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Lessons from an Egyptian Kitchen

Samak Mashwi- Grilled Fish Egyptian-Style

It’s 4:00 on a Saturday in early May and the afternoon sunlight is spilling into my mother-in-law’s kitchen and onto our aprons — well, my apron. Kookie, my Egyptian mother-in-law, isn’t wearing one. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her wear one. Aprons, along with measuring cups and spoons, are for the rookies that require them (or so I’ve come to learn). In the years I’ve known Kookie, I’ve made frequent visits to her bustling kitchen, but any help I’ve been able to give has been limited. This is because, despite having adopted and embraced American life in most ways, Kookie is 100% Egyptian when she’s in her kitchen.  Egyptians are among the most generous and hospitable people I’ve ever met (and I’m from the South). For them, good food and big meals are practically synonymous with love and affection, and if there’s one thing Kookie delights in, it’s feeding her family with abundance and Iron Chef-like speed.

Today, however, is special. Today she and I are cooking a traditional Egyptian feast from beginning to end, together.  Sham el-Nassim is a national holiday in Egypt that celebrates the start of spring. Though it falls on the Monday after Coptic (Egyptian Orthodox) Easter, it’s celebrated by everyone, regardless of religion. Most families spend the day outdoors, cruising on the Nile, and basking in the sunshine with friends and, of course, eating plenty of food.  Though the Nile is thousands of miles away, Kookie’s recipes bring Cairo to me.

Kookie's Kunafeh
Kookie’s Kunafeh
We begin by baking two traditional Egyptian sweets: kunafeh and basbousa. Kunafeh, one of my favorite dishes, is like the Egyptian version of baklava. Instead of sheets of dough, however, we chop long, thin angel-hair like strands of phyllo dough (this is the kunafeh) into tiny pieces and press them down into our baking dish. Next up is the basbousa, a dense cake made with course farina flour and topped with almonds. It translates roughly to “just a kiss” in English and it lives up to its sweet name. Their warm, buttery scent fills the air as they bake, but there’s no time to bask in our success, because Kookie unveils what is to be the main course. Six whole striped bass are staring at me, blankly, as I stare back. But not for long — Kookie, of course, has a plan.

The next couple of hours are a busy blur. Fish, rolled in bulgur and topped with fresh herbs, get thrown on the grill. A salad gets chopped and tossed and a homemade dressing gets whipped up in a matter of seconds. Kofta (Egyptian meatballs) appear out of thin air. Tahini is mixed with water and seasoned appropriately. The table is set and the rest of the family is called to join the feast.

As we eat and laugh and listen to my father-in-law talk about his memories of Sham el-Nassim, I wonder at the fact that I am here. Before I got married, my knowledge of Middle Eastern cuisine was pretty much limited to the occasional falafel. Now, I’m  a part of an Egyptian family and not only have I grown to understand and appreciate their culture, but thanks to Kookie, I’m learning how to cook (and eat) like an Egyptian. And who knows? Maybe I’ll host Sham el-Nassim  next year.

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