Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dinner: Basila wa roz (peas & rice)

Today was going to be my mom's lentil soup day; but I may have overdone it on soups this week; so today will be a hearty stew day. Next week will be brown lentil soup day.

So stew day will be one of my favourite stews: peas and beef. It's commonly known as basila whey rosa = peas and rice. Appropriately named. It's a very popular family meal; though you'll rarely see it in a restaurant. It doesn't exactly scream haute-cuisine.

When I meet other canadian-egyptians, a few things immediately bond us: no arabic, bastarma (cured beef) and basila whey rosa. It's just one of those staple dishes we all grew up eating and never thought twice about. To my dad's credit, he even mastered it and was able to add that to his repertoire of home-cooked meals. That's a total of two. He then went on to learn how to cook a whole turkey in the microwave. I don't count that as meal #3 and neither should anyone else. Microwaves don't count as cooking.

Although between his version and my mother's version of this meal, I kind of like his a bit better...sorry...Not because hers is not good; it's great! The difference lies in what makes up the liquid portion of the stew. My mom uses fresh chicken stock and my dad uses water. I like the water because it lets the flavour of the tomato come through better. But it's a personal preference.

The tomato-base stew is nearly identical to that in bamya; except my version will use water and not chicken stock and there is no garlic. The tomato-based stew is popular all throughout the Middle East, even though, as I've mentioned before, tomatoes were introduced to the area in the 1800s. Nonetheless, tomato-based stews reign supreme throughout the area.

Peas and rice, on the other hand, have been staples for centuries. Green peas originate from the Mediterranean basin and the Near East. One article I read said peas may either originate from China or Egypt, since they have been in artifacts in both places. In Egypt, the charred remains of peas were found in Egyptian tombs from the 12th dynasty (1991-1783 BC). They were also found in the Nile Delta region dating 4400-4800 BC and in Upper Egypt from 3800-3600 BC.
So the green pea is no stranger to Egyptian cooking; but apparently it was never as popular as lentils. Instead, peas were dried and used during times of famine, which is how some other cultures also depended on them, like the European explorers who set off for the new world.

Rice made its appearence in Egypt around 4th century BC. At the time, India was exporting rice to Greece, which is probably how it made its way down to Egypt. With the fertile farming land in the Nile Delta, growing rice was easy enough. It's still grown in that area today.

So with peas and rice being in the area for so long, it's no wonder they got together in a stew. Add some protein, in this case beef, and you have the makings for a hearty stew. The flavouring of the tomato base is really where the beef gets its taste.

For fun, I decided to buy a jar of ghee (clarified butter) the other day. In Egypt, most of the cooking is done using this which is why most of the meals are super heavy, but tasty. While I never eat ghee; I figured I'd get wild today and trade in the olive oil for some ghee. Woop woop!

Total Cooking Time: 2 hours-though could be longer depending on cut of meat
Yield: 4 peresons


1 tablespoon of olive oil (or butter)
1 white onion
1 lb. of cubed beef (or lamb)
2 cans of tomato paste
2 cups of water
2 cups of green peas (can be fresh or frozen)

1cup of rice
2 cups of water
1 teaspoon of butter
salt to taste

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. Salt and pepper to taste
7. Let stew cook for about an hour or more; until meat is tender
8. Make rice
8. When meat is tender, add peas
9. Let cook for another 15 minutes
10. Serve on rice with fresh green onions or sliced onions in lemon juice (or white vinegar) and salt

Let me just start off by saying that today was my first time cooking with ghee and it will be my last time. The smell of it made me want to spread bleach all over the kitchen to overpower the stench of rancid ghee. Lesson #1 learned: do not buy ghee from the local grocery store that has a dusty ethnic food section. Lesson #2: leave the ghee alone. Horrible, horrible stuff. But that aside, the final dish is still yummy though; especially when made with non-ghee fats.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Lunch/Dinner: Red Lentil Soup

Today was luckily a day off for me and it turned into a self-made snow day. I haven't left the house nor do I plan on it. See:

Ok, maybe I slightly exaggerate what it's really like outside, BUT given that my apartment feels like it is heated by a single candle, it's still pretty frick'n cold. So it's soup day for me.

In keeping with cheap and easy eats, I figured lentil soup would be a good idea . There are two types of lentil soups in Egypt: red lentil and brown lentil. The red one is the famous one that everyone seems obsessed with, so I will make that one. But the brown lentil soup is my favourite. I'll make my mom's recipe for that one another time.

The red lentil soup recipe comes from my grandmother. My aunt taught it to me a while ago, though she confessed one thing to me. During family dinners, my father always claims that he is very sensitive to celery. No one really understands this sensitivity. Any restaurant we go to takes longer than usual to complete an order because there can be no trace whatsoever of the evil celery. My aunt took this simple recipe and adapted it to her tastes, which included the infamous celery. During one dinner, my dad was thrilled to have his favourite soup. Sadly, the new version was not for him. He made note of all things wrong with it, but he never noticed the celery. Which confirms my life-long suspicion that this celery thing is nothing but a hoax.

In my purist ways, I've gone back to the traditional red lentil soup. Lentils play a huge role in the Egyptian diet, either the brown or red variety. The brown lentils are known as Egyptian lentils; but both are equally popular. Lentils originate from the Near East and the Meditteranean regions. There are lentils found in archeaological digs dating back 8000 years BC. Once again, lentils have also been found in pharaonic tombs. They also make an appearence in Bibilical stories.

Lentils have been around for so long because they are easy to grow, (in sandy soil and sun), easy to prepare and above all fill you up enormously. They are the perfect protein substitute to most vegetarian diets. Apparently lentils get about 60% of their calories from protein. And they are high in fibre. They are also a staple in traditional peasant food in Egypt, so you find it in soup as well as the other national dish: Koshari. This is a popular meal throughout the country that is a layering of rice, lentils, fried onions and a tomato sauce. The best part about lentils are how cheap and readily available they are; whether here in Canada or back in Egypt.

I love them too. But I couldn't eat them all the time. Though a hunk of fresh bread and a bowl of lentil soup is a great dinner when it's cold outside. But some words of caution: if you are of the constitution that gets easily bloated; you may float away after eating too many lentils.

This soup so simple to make and takes less than an hour to cook. You can find this soup on just about every menu in Egypt; from a 4 star hotel restaurant to a dive in a small town. The main ingredients are simply lentils, ground cumin, lemon juice and an onion.

To keep it simple, I cook it with water, though you can use chicken stock instead. Also, some variations include potato, fresh coriander and garlic; all of which are tasty, but if you don't have any of those around, this recipe is easier. I like the porridge-like consistency of this soup and it usually is served that way, but if you want it to be more soupey, add more water after the lentils are cooked.
Total Cooking Time (including preparation): 40 minutes
Yield: 4 persons

1 tablespoon of olive oil or butter
1 white onion
1.5 cups of dry red lentils

4 cups of water
1-2 tablespoons of ground cumin
1 lemon


1. Dice onion
2. In a medium sized pot on high heat, add olive oil/butter
3. Add onions and cook until soft
4. Add lentils and water
5. Salt to taste
6. Turn heat down to low. Soup will look a bit like this until it's done cooking

7. Let stand to cook for about 20 - 30 minutes until all the lentils have burst open

8. Take soup off the heat and purée using a blender or hand-held one
9. Add cumin to taste
10. Add salt to taste
11. If you want a more soupy and less porridgey consistency, add more water.

*one variation is to add pita chips into the soup--cut up pita and fry in olive oil until crispy*

And there you have it: the simplest, healthiest and cheapest soup ever. Thank those peasants for their devotion to lentil creations. I'll make my mother's brown lentil soup next week. It's flavouring is quite different from this red lentil soup.