Cooking from a Lost Egypt

By Colette Rossant

Published on March 21, 2002

I was born in Paris to an Egyptian father and a French mother, and lived a rather idyllic life there until 1939, when I was 5 years old. That was the year my father died and my young mother and I went to Cairo to live with my paternal grandparents. I'm thankful for the time I spent there, and for the vivid memories I still hold of that time and place—since I left Cairo many years ago, the simple yet intricate flavors of Egyptian cooking have haunted me, driving me to attempt to reproduce them in America and perhaps enticing me into a career in food.

My mother and I moved into my grandparents' four-story house, which was built in the early 1800s by my great-grandfather in Garden City, an elegant residential quarter near the Nile. When we first stepped through the tall, black cast-iron gate into the lush garden, my grandparents embraced us and welcomed us home. Grandpapa led me to an enormous mango tree that dominated the garden and told me that he had planted it the day I was born. (I believed him, but in retrospect I realize that this was just one of his stories.)

My grandparents set us up in rooms on the sprawling ground floor of the house, where they lived. (My brother stayed with us for six months, and then returned to Paris to live with our French grandparents.) The rest of the place was home to my extended family: Aunt Fortunee was one flight up, with her husband and their children; Uncle Victor, with his wife and their children, resided on the third floor; on the top floor were cousin Lydia and her husband and their children. French was the family's common language, but I learned Arabic to converse with some of the many servants—maids, governesses, cooks, and chauffeurs—who ran this complicated household.

From our first days in Cairo, my mother withdrew into the role of young widow, leaving my grandparents with the task of raising me. Grandpapa was tall and portly, with a shock of white hair and a big mustache that curled upward. When leaving for his office in the morning, dressed in a three-piece European suit, with a traditional fezlike red felt tarboosh on his head and a watch chain across his round belly, he looked very stern and dignified. My cousins were all afraid of him, but I wasn't.At home in the evenings, he would sit on the wide terrace, watching the sunset, swishing a horsetail fly swatter from side to side. I would cuddle on his lap and listen to stories of my great-great-grandmother, a ''princess'' who had left Turkey to follow her handsome husband to Egypt. He said I looked like her, and I believed him.

Grandmaman wasn't quite so full of romance. She was a diminutive woman, always dressed in black, her henna-dyed hair pulled back in a chignon, with a cigarette eternally dangling from the corner of her mouth. She spent her days trotting around the apartment, supervising the help, and taking a special interest in the goings-on of the kitchen. She was the queen of the house, and I, like the other children, admired her very much.

Every morning she waged battles over the day's menus with Ahmed, her French-trained Sudanese cook. He constantly proposed making such dishes as fish in aspic, ballottines of duck, and souffles. Grandmaman, however, loved all things Egyptian—and, believing in the restorative power of leeks, she insisted that they be served often. She and Ahmed argued with great shouts, their battles invariably ending in compromise: A meal might begin, for instance, with mulukhiyya (the delicate Egyptian soup made with the green herb of the same name) served over rice, and continue with French-style stuffed and roasted squab on a bed of her curative braised leeks.

With the fare for the day decided, Grandmaman would call for the horse-drawn carriage to take her to the city's main market. Ibrahim, Ahmed's young son, would come along to carry the purchases and, if school was not in session, I'd join them. The market was noisy, crowded, and dusty. I loved it. At the fresh-vegetable section, Grandmaman bought young okra, small, intensely red tomatoes, zucchini, and cucumbers, and she painstakingly chose her eggplants. At the poultry and meat market, she invariably went at it with the butchers. ''The birds had better be tender and plump or young,'' she'd warn, ''because they weren't last time!'' At the fruit stall, she would sit down to sample before buying. A young boy would offer her strong coffee from a shiny silver tray, and as she discussed the quality, ripeness, and price of the cherimoyas and watermelons, I'd eat my fill of both.

Returning home from her shopping, Grandmaman would join my aunts on the terrace, where they would munch on tiny roasted melon seeds, nibble on lukum (the chewy, pistachio-filled sweet known elsewhere as turkish delight), and gossip. I was always told to go play with my cousins, but instead, I'd sneak into the kitchen to visit with Ahmed. A large pot of fragrant ful medames (small brown fava beans), perpetually warmed on his stove. The dish, a staple in Egypt, is bought from street vendors, carried home in pots, and eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with lift mikhalel (red pickled turnips also called torshi) and hard-boiled eggs on the side. In my house, however, ful was meant only for the staff. Yet because I was passionate about it, Ahmed, risking Grandmaman's admonitions, would ply me with ful, mashing the beans with vinaigrette.

The first Thursday of every month was the day Grandmaman received her many friends. Early in the morning, the house would be turned completely upside down—carpets hung over the terrace railing to be beaten, windows flung open for fresh air, card tables set up in the salon. Ahmed moved like a whirling dervish, furiously preparing food for Grandmaman's elaborate dinner. I loved being in the kitchen on those days, in part because of the show, but also for the many sweets that Ahmed and his assistants made: aracia mahshia-bil-goz, tea-soaked prunes filled with walnuts and eaten with rich, thick cream made from buffalo's milk; zalabia, small fritters doused with orange-blossom syrup; rice pudding; and—if Ahmed prevailed—a French chocolate cake.

The women would arrive around four o'clock, gossip for a while, then settle into their poker or canasta games. At seven, the men showed up, the card games stopped, and dinner was served, buffet-style, in the dining room. The elaborate spread would feature platters heaped with Egyptian and other Mediterranean foods—kobeiba, cracked wheat mixed with beef; warak 'enab, grape leaves stuffed with lamb and rice, which we called by their familiar name, dolmas, and served with a creamy sesame dip called tahina; broiled quail wrapped in vine leaves; taramosalata, the pale-pink Greek spread made with carp roe; assorted salads; Grandmaman's delicately smoky baba ghannouj; and her famous sambusaks, golden pastries filled with fresh farmer's cheese, grated parmigiano-reggiano, and parsley. Another table offered desserts. (I wasn't allowed to join the party, but Ahmed always filled a plate for me. Those nights, I dined with my dull governess.)

On Wednesdays, Fatma, a huge, lumbering village woman, would come to the house with her three daughters to do the laundry. I would follow them up to the roof and listen to stories as the pile of dirty clothes dwindled. When the washing was done and hung to dry, we descended to the terrace where my aunts lounged in the afternoons on low-slung chairs, snacking on crescent-shaped walnut cookies and sipping dark, muddy Turkish coffee. When only the grounds were left (filling about a third of each tiny cup), the women flipped their cups upside down on their saucers, gave them three rotations, then flipped them back upright. Fatma carefully studied the intricate rivulets that formed on the sides of each cup, and read the women their futures. I was allowed to stay only because my grandmother was sure that I was too young to understand what that was said. (I savored every word—and every bite of those cookies.)

Soon after I turned 11, my mother decided that she had had enough of playing the widow, and, on the pretense that I needed a good education, we moved back to postwar Paris to live with her parents. Egypt was entirely removed from my life, and replaced with all things French and (by implication) proper. I longed desperately for Cairo—for my Egyptian grandparents, for Ahmed and his ful medames, for the smell of cumin and coriander, and for gentle gossip on warm evenings. At 18, I married a young American architect, sailed to New York, and began a new life.

Not long after I arrived, I discovered, quite by chance, Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, with its many Middle Eastern food stores. Childhood memories rushed forth as I searched the shops' crowded shelves. I bought filo dough, mulukhiyya, and dried favas. Since I had not been left with any written recipes, I relied on my recollections of our Cairo kitchen, and the exotic flavors that lingered in my memory. I tried to duplicate many of the foods of my childhood and eventually got them right. And I wrote each one down to pass on to my daughters—and to share with others interested in Egyptian cuisine.

Almost 30 years after leaving Egypt, I finally returned—with my husband and our four children. Our first stop was Garden City. My grandparents had long since died, and my aunts and uncles had moved away, but the house was still there. I peered through the black gate into a mostly decrepit garden and spied the flourishing mango tree. My heart beat furiously as I rang the bell. A tall Sudanese, wearing a long robe and white turban around his head, appeared. In faltering Arabic, I told him that I had once lived in the house with my grandparents. He suddenly tapped his fingers over his lips and made a high-pitched cry. ''I am Ibrahim, Ahmed's son,'' he exclaimed. ''You came back! I knew you would! Al-hamd-lil-lah! [Praise be to Allah]''

We met again the next day in a cafe, and Ibrahim told me that his father had returned to his village in Sudan when my grandparents died, and that the house was now a private bank. He had married, had two sons, and was now the groundskeeper of the property. We lingered over strong coffee and shared memories of the tastes and smells of his father's kitchen.

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