“Have you tried molokheya before?” inquired the diminutive blue-haired lady wrapped in the Pashmina shawl. I hate this question. Just because I am not Egyptian does not mean I subsist solely on hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza and microwave popcorn, or that I am afflicted with all the garden variety ex-patriate food fears.
I do not wash my vegetables in sodium chloride. I eat salads. I do not shop from the commissary. I frequent El Rifai, Koshari Tahrir, El Shabrawy, Samakmak, and El Borg; have eaten fisikh (once) with a fish vendor in Bab el-Louk; and enjoy grilled corn, prickly pears, and sweet potatoes from street vendors. (For the record I will not set foot inside Felfela on account of the fact that I do not want to catch something from the tourists.)
“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are” wrote the epicure Brillat-Savarin in the early nineteenth century. Two hundred years later über-nationalism has twisted this aphorism into an uglier version, “We eat this; you eat that.” This is natural enough on some levels, but let’s think it through together. What, when you get right down to it, is Egyptian food?
Let’s take that quintessential Egyptian dish koshari as an example. To begin with, it is not Egyptian. Before you start writing nasty letters to the editor (which I encourage by the way), ask yourself this: What does koshari mean in Arabic? Uh huh, that’s right, nothing. Why? Because it is not an Arabic word. It’s Hindi, khichri, from the Sanskrit, khicca, meaning a dish of rice and lentils. Case closed pretty much. Our koshari is an Indian street food brought to Egypt by the British army in the late nineteenth century because, apparently, the Martini-Henry rifle was not enough.
What goes into koshari and many “typically Egyptian” dishes? Rice, but we all know that comes from China, and macaroni, that’s Italian. Tomatoes and chilies are from the Americas. Those arch-imperialists the Romans contributed chickpeas. The lentils are originally Egyptian, as are the onions—Tahia Masr!—but putting it all together into a package? Nope; it’s an import.
The list continues. What would we do without our daily chocolate, coffee, tea and tobacco? Where would Egyptian cooking be today without all the other stuff that was introduced by the Arabs, Turks and English? Potatoes, mangoes, lemons, and the entire spice spectrum including pepper, coriander, cassia, cloves, cumin, cardamom and nutmeg. Food globalization happened a long time ago.
What is originally Egyptian? Most of what we know about that comes from ancient tomb paintings, which is a bit disturbing when you think about it; nonetheless, there are some truly authentic dishes in this world-class cuisine that has retained a remarkable degree of continuity. Molokheya, for one, is genuinely Egyptian. So is fuul, tameya, lift (pickled turnips), tahina, eggs, cooking oils, bread and beer. So there is much Egypt can be proud of indeed. For that matter, if you’ve got bread, pigeons, molokheya and beer, what else do you really need?
Which brings me to the issue of bacteria. As much as there has been a blending of world cultures on the plate, how much more this is true of the things that once lived on that food and that have now taken up residence in our intestines. Sure, everyone has a few bouts of this or that when they first move to a foreign country, but over time there is a regime change in the stomach; our micro-organisms intermarry, multiply and mutate; and there really is no difference, literally, between the contents of one tummy and the next. Your bacteria and my bacteria, we are one. All the rest is cultural.
So yes little blue-haired Zamalek lady, I have tried molokheya. At home I prefer to prepare it with rabbit and make a killer dim3a sauce to put on top. What about you? Ever had the molokheya at Kebdet El Prince in Imbaba? It’s just across the river there. You can almost see it from Sequoia. Fantastic. Don’t mind the cats. “Welcome in Egypt!”