Category Archives: Middle East

Amaranth Tabbouleh

Fresh, Simple Ingredients

Prep Time: 15 minutes
Serves: 4-6

Ingredients

1 bunch of fresh curly parsley, well rinsed, dried, and minced
½-3/4 cup of cooked amaranth
¼ cup of mint, rinses and chopped
1 tomato, diced, strained of excess juice
½ yellow onion, diced
2 lemons, squeezed
½ cup of olive oil
Salt to taste

Directions

1) In a large mixing bowl add parsley, tomato, onion, and amaranth.
2) Swirl in olive oil, squeeze lemon, salt to taste, and thoroughly mix.
3) Enjoy.

Sumptuous Lentil Soup

Sumptuous Lentil Soup
Lentils are such a staple of the Egyptian diet and lentil soup in particular. This recipe is a twist on my mama’s in which I incorporated turmeric – that magical, cancer-fighting yellow superfood – lots of it. For the full Middle Eastern experience, serve with whole wheat pita bread and be sure to squeeze some lime juice. To your health.

Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Serves: 6-8

6-8 cups of water
1 cups of red lentils (rinsed)
1 cup of brown lentils
5-6 carrots peeled and coarsely chopped
5 celery stalks coarsely chopped
1 tbsp cumin
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp coriander
salt
olive oil
lime slices

1) In a large pot, heat 4-5 swirls of olive oil over medium high heat. When hot, add carrots, celery and sautee for 3 minutes.
2) Add lentils and spices continue to sautee over medium high for another 3-5 minutes, stirring frequently.
3) Add water and bring to boil. Allow to boil for about 8 minutes on high.
4) Reduce to low and simmer for another 25-30 minutes.
5) Remove from heat. Serve with lime wedges and enjoy.

 

Creating Paradise

جنة بغير ناس ما تنداس

“If you 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, I 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 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.

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…