The first time I remember my father reminiscing about his Egyptian upbringing was when I saw him preparing and eating a classic Egyptian breakfast dish, ful medames. I must have been about 13 and I distinctly remember how nasty I thought the whole idea was. While my brother and I were slamming frozen waffles (and on weekends I would bolt downstairs to perfect my French toast making skills), my father was completely consumed by his plate of brown Egyptian beans. Did I mention this was breakfast?
My brother and I, being the know-it-alls that we were, could not imagine eating something so smelly and not particularly appetizing. What was he thinking? From my perspective this was a sticky, stinky mess of dark brown beans onto which he pile finely chopped hard-boiled egg, some fresh parsley and then he would scoop it all up with a pita.
He would make his favourite, foulia – the Greek word for them- many times after that and I realize now that for him that was comfort food. And with so many years of cooking under my belt now I understand that we all need an introduction to those flavours from far off lands before we start using them in our culinary repertoire.
Here are a few bold flavours of the eastern Mediterranean- not specifically Egypt- that I ‘m using in my kitchen these days that I thought you’d like a little introduction to, if you have not yet been introduced.
A variety of chili pepper named after the town of Aleppo in Syria. I love the medium heat but distinct tangy finish on this ground chili. I use it on roasted veggies, fish and even salads.
Bergamot orange flower water
This is the highly floral essence of a bitter orange used extensively in Persian cuisine, among others. I love it in custardy desserts or sauces but I suggest exercising a cautious hand as it’s quite intense.
Sumac is the berry of a Mediterranean tree that is sundried and then ground. There are many varieties of the sumac tree and some are poisonous so it’s important to only purchase ground sumac from specialty stores. What I’m saying is avoid going on any explorations out in the wild and trying to identify the edible one. I love it’s tangy but very almost delicate quality. Many cultures use it as a souring agent, in rice or to marinate meats. I love it with tomotoes, fresh yogourt or in dips. I often sprinkle it on roasted fish .
Whenever my father met one of my brother’s friends for the first time he would offer them a date and say” Ever had a fresh date? “ That line never gets old for me. He loved dates and was literally raised on them. If you’ve never bought a date from a specialty / ethnic store where they go through them by the kilo , then you’ve never had a so called fresh date. There are so many varieties and I love using them in cakes, muffins, cookies, stuffing and even salads.
This spice mixture is a big part of the cuisine of many different regions across the Mediterranean and each seems to have its’ own formula. Everyone seems to agree on a bit of sesame and a touch of salt as part of the blend. The confusion sometimes arises because the principal herb used to make the spice blend, is also called Za’Atar. In some regions it features wild thyme or wild oregano or hyssop. It’s most often used on flat bread that has been brushed with olive oil and gently toasted. The intense earthy flavour is great with potatoes and also grilled chicken.
Also known by its’ Arabic name Mahlab ,as I sit here and type this I am finishing the last bite of my Greek Easter bread that has perfumed the whole room with the unique fragrance of mahlepi – the Greek name. This is one of most unique spices I’ve ever used yet I can’t imagine making my Easter bread without it. The blond kernels come from a wild black cherry tree whose flavor is difficult to describe except that it tastes sweet, almond-like and floral. The words just don’t do it justice. I love it in cookies, bread and cakes. I have not used it in savoury dishes. Perhaps I should try.