For The Love Of Egypt
It was about a year ago when my friend Emie asked if I wanted to go grocery shopping. It was nearly the end of the holy month of Ramadan, and New York was feeling the boiling point of a July heat wave.
We met at one of her favorite markets, The Fertile Crescent, a Middle Eastern grocer and halal butcher shop owned by an Egyptian family and located on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn's Boerum Hill. Emie, too, is Egyptian. Raised in both Minnesota and Egypt but now a Brooklynite, she speaks both English and Arabic as a local, just as she can navigate the streets of Cairo as easily as those in New York City.
I envied Emie's shopping enthusiasm because not only was it nearly 100 degrees that day, for her as an observant Muslim it was also a day of fast. I have enough trouble buying groceries if I've skipped breakfast; she would be going from sunrise to sunset without food or water. But she said she needed some things for her family and knew I wanted to meet a halal butcher. It was an irresistible invitation.
I've been thinking about that day I spent with Emie as I watch the news of Egypt, heartbroken to see the chaos and violence in this noble country. It is our world's oldest civilization. Five thousand years of continuous culture, art, and dignity. Yet now this.
When I was a child I was obsessed with Egypt. Someone had given me a book about the discovery of King Tut's tomb and it became dog-eared, as I never tired of reading about the boy pharaoh who was buried with his wealth and his toys. For years I would tell people that when I grew up I would be an Egyptologist. That career ambition faded but not my dream of someday traveling there, to see the site where the world's greatest library once stood in Alexandria, the mystical and mysterious pyramid of Giza, and the gasp-inducing and awesome (finally an appropriate use of this abused word) temple of Abu Simbel, and to gaze upon the delta of the lifesaving Nile. Six years ago I finally got there. And it was more beautiful and heroic than even a lifetime of dreaming could predict.
But on this hot day in Brooklyn, I was visiting another fertile crescent. As Emie took me shelf-by-shelf through this small shop, it became a tour of Egypt and its food traditions. There were cans of cow ghee and jars of briny grape leaves, bags of dried fava beans, lentils, barley, beans, rice, and macaroni; and canned meats in every variety except pork. Bins were filled with spices like ground ginger, nutmeg, paprika, and probably the most Egyptian of all spices -- cumin. In the rear of the store, the butcher was preparing meats according to the rules of halal that instruct how animals are slaughtered and butchered. She also explained the stacks of boxes of large, tender Medjool dates by telling me how during Ramadan, when the day's fast is broken, the sweet dates are eaten first, to be gentle on the stomach before the fast-breaking meal known as iftar.
A few weeks earlier Emie had sent me her mother's recipe for koshari, a carbohydrate-intense vegetarian dish that is particularly favored during Ramadan because it is densely satisfying and thus a good meal to have before the day's fast begins. It's an assemblage of rice, elbow macaroni, spaghetti, brown lentils, chickpeas, and fried red onions. Everything is cooked separately and then assembled in layers, topped with fried onions and spicy tomato sauce, and seasoned with a garlicky vinegar sauce.
While observant Muslims may love this dish to fortify before a Ramadan fast, in Cairo there are small restaurants that year-round serve bowls of koshari as a workingman's lunch because it is cheap and filling. For others, like Emie, it is a meal of memory, meaning, and appetite, one that she now makes for her own family.
Traditional Egyptian Koshari: Serves 3 or 4
3 cups cooked basmati rice
1 cup cooked elbow macaroni, cooked al dente
1 cup cooked spaghetti, cooked al dente (you can substitute 2 cups of either the spaghetti or macaroni but the combo makes a nice contrast in the finished dish)
1 cup cooked brown lentils; follow the package instructions and cook until very soft
1 cup cooked chickpeas, simmered until soft and tender
1 large red onion, diced and sautéed in 1 tablespoon olive oil or butter and 1/4 teaspoon salt until brown and crispy
Tomato Sauce: Mix the following together and gently simmer on the stove to bring out the pepper flavor --
1 cup canned tomato sauce
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon Aleppo or urfa pepper (urfa pepper is a mild, slightly fruity red pepper found in the Middle East and Turkey)
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, or more to taste
Vinegar Sauce: Mix the following together --
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely minced and crushed with the side of your knife so that it becomes an oily paste
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 tablespoon ground cumin or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
Pre-heat the oven to 375° F. In a small casserole dish that has been very lightly wiped with olive oil, layer the cooked ingredients in this order: rice, elbow macaroni, spaghetti, chickpeas, and lentils. Drizzle the tomato sauce over the layered ingredients. Bake for 15 minutes until warmed through completely.
Remove from the oven and top with the sautéed onions and serve with a drizzle of the garlic vinegar sauce.
I share this recipe as a way of moving from the distant televised violence to the daily lives of the Egyptian people. And because I don't know what else to do. I write about this traditional dish and a visit to an Egyptian market in Brooklyn because I can do nothing else except remember. As I've watched the horrific scenes in the streets of Cairo I recall walking many of those same streets and seeing goats hung in the windows of butcher shops and gigantic stacks of vibrant vegetables -- huge bouquets of carrots and cabbages larger than my head -- filling the back of donkey-drawn wagons, carts that are still called chariots. I remember being an American child in love with a civilization led by a boy pharaoh. I am distracted by sadness as I wonder about today's Egyptian families as they gather together at the end of a day to share a meal and talk about what their future holds.
We can only hope that despite changing regimes and dynasties, Egypt's millennia of constancy will be a resolve against the turbulence that's inevitable when everyone thinks that they're right. And I hope that meals taken together can be a comfort to the people of this great nation. For the love of Egypt.