I have a habit of urging friends in Malaysia to visit Egypt. I advertise the sights, sounds, smells and specialness of my home country like I’ve deserted my body and evolved into a modern-day 3-D infomercial. Talking about my country has even reached the non-English speaking Chinese girls at the reflexology place when a friend translates for me. I’m that dedicated.
My incessant need to babble on and on has found its home in conversations about how glorious Egypt is; and has also taken form in the hosting of Egyptian-themed dinners where the babbling can continue as the Egyptian in me tries to make people lust for the flavors we have to offer back home. Despite my efforts and my success in getting them there, it all backfired on me.
Let me explain to you how.
Only recently, a few couples decided to take me up on my idea to visit and finally made that long-desired trip to Egypt. They came back loving us. The Croatians came back raving about our esteemed ancient civilization and antiquities. The Malaysians came back rejoicing in our spirited sense of humor and ability to haggle like the boys in Chinatown. It was just a little odd that these people who love food made no mention of it, so I tried to mentally will them to begin recanting their foodie stories. And then, it came.
“Everywhere we went, people changed the food to try to suit our supposed tastes. No tourist sees Egyptian food in Egypt. We checked with others. Really. The only one who gave us real Egyptian food was a guy with a food cart in the street selling sandwiches.” The silence had finally been broken and the memories they created in Egypt began to show signs of fracture and dislocation.
"There was no variety. It was all about chicken, meat and fish and it wasn’t very Arabic or even Mediterranean, at all." My mind was reeling. Our tourism industry is something we’ve usually been proud of but is it true that we are severely lacking in the food department thus making a tourist’s trip to the mystic Middle East incomplete?
The more I asked, the more I received the same responses from friends turned tourists. Egyptian food in Egypt, directed at tourists and the upper echelons of society, did not fit the bill. Even when I checked online, a Canadian traveler’s review disheartened me when they stated that the food we confidently served in Egypt was "often missing the local flavors", that we "try to make the foods western and bland" and even that the "food was tasteless, especially the oriental foods". I wanted to cry in a corner.
The traveler then cheered me up a little by mentioning that we had fruit and vegetables that were "flavorful and velvety". Why do we have velvety vegetables and flavorful fruit but continue to produce bland Western food or worse, bland Egyptian-resembling food? The shift towards local flavors is internationally gaining ground and people are more excited than ever to finally use those palates they’ve been blessed with.
People everywhere now want to adapt to and come to terms with the flavors of the world. This is happening while we’re still serving up bizarre renditions of local cuisine because many of us fear and continue to believe that people won’t accept the intensity of many of our dishes. What eventually happens is that we try to appease the other’s palate through the elimination of our strong seasonings thus taking away from what is, in essence, that particular Egyptian element in the dish and what that “other” was looking for all along.
The world has now taken a liking to Dukkah, the now celebrated Egyptian mixture of herbs and spices, and are running with it, even claiming it as their own. Australians are creating countless variations and the state of Oregon has its own “Oregon Dukkah”. What are we doing with Dukkah? Not enough. We should be using it on those velvety vegetables we have and stuffing it into croissants like the Lebanese do with Za’atar, their own condiment of herbs.
Building on last week’s column regarding how it would be nice to see local flavors and different interpretations of Egyptian cuisine, I decided to take something traditional that most of us are familiar with and alter it to explain what I meant.
Mehalabia is something I’ve always loved but get bored of quite quickly. So when you need a little zest in your life or you need to kill the acerbity, I recommend making something a little more lemony while we collectively urge the tourists to come back.
Lemon-Mastic Mehalabia Brûlée
You will need:
3 cups of cold full cream milk
3 tablespoons of cornstarch
¾ cup of sugar
½ teaspoon of mastic grains
1½ teaspoons of freshly grated lemon zest
Extra caster sugar for the brûlée
Dissolve the sugar and cornstarch in the cold milk and place on medium to low heat. Add the mastic and lemon zest and stir continuously to combine and to prevent burning. Continue stirring until it thickens and thickly coats the back of a spoon. Separate into serving bowls and cool in the fridge for 2-3 hours. When you’re ready to serve, sprinkle a generous, even layer of sugar. You can either use a propane torch to caramelize the top or you could place it under a hot grill for up to 5 minutes at the most. Make sure to watch it carefully. Allow it to rest for a few minutes and serve.