived notions of what that may look like.

Perhaps it is just to be a witness.

For my Cairo tribe- including those I’ve yet to meet - catch me teaching  workshops at Ashtanga Yoga Cairo and The Nun Center.

More soon…

Mama Wagida’s Macarona Beshamel

mamawagida

My grandmother, early 1940s

Did I ever tell you about the last time I was in Egypt?  It was 2007.

I was with my mom in Alexandria.  Hanging out with my grandma – Mama Wagida – in her classical Alexandrian four bedroom apartment, the home in which my mom and her four silblings grew up just blocks from the Mediterranean.  This apartment: its history, its high ceilings and a balcony that wrapped around and offered a generous view of the Sea…   Nothing felt at once more romantic and sacred.   From that balcony, my aunt Suzie who lives there with her daughter Sara, would use the hand-drawn dumb waiter basket and pull up fresh fruit and nuts from wandering street merchants baying below.

I always enjoyed the time I spent with my grandma growing up. My parents were always so busy working that we never went back to Egypt.  Instead Mama Wagida and other relatives would come stay with us in Jersey for weeks and months at a time.

“I inherited her laugh- a distinctively high pitched giggle that can quickly escalate to a belly-fueled cackle.”

Connection was easy then.  In fact, she was the relative with which I most shared resemblance.  I inherited her light brown hair (blonde for Egypt) and hazel eyes. I inherited her laugh- a distinctively high pitched giggle that can quickly escalate to a belly-fueled cackle. Mama Wagida and I would draw and read and cook together.  I never remember a language barrier when I look back to those childhood memories.

But soon with her health it became harder and harder for her to visit.  Her last time perhaps I was in middle school.  And I didn’t visit Egypt for the first time until I was in college.

And now two years out of school and establishing a career in DC doing Middle East work, struggling with my command of Arabic all the while, the connection was harder.  The language barrier was much more obvious as an adult.

“Everything was cumin-scented…”

So often she would feed me. Pan seared filets of fish that we purchased from the fishmongers in market that morning. Egyptian stews of veggies and legumes in rich garlicky tomato broths served over fluffy rice with sauteed vermicelli noodles. Lentils simmered in cumin and served with fresh pita, soft feta cheese, and tomato-cucumber salad.  Everything was cumin scented: In fact her salt shakers had whole cumin seeds (instead of the more common grains of rice) to absorb the Mediterranean humidity.  She proudly offered cooking demonstrations, revealing her culinary secrets, even as she struggled to stand.  Her kitchen was the only space in which we transcended language barriers- made imperceptible and irrelevant.

We would sit in front of the TV and watch the state-run news together if we couldn’t find a good soap opera.

“Sssssssssss!!!! Da Buuush! Huwa Wisikh!!!!.” (Read: he’s bad news bears…) she would hiss to me when our 43rd American President came on the TV. “BAD!” She would quickly follow with translation.  I would emphatically nod in agreement, perhaps even throw in an “Aiwa” (Egyptian colloquial for ‘yes’).

President Mubarak would come on and she’d approvingly gesture towards him “Huwa Halweh” (Read: he’s good/sweet). I would politely nod.  Like many grandmas she didn’t go out much these days.

 

mamawagida&gidusaad

My grandmother and grandfather, mid 1940s (they married in 1946)

She proudly displayed photographs of my grandfather, Saad El-Din Hafiz, a high ranking Naval Officer, known for his humility and pragmatism, who would ultimately rise to lead Egypt’s Naval Academy in Alexandria.  I remember one image of him walking side-by-side on a tarmac with President Gamal Abdel Nasser, father of the modern Egyptian republic and military rule.  In her Egypt, the military was a proud institution that was revolutionizing the Arab world.

In one of our last dinners together she was preparing for the arrival of my older brother Ashraf and his growing family.  My niece Lily at the time was less than two years old and he and his wife Diane were expecting Kate in just a couple months.

It was finally time to prepare the Macarona Beshamel- a pillar of Egyptian comfort food.  Descending from French colonial influence and spreading in Egyptian kitchens like wildfire,  this dish is traditionally a casserole with its namesake rich white sauce, baked in a thick layer over pasta in a rich tomato-based meat sauce encased in crispy buttery breadcrumbs. Egyptian indulgence at its finest.

“As she melted the semna (ghee or clarified butter) in the pan, she smiled at me with a particular hint of culinary conspiracy in her eyes. “

She knew how badly I wanted to watch her prepare it… It was a hot summer and she waited for the right company.

I stood in the kitchen as she prepared the roux base (equal parts flour and fat) for the beshamel. As she melted the semna (ghee or clarified butter) in the pan, she smiled at me with a particular hint of culinary conspiracy in her eyes.  She knew mom tried her hardest to raise us in a low-fat food household, the influence of being health conscious in 80s (a dietary legacy against which I have spent my life rebelling…)

The beshamel came out beautifully. We prepared the table and opened the Victorian balcony doors, letting in the sounds of the Sea and streets below. She took her seat at the table as matriarch with her growing tribe gathered around her.  Her daughters, grandchildren, and her first great-granddaughter.

My mom and I left Egypt a couple days later.  Ashraf, Diane & fam continued on to Italy.

When we landed at JFK we received news that Mama Wagida had passed just hours before while we were still in the air. Allah yarhamha (God Bless)…

“…there is always more to learn from the resolve of the human spirit and the power of culinary traditions among its most creative, nourishing mediums.”

As I prepare to go back to Egypt for the first time since 2007, since that last dinner with Mama Wagida and her macarona beshamel, I wonder what it is exactly that I’m seeking. Even with the personal and professional risks – and protestations from loved ones and colleagues.

And perhaps it’s the certainty that there is always more to learn. From my own ancestral traditions. From the resolve of the human spirit.  And the power of culinary traditions among its most creative, nourishing mediums.

More soon…

From Pekoe to Cairo… and the Seas in Between

This summer, I’m taking some time away from the hustle in DC to go back and learn in the Mediterranean, a land that continues to teach the world about ancestral traditions of healthy eating and lifestyle.

I’m excited to reconnect with my family in Alexandria and Cairo.

To connect with friends and colleagues in Cairo, Beirut, and more doing great work in integrative health & lifestyle services. To learn from their experiences.

To be immersed and share in the region’s homegrown yoga & mindfulness culture.

To learn from foodies and farmers preserving and reinventing Mediterranean food and land traditions.

To experience the holistic healing practices utilized in trauma relief services & peacebuilding initiatives in a region that continues to struggle with conflict and insecurity for generations now.

I am honored to be invited into these various healing communities to teach what I have learned in my work over the last five years with individual clients and corporate wellness programs. And from the tribe of healers and misfits at Pekoe Acupuncture & Wellness where my practice was born.  In their devotion to natural healing methods that serve the long-term health of patients and clients, I have learned tremendously about the art and science of empowering individuals in physical, emotional, and spiritual health.

Thus far, I will teach healthy eating and Thai massage at healing centers & studios in Cairo including the Ashtanga Yoga Cairo and the Nun Center.  In Lebanon I will partner with Souk El-Tayyeb, a producer-run market that reclaims and reinvents food and land traditions in improving environmental sustainability and empowering at-risk communities.

I know better than to presume I know the needs of these communities before I arrive. Their unique environmental and cultural challenges.

My honest plan is to show up and serve.  To accept the invitations of these communities to come in as a guest speaker and educator, but to hold space and learn about the needs and challenges of each community – and how my teachings fit in.  How to offer my knowledge and experiences in a way that is relevant and offers value.

This trip will offer a healing exchange of sorts. To learn about service and the work of the integrative health community in the Middle East and offer what I have learned as a healer and educator in my time at Pekoe.

As I expand the scope of my work now outside of Pekoe, I am excited to share what I learn – lessons and recipes, healing traditions and stories – with my community and clients in DC and those I have yet to meet in the journey beyond.

More soon :-)

Thai-Inspired Rainbow Salad

This recipe is quite possibly one of the most refreshing, and aesthically dazzling summer salads. The red cabbage, mango, and jicama pack the dish with color, fiber, and diversity of nutrients. As delectable blend of savory and sweet, it is perfect on its own or as a complement to summer barbeques, and is sure to delight you and your guests everytime. And best yet, it stores well in the fridge for several days. To your health!
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Servings: 8-10

2 cups of red cabbage, thinly sliced against the grain for a shredded effect (about 1/2 a

small head)
1 cup of shredded carrots (about 4 medium carrots)
1 cup of jicama, peeled and cut into thin matchsticks (about 1/3 the jicama root)
1 cup of mango, diced (1-2 mangos)
Crushed cashew nuts (optional)
Flax seeds (optional)
Dressing:
1/3 cup of fresh squeezed lime juice (about one lime)
1 tbsp of unrefined toasted sesame oil
1 tsp of raw honey
1 tsp of tamari soy sauce
1/4 tsp tamarind paste
1) In a small bowl, mix all liquid ingredients into a consistent dressing.
2) Combine vegetables and fruits in a large bowl. Pour dressing and coat ingredients well.
3) Serve in a flat dish, topping with cashews and/or flax seeds as desired.