Location: North Africa
Population: 96.8 million
Geography: Sandy desert except around the Nile Valley and Delta areas
Signature flavours: Pita bread, legumes, garlic, parsley, lemon, cheese
I picked up a fantastic cookbook at a used bookstore a few weeks ago that I finally got to crack open for this assignment: The Africa Cookbook by Jessica B. Harris. I found four recipes there that I wanted to try for Egypt, and found another two online, one for bread, and the other for an eggplant dip.
Aish Baladi: Egyptians were the inventors of bread, so it’s hardly surprising that the pita bread most often enjoyed with Egyptian dishes is called aish — “life.” (Baladi means “traditional,” as in “the traditional way to make aish bread.”) I was nervous to undertake a bread recipe, but since it is such a fundamental aspect of Egyptian history, culture, and cuisine, I had to try.
Prep and cooking time: 2.5 hours
Baba Ganoush: A spread of tahini, garlic, and roasted eggplant.
Prep and cooking time: 75 min
Ful Medames: The national dish of Egypt, ful is a fava bean stew, seasoned with garlic, parsley, lemon juice, and olive oil. Ful is served with a variety of toppings. I chose to include sliced fresh radish and scallions.
Prep and cooking time: 25 min
Gebna Makleyah: Fried cheese balls. Need I say more?
Prep and cooking time: 20 min
Salatit Fasulya Khadra: A green bean and red onion salad with a simple lemon and olive oil dressing.
Prep and cooking time: 30 min
Amar al-Din: A refreshing juice made from apricot paste.
Prep and cooking time: 8 hours (approx.)
The Shopping List
The apricot paste was a little tricky to find. We located some at an Afghan supermarket in our neighbourhood, but it was a couple of months expired. Honestly, I would have just used that if we hadn’t found it elsewhere (what can happen to dried sugared apricots?), but it turned up at Ararat International Fine Foods in the north end of the city. I managed to find everything else at Bulk Barn and Freshco.
I was really looking forward to my Egypt assignment, not only because I was excited to cook from the Africa Cookbook, but also because I just felt like Egyptian food was going to be really good.
I started the amar al-din the night before, because I wasn’t sure how long the apricot paste would take to dissolve in water, as the recipe instructed. It turned to mush perfectly overnight, and I strained out the solids and sweetened it with sugar water. It was really refreshing and apricot-y. I drank mine way too fast.
The first thing I started the day of was the bread, because it needed to rise for one to two hours before baking. My dough was immediately cooperative, going from a “shaggy” consistency to “stretchy” and rising into a beautiful floury orb in its bowl.
I got into a good rhythm of tossing two pitas onto the baking stone (which Eric picked up just this week from Nella Cutlery) into the oven while rolling out a couple more. It was so satisfying to watch my dough puff up just like the recipe said it would! The result was a soft, warm pita pocket, perfect for stuffing with ful and salatit.
The ful was a hearty, meaty (only in texture) bean dish with a lovely garlicky, lemony flavour.
Fried cheese is a crowd-pleaser, and the gebna makleyah were no exception. They had a crispy exterior with a fluffy, cheesy centre. I mean, it’s fried cheese, people. It was amazing.
The baba ganoush turned out just right as well, smokey and garlicky, nice and smooth for dipping. It went really nicely, I found, with the salatit, which was a tangy combination of onion-y, lemony, and peppery.
I think this assignment cured me of my dough fear. The pita was very manageable and homemade bread is so, so good. What’s better than a fluffy stack of pitas so soft you could curl up and take a nap on them?
Disclaimer: I’m not a professional chef. I’m just a passionate cook with a curiosity for flavours I’ve never tried. For great recipes from gifted local cooks, follow the links above.