Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Lunch/Snack: Fiteer (egyptian-style pizza)

Snack/lunch: Fiteer (egyptian style pizza)

I'm not going to even try to comment or explain the long absence...suffice it to say that I do apologise. That being said, with all that's going on right now in Egypt, I thought I would focus on a recipe today that takes me to the serene and clear waters of the north coast.

It's a little slice of heaven, an area called Marsa Matruh, and not too far from Alexandria. Here the waters are crystal clear, the sand is fluffy and soft like powder and the villages are quaint, pretty much leaving you with nothing else to do but relax and look out at the waters. And fish.

The area used to be dotted with small fishing villages. My Uncle Fouad (Foo-Foo), told me that when they were younger, they would come up here for a few days of fishing and camping. It was the place to go for reconnecting with nature and escaping the chaos of Cairo.

Forward to the late 1990s, and the idea of restort towns and owning a condominium in the area is in vogue. My first introduction was sadly not to the quaint fishing village of said by-gone era, but instead a tranquil subdivision by the sea. In all fairness, it was beautiful, and simple. Not tacky (suprisingly) and serene. It was just on the sea and at your doorstep was the squeaky white sand and clear waters. That resort town is called Montazah.

However, the loud and obnoxious sister to Montazah is Marina. It's a quick drive away, and it's an overload of the senses....well last time I was there. Suped-up cars, music blasting loud enough to rattle anyone's bones, and young teens/tweens roaming around doing what they do best: talk loudly and and try to get noticed.

But back in the calm and serenity of Montazah, was a boardwalk along the beach. There you can find little stores and grocerers, and food for take-out. When I was there, we were in a big group with family friends, who go there often and knew what snacks were worth the effort to find. And so, while this may have been well over ten years ago...I remember this moment perfectly. We were all out late, sitting on the beach and someone ran to grab a snack. 30 minutes later he returned with what he termed 'egyptian pizza', called 'fiteer'.

It's essentially phyllo (filo) pastry, so flaky layers of buttery loveliness stuffed with either savoury or sweet fillings. In this case, we had both. One had icing sugar, raisins, nuts and shredded coconut, and the other had a type of local feta and vegetables.

To my surprise, when I got back to Cairo, a cousin took me out one day for lunch to a fiteer stand just down the street. And there it was in all its glory: a small hole filled with men hanging about. But you walk in and the guy behind the counter is busy stretching the dough. You say what kind of filling you want, he assembles it, throws into the oven and hands it back to you all wrapped and ready to eat.

Where does it come from though? Well let's remember that the dough is phyllo pastry that is just layered numerous times. So the phyllo pastry likely trickeled down from the Turks under the Ottoman empire.  The idea of stretching dough until it reaches a paper-thin consistency can be traced back to Istanbul, at the Topkapi Palace. This was the main residence of the Ottoman Sultans for nearly 400 years.

Prior to the palace kitchens, the idea of folding or pleating bread could be related to the earlier form of phyllo called 'yufka', which means 'thin' in an older Turkic dialect.

When the Ottoman empire took over Egypt in 1519, as has been the case with many other foods or beverages, the phyllo pastry likely fell into common practice.

Either way, just about every culture has a version of dough stuffed with something, so it's not that much of an original concept; but it's the local ingredients that make it unique.

In this case, savoury or sweet. But the local ingredients for savoury will include feta cheese, torshi (pickled vegetables), olives, tomatoes, cucumbers. The sweet one will have crushed pistachioes, dried coconut, raisins, honey, icing sugar and a local form of clotted cream.

I'll start off by saying buy your own phyllo pastry. I convinced myself it could easily be done at home, and while I did have a tasty version of it, it was not the same light consistency of a traditional feteer.

That being said, here is the recipe:

Total preparation time: 1 hour
Yield: 2 persons

2 1/3 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup water

feta cheese (this is a popular egyptian feta brand...but any feta will do)

fresh tomatoes
torshi (pickled vegetables)

1. Mix flour, salt and water together in a bowl

2. Keep kneeding by hand (you can use a mixer) until dough becomes smooth and stretchy

3. Divide the dough into two equal parts

4. Shape into balls and grease with melted butter

5. Set aside for 15 minutes

6. Preheat oven to about 400 F / 250 C

7. Take one ball and cut into five pieces

6. Grease with butter (or oil)

7. Using a rolling pin, roll out each piece as thin possible

8. Once each piece is thin, try to further stretch it out by hand, taking care not to rip the centre

9.Once all pieces are as thin as possible (it takes a lot of patience and practice to do this easily), then you can assemble all the pieces together to make one big piece

10. Add your filling to the centre

11. Carefully bring up the dough to seal in the filling

12. Once it is closed, brush with melted butter and transfer over to a baking tray

13. Bake in the oven until it is golden (about 15 minutes)

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Spice mix: Du'ah (Dukkah)

Ah yes, already a month into the new year and I've finally sat down to do this entry. And it's one I've been wanting to do for quite some time.

In fact, a few people have emailed me about Du'ah (dukkah, duqqah, dukka). The word derives from the arabic word to pound, since the spices are toasted and then pounded using a mortar and pestle.

And it's a spice combination specific to Egypt. The Levantine region has its own mix, called Za'tar.

To be honest, I never gave du'ah much thought, it was just always something sitting in the fridge. My father, however, has always been obsessed with it, and up until recently I couldn't figure out why. But every time we sit down to a dinner of pasta, he whips out this massive jar of du'ah and instead of grating some parmesan cheese, he proceeds to flood his pasta with mounds of this spicing. Or he simply eats it just as it is with a spoon.

The problem with buying this ready-made is that because it is a mix of spices, there are many, many variations. So to minimize any disappointments at the dinner table, my father has taken to bringing back a few bags to Canada after each visit to Egypt. His cousin has the connections to the person who makes this, so this delicate balance of spices is just perfect.

Apart from its use in pasta, we never used it for any other purpose at home.  Although, growing up, my father said how my grandmother and her friends would all get their du'ah from the same person, or one of them from the group would make a big batch for everyone. Either way, it was kind of a big deal getting your fill of du'ah. At home, she would use it for sandwiches, just sprinkle it on the bread to give it some flavour before adding meats or cheeses.

Not too long ago, I went to some hip bar in New York City two years ago, and on the 'ethnic' menu for starters was du'ah and warmed pita bread with some olive oil. I ordered it and while it wasn't awful....the combination of the spices was off. But I'll admit, hipster joint aside, it was refreshing to see an item like that on the menu, even if the server herself had no idea about the dish.

In fact, it is commonly eaten in Egypt as a starter with some olive oil and warm pita bread. So the hip bar wasn't wrong after all. It's also used during fasting season (any religion) as a light way to break the fast.  But it's not a terribly common sight, nor is it used for spicing in dishes as one would see with za'atar in salads or lebanese-style pizzas (manooshe).

But the different spices used in the mix sort of throw all of the country's history into one even blend.
While the mix differs from person to person, at the base of it are: sesame seeds, cumin seeds, coriander seeds and pine nuts. These are all items that can be traced back to the times of the pharaohs, and have been found in ancient egyptian tombs.

However, either hazel nuts or peanuts are used as the main nut in the mix. The one I grew up with had peanuts, but many recipes call for hazel nuts. Either way, neither nut is native to Egypt. Peanuts originate from South America and were brought over by the European explorers and eventually traded around the Mediterranean.  Hazel nuts can be traced back to Syria, Turkey and even further back to China. So the nut component of the mix is a relatively new addition, and was probably introduced to egyptian foods through trade due to its geographical position.

Whether you opt for the hazel nut or peanut version, the best thing about this mix is that the flavouring comes from its dry roasting, so it is about as healthy as you can get and it can keep for a very long time.

The recipe I am using is one based on the mix I have always had; but getting the recipe was another story. It was a no-go. My cousin in Egypt was unable to really pinpoint the exact recipe, so after some trial and error in the kitchen, I managed to recreate what tastes familiar to me. All that to say is that you can change the proportions around to suit your tastes.

Also, the recipe I have makes enough for a little jar of spice. But you can double the proportions for more, or half them for less, just make sure the ratio stays the same.
Total preparation time: 20 minutes

1/4 cup ground peanuts (or hazel nuts)

1/4 cup sesame seeds

2 tablespoons coriander seeds

1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 tablespoon pine nuts

pinch of salt (to taste)



1. Using a frying pan, dry roast on medium heat, the sesame seeds.

2. When the sesame seeds have begun to change colour, add the peanuts (or hazel nuts).

3. Allow these two to mix for about a minute.

4. Add remaining ingredients, except the salt.

5. Continuously stir ingredients to prevent burning.
6. After about ten minutes, the roasting should be done. Taste the mix to make sure you can taste the smokiness from roasting, and not something burnt. The colour should be significantly darker at this point.
7. If you have a mortar and pestle, add everything to the mortar with about a teaspoon of salt.
8. If you don't have a mortar and pestle, add everything to container for blending. Add a teaspoon of salt.

9. Grind everything to a powder. You cannot get too fine of a powder with this mix.
10. Because of the nuts, there may be a bit of moisture in the beginning making the mix clump a little, that's alright, let the mix dry out first, and then you can keep it sealed in a small jar.


Monday, November 5, 2012

apologies for the long absence...

If you do follow my blog, I apologise for the loooooong absence. Things have been a little hectic, and I haven't been able to find enough time to update my blog, but I haven't forgotten. 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Lunch/Dinner: Stuffed Artichokes

It's nearly the end of July, and surprisingly, summer time has not yet come to the north of france. So while I was hoping to have this blog entry up and ready weeks ago, to me it still feels like the end of March, so I'm not really that much behind...

In any case, I am now settled into my new home and all that, so I have been looking around to see what local ingredients would be worth using, and boom! Found something. Since my arrival here, the markets have been chock-full of artichokes. I generally stay away from cooking artichokes because, well I don't really know how to eat them. The only way I've ever had them was when they were steamed and served with a little bowl of lemon-butter sauce. Pretty good.

Every week, I would see them at the market. I would try to avoid their gazes and keep on walking by, but every time, they kept begging me to do something with them. The artichoke season is generally from early spring to mid-summer, so they are almost done now. So I called my mom and she told me a great recipe her mother used to do. Hence today's entry.

My grandmother, Samira,  had a real knack for cooking. Apparently, in addition to illustrating children's books, she would whip up these amazing meals for guests, and everything was done to perfection. In her repertoire of recipes was stuffed artichokes: my mother's worst nightmare. This meal was apparently the root cause of many disagreements between my mother and grandmother. Quite simply, my mother hates artichokes. And when she tells me this story, the details she remembers are more along the lines of the smell of the artichokes mixed with her feelings of being a little queasy from the thought of eating them. To get through such a meal, she did what any child would do: hide the artichokes.

Visiting Egypt, artichokes are not really the first thing on everyone's meal list. But they are generally served on occasion when they are season. Though artichokes do grow in the wild in North Africa, they originate from Southern Europe. It is believed that the seeds of artichokes came from the Romans when they took over Egypt and the surrounding areas back in 30 B.C. However the name 'artichoke' is a derivative from the arabic word 'al khurshuuf', meaning thorny plant, though the actual arabic word for artichoke is 'ardi-shoki' 

The arabic influence in the naming of artichokes could be pointed to the time of the Islamic empire that had taken over North Africa, and much of Europe. Artichokes were being cultivated in Granada, Spain and simultaneously in Sicily. During this time, the evolution of the artichoke took place, and the Arabs are credited for transforming the artichoke into the plant we know today. After the end of the Islamic empire, around the late 1400s, artichokes remerged and were primarily cultivated in Naples.

In due time, the Dutch introduced artichokes to England around the 1500s. While Europe was busy taking over the world around this time, both  French and Spanish immigrants brought artichokes over to the United States.

All this to say is that the artichoke, got its humble start in the wild around the Mediterranean, but somehow managed to make its way all over. Today, Egypt is one of the top three producers in the world of artichokes. 

As is the case with many of the stuffed items in Egypt, stuffed artichokes are filled with ground meat and topped with béchamel sauce. The tart taste of the artichoke is what makes this dish perfectly suited to this type of preparation. I will say though - as a warning - prepping artichokes for cooking is not the easiest of tasks, though it isn't all that hard. Don't be put off by it, but do use a sharp knife. 

Total preparation time: 30 minutes
Total cooking time: 15 minutes
Yield: 4 persons

4 artichokes (try to choose ones that do not have too many brown spots on them)



1 lemon

1 cup of ground meat (lamb or beef)
1 finely chopped onion
1 tablespoon of oil
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice (optional)

Béchamel :
2 tablespoons of butter
1 cup of milk
1/4 cup of flour


1. Cut stem off.

2. Cut off the top of the artichoke.


3.Cut off exterior leaves (top and bottom) until you get to the heart - what the leaves are attached to at the base.

4. Scoop out all the hairs in the artichoke; they are probably purplish in colour.


5. Bring to boil a medium sized pot with water, a pinch of salt and two or three slices of lemon.
6. Add the artichokes to the boiling water.

7. Leave them to cook until you can easily pass a knife through one of them. (about 10 minutes)

8. Add onions and meat to pan on high heat
9. Add allspice, cinnamon, salt, pepper to meat
10. Continue cooking on medium heat until meat is unclumped and well-cooked


Béchamel sauce (see previous recipe for photos):
11. On high heat, add butter to a pot
13. When butter has melted, add milk to pot
14. Keep stirring milk and butter until it is hot; but not boiling
15. With a whisk or fork, add a bit of the flour stirring vigorously
16. Keep stirring until all the flour is added
17. The sauce will thicken up once everything has dissolved.Season with salt and pepper.

18. In a casserole dish, place the cooked artichokes.
19. Fill them with meat.
20. Cover them with béchamel.

21. Put in the oven for about 10 minutes (350F), or until they are golden.
22. Serve them with a salad and enjoy!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Haven't forgotten...

I know I know....it's been a very long time.
I haven't forgotten! Just been busy moving. Hopefully will have something up in the coming weeks. In the mean time enjoy the spring!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Dessert: Anise cookies

Oh my, is it March already? I've had this post ready to write for so long, but as it turns out, moving got in the way. That's right, I'm moving to the other side of the pond, for now at least. I never know who regularly reads this blog (thank you if you do), but I do apologize for the long wait. As a forewarning though, the next few months may not be any better as I try to settle into a new rhythm, but I will do my best to keep posting.

All that to say that the first entry for 2012 will be in honour of my great-aunt Yola. She was born in Egypt, but her family is originally from Armenia, though her immediate family came from the Levantine. So the culinary talents and influences in her family span across different cultures. She married my grandmother's brother - George- and after he passed on, she remarried in Canada another man also called George. With her new family in Montreal, and my family close by, Yola's connection to our family remained close. Though I never got a chance to get to know her very well, I still remember her when I was a child as being a very elegant lady with a warm smile. She just recently celebrated her 80th birthday, and is still just as elegant as ever and still knows how to whip up a great dish.

My aunt and father still talk about her dazzling meals and desserts. In fact Yola's second husband also came from a family of culinary talents; so much so that someone from his side of the family decided to compile a list of their best recipes and circulate it around. It has pages and pages of recipes that would woo just about anyone. Sumptuous cakes and mouth-watering and perfectly spiced meat dishes, all written with a nod to to the cook in the family who was known for that particular creation. My aunt gave me a copy not too long ago and I found the first thing I wanted to make: anise cookies (or biscuits).

To be honest, it was around the time of Christmas that I was searching for a cookie recipe that was easier to make than Kahk, but just as satisfying in taste. We all have tasted anise at one time or another in licorice candies. Hopefully you haven't been tainted by the fake versions of licorice in cheaper candies, but now's a good time to start in on the real thing.

Anise, surprisingly, has its roots in Egypt. It has been cultivated in Egypt for at least 4000 years. It grows readily around the Mediterranean area, which is why anise-flavoured liquors abound in just about every country. Arak in the Levantine, Ouzo in Greece, Raki in Turkey, Zambuca in Italy, and Pastis in France. While many associate Egypt and the Middle East with no alcohol, the anise beverage has been a favourite since the early days of the spread of Islam. It's a drink one has with Mezza (appetizers) to balance the strong flavours of the garlic and spice. In fact, it was the Islamic empire that discovered how to distill alcohol making it possible to extract anise into a fine spirit.

Today, while there is no official Egyptian anise liquor, the peasants (or fellaheen) do have their own moonshine version called zibib.

Prior to that, Egyptians had been using anise for medicinal purposes. It has properties which relieve bloating and aid with digestion. It is usually drunk in a tea, by boiling a few spoons of anise in water. Specifically in Egypt, anise tea - Yansoon- is also given to nursing women to aid with the production of breast milk.It is also used to calm any muscle spasms.

When Egypt became a Roman province around 30BC, they too brought with them a different way of using anise: in baked goods. They usually ate these anise desserts after a large meal since it helped with digestion. It is quite possible that the impetus for today's recipe stems from the Romans using anise directly in foods.

I will admit that while the fresh-out-of-the-oven cookies are yummy, I did take it a step further and made a little chocolate/rum sauce to drizzle over the cookie. It's probably one of the few times I strayed away from the original recipe; but if you're a chocolate lover, you might understand why.


Total preparation time: 15 minutes
Total baking time: 15-20 minutes
Yield: 15 cookies

3 eggs
3 cups of flour
1/2 cup of milk
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of oil
3 teaspoons of baking powder
1 tablespoon of vanilla
3 tablespoons of anise


1. Mix all ingredients in a bowl.

2. Grease a baking sheet or place a silicon baking cover.
3. Drop about a tablespoon worth of cookie batter on sheet.

4. Heat oven to 350F and bake until they are all golden.

Chocolate drizzle (optional)
1. Melt half a cup of dark chocolate chips with 1/4 of milk.
2. Mix melted chocolate until consistency is smooth.
3. Add about 1 tablespoon of rum.
4. Mix well.
5. Dip or decorate cookie with chocolate.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Dinner: Fasolia wa roz (beans and rice)

Can you smell that? That burning, smokey air? That's fall. The season I probably despise the most, because what comes after fall? Winter. It's probably about to start now...any minute.

But, we're more than half way through the fall now, and so I suppose I've gotten use to it, and can participate in those cozy fall things people like to do. I don't wear wool, so that's out of the question, but for me, cooking heartier meals is a fall thing. So yay me.

I decided to revisit one of my favourite stews: Basila wa roz (peas with rice). A simple and hearty stew that's easy to flavour and even easier to eat.

As an undergraduate student in freezing cold Montreal, I had a good Lebanese friend. I think my way of trying to connect with people from the Middle East is immediately through food, because the language thing ends as soon as it starts, with some blank stares from my end. And then I usually blush out of embarrassment. In any case, my friend Rasha and I bonded over studying and food. My excitement was heightened at our new friendship when she invited me over for dinner. She told me she was going to prepare something simple, and when I came by she pointed to the stew waiting on top of the stove: fasolia wa roz (beans and rice). "It's one of my favourites" she told me. I think I wanted to pretend I knew it, so I responded with a "mine too".

Luckily, I wasn't too far off. It is more or less the exact same stew both my parents made for us growing up, but as I mentioned, we used peas instead of beans. But beans are a common addition to the stew in Egypt as well. However, string beans or green beans, or 'fasolia' are not native to Egypt, or the Middle East for that matter.

They are native to the Americas, India and China. When the Spanish began their trade outside of Europe, they introduced the green bean to the French around 1597. That's probably why the green beans have evolved over the years into the name of 'french beans'.

The first round of French colonization of Egypt was in 1798, which lasted only three years, so not much time for their culinary influence to seep in just yet. However, the second wave of French colonization of Syria and Lebanon after World War I guaranteed that the French culture found its way into day-to-day cuisine, which was inevitably brought over to Egypt by the Lebanese, Armenian-Lebanese, and Syrians.

When the more recent wave of immigrants trickled into Egypt in the late 1800s, early 1900s, the French and Italian influences were solidified in Egyptian cuisine. The Italians also brought along their love of cooking with the string beans.

To vary the dish a little, I decided to showcase my aunt's rice dish. It's a common way of serving rice in Egypt. Rice pilafs are not very popular in Egypt; the fanciest we get with our rice is often one of three ways: white rice with ground liver and pine nuts, white rice and pine nuts, and white rice with small vermicelli.

The latter is the more popular presentation. Although it may not the fanciest of rices, it still adds a touch of 'I care' in the meal. And it adds a slightly nutty flavour to the rice.

The addition of vermicelli probably came about with the large Italian influx of immigrants in the late 1800s/early 1900s. In arabic, vermicelli is referred to as shaareyah, which comes from the word 'shaar' meaning hair. However, the vermicelli used is normally bought already cut into small pieces. If you can't find that, just buy regular vermicelli and break it yourself.

The rice dish is called: roz bil shaareyyah
Total preparation and cooking time: 2 hours (including rice)
-can be longer depending on cut of meat
Yield: 4 persons


1 tablespoon of olive oil (or butter)
1 white onion
1 lb. of cubed beef (or lamb)
2 cans of tomato paste (156 ml)
1 stick of cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice (if available)
2 cups of water
2 cups of green beans (fresh or frozen)

1 cup of short-grain white rice
1/4 cup of vermicelli (broken into small pieces)

1 tablespoon of olive/vegetable/corn oil
1 and 7/8 cups of water


1. Dice onions
2. In a stewing pot, heat oil and fry onions
3. When onions are soft, add beef

4. Brown beef for a few minutes until everything is seared on the outside
5. Add tomato paste and water
6. Add cinnamon and allspice. Salt and pepper to taste
7. Let stew cook for about an hour or more; until meat is tender
8. Cut off stems and ends of the beans

9. When meat is tender, add beans

10. Let cook for another 15 minutes
11. Serve on rice with fresh green onions or sliced onions in lemon juice (or white vinegar) and salt

1. On high heat, add oil to pot
2. Add vermicelli to oil and continuously stir until all the pasta has turned brown (but not burnt)

3. Once the vermicelli has changed colour, take the pot off the heat.
4. Add water and salt to taste.
5. Once water is boiling, turn heat to low.
6. Add rice.
7. Stir and keep covered until rice is cooked (about 15 - 20 minutes)

And there you have it. A simple variation on a household staple with some fancy rice.