The story of how an instruction manual for would-be domestic science teachers became the most famous Egyptian cookbook of all time.
Nazira Nicola (1902–1992), better known as Abla Nazira, has been a household name in Egypt since the latter half of the 20th century. She is perhaps best known for the encyclopaedic cookbook she co-authored with Bahiya ‘Uthman, officially titled Uṣul al-ṭahi: al-Naẓari wa-l-‘amali (Fundamentals of Cooking: Theory and Practice) but typically referred to simply as Kitab Abla Nazira (Abla Nazira’s Book).
First published in 1941 as an instruction manual for would-be domestic science teachers, the cookbook went on to enjoy huge popular success within a decade or two. It was reprinted a dozen times, with new editions and spin-offs appearing into the 1980s, and it soon became a common gift for several generations of Egyptian newlyweds. My own 1953 copy bears an inscription from a man named Yahya, addressed to his ‘dear companion’ and wife. ‘To my partner in life’, Yahya wrote on the inside cover, offering her the book as a token of their ‘loving and virtuous home’. The tome, which runs to nearly a thousand pages, translates the fundamentals of continental cuisine (think béchamel and consommé) as well as Egyptian staples, from kishk Sa‘idi to jubn Dimyati, into a formal, standard Arabic.
Nicola and ‘Uthman’s cookbook, based on the authors’ expertise from years of study in England, was not the first of its kind. Nor was their education altogether unique: by the time they arrived in England to study domestic science in the late 1920s, Egyptian women had been learning advanced housewifery and cuisine in institutions like Hampstead’s Berridge House for years. And yet Kitab Abla Nazira––and Abla Nazira herself––reached unprecedented levels of pop culture fame. Over time, she became a trope and punchline in Egyptian humour, most famously in Faisal Nada’s 1978 comedy al-Motazawegoon (The Married Couple). And her influence extended beyond Egypt proper: a Syrian friend once remarked to me that her aunt still had a copy of one of Abla Nazira’s cookbooks, a souvenir of her studies in Egypt in the 1960s. When the women’s magazine Hawwa’ published a 350+ page commemorative edition in 2015 celebrating 60 years since its founding, it included a special insert dedicated to Nicola, highlighting her contributions to the magazine and her significance not only to Egyptian cooking but to the culture writ large. So, who exactly was Abla Nazira? And how did she become such a prominent figure in modern Egyptian culture?
(…)By the 1970s, her books were explicitly written for the “working woman”, acknowledging the need for simpler, faster, and less elaborate recipes than her earlier books had promoted.
For most of her life, Nazira Nicola was a teacher. Her course of study at the Gloucestershire Training College of Domestic Science in England was designed for teachers-in-training at a time when the demand for women’s education, including skills like sewing, cooking, and general housewifery, was on the rise in Egypt and England alike. ‘Domestic science’, a forerunner to what is now more commonly called home economics, had become a global and imperial enterprise by the 1920s. Nicola’s classmates in Gloucestershire went on to teach not only in Great Britain but in British colonies throughout the world, from South Asia to East Africa to Australia. By that point, too, British cooking aspired to a cosmopolitanism that incorporated both French culinary technique as well as imperial foods such as curries and kedgeree in equal parts. Kedgeree was itself a version of an Indian dish, khichidi, that had migrated throughout the Indian Ocean and Red Sea coasts, appearing in Basra and the Hejaz as well as in urban Egypt where it evolved into the much-loved staple koshari. By the time Nicola left to study in Gloucestershire, koshari would have long been popular in Egypt; one wonders what she must have thought encountering a version of it in an English cookery demonstration alongside soufflés and gratins. The curriculum in Gloucestershire offered Nicola a model that she would later replicate in her cookbooks: a variety of dishes of diverse origin, refined and modernized through French technique and the latest kitchen technology.
When she returned to Egypt, Nicola worked first as a teacher and then as a trainer of teachers at the Higher Institute of Domestic Science. But her own culinary education continued as well; in his book Ṣanai‘ayat Maṣr: Mashahid min ḥayat ba‘ḍ bonat Maṣr fī al-‘aṣr al-ḥadith, writer Omer Taher labels Nicola the creator of the Egyptian kitchen, ‘Abla Naẓira: Ṣanai‘ayat maṭbakh Maṣr’, and describes how she threw herself into learning the intricacies of Egyptian and other Middle Eastern foods with rigour, spending time in local bakeries and restaurants to broaden her expertise. This helps explain the vast scope of the recipes in the cookbooks she wrote, which are as much an authority on baclava as they are on béchamel.
Between 1941 and 1952 alone, Nicola wrote or co-authored no fewer than six textbooks, and in 1958 she was placed in charge of women’s subjects (al-mawad al-niswiyya) in the Ministry of Education. In 1973, she was honoured by the state for her work in the educational field and awarded a medal commemorating one hundred years of girls’ education in Egypt (dating from the opening of the first state-run school for girls in 1873).
The cornerstones of Nicola’s culinary philosophy remained largely unchanged over her long career: cooking was the most important of the domestic arts, an essential skill for the modern woman, and foundational to the happiness of both family and nation. But her success and fame are also likely due to her capacity to adapt. Her body of written work, for example, reflects the social and political shifts that unfolded in Egypt over the course of her lifetime: by the 1970s, her books were explicitly written for the ‘working woman’, acknowledging the need for simpler, faster, and less elaborate recipes than her earlier books had promoted.
Perhaps most significant in cementing Nicola’s position in Egyptian culture, however, may have been her appearances on Egyptian radio starting in the 1940s, where Nazira Nicola, the esteemed author and educator, evolved into the more familiar and accessible source of expertise, the beloved Abla Nazira (abla being a Turkish loanword used in Egypt as a form of address to an older woman). A 1965 profile in al-Ahram celebrating Nicola’s twenty-five-year-career paints a warm picture of this figure, describing the reporter’s interactions with Nicola not in her office but at home, where she plied her guest with cake and coffee. The article refers to her as ‘Abla Nazira Nicola’, a hybrid but fitting moniker for a national icon known equally for her textbooks as for her radio personality, for French gateaux as for homestyle Egyptian fare, not just as a voice of authority but a voice of the people.
On the origins of the famous ‘macarona béchamel’ in Egypt – The basic components of macarona béchamel (a baked pasta gratin with a French-style white sauce) were most likely first prepared in Egypt by French chefs brought to cook in khedival palace kitchens and luxury hotels in the mid-nineteenth century. By the turn of the twentieth century they had trained a number of Egyptian chefs in continental cuisine. Some of these chefs began writing cookbooks, translating their newfound culinary knowledge into Arabic. One such cookbook, published in 1932, has a recipe for macarona ‘ala al-ṭariqa al-yunaniyya, or ‘Greek-style macaroni’. Most likely this was a translation of pastitsio, the Greek forerunner to today’s Egyptian macarona béchamel. This in turn indicates the dominance of Greek cuisine in the emerging restaurant cultures of Cairo and Alexandria, which is how many Egyptians first encountered dishes like pastitsio, moussaka, and chicken negresco. From restaurant tables these dishes made their way into women’s cookbooks (like Kitab Abla Nazira) and home kitchens.
Perhaps most interesting is that based on what we know from cookbooks, béchamel sauce wasn’t added to Greek recipes for pastitsio until 1910. A Greek cookbook published in 1828 suggests that prior to the introduction of French culinary influence, pastitsio was prepared using a much older style of spicing (pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon) and dried fruit rather than tomato sauce. So, rather than thinking of macarona béchamel as an import from ‘Europe’, we can consider it an Eastern Mediterranean dish that has evolved over time according to the latest culinary fashions.
Macarona with White Sauce and Eggs
Translated and adapted from Uṣul al-ṭahi: al-Naẓari wa-l-‘amali (Fundamentals of Cooking: Theory and Practice, pp. 69, 152 & 423; 1952 edition)
For the white sauce (makes 2 cups):
1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour, sifted
2 cups milk (or 1 cup milk + 1 cup pasta cooking liquid)
3 eggs, lightly beaten
Salt, pepper, and cinnamon to taste
For the meat sauce (makes 1 cup):
2 tbsp butter
1 medium onion, grated
250 g ground beef
½ cup tomato sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
For the macarona:
500 g pasta, cooked and drained
2 cups white sauce
1 cup meat sauce
1 tbsp butter, melted
2 tbsp breadcrumbs
- Make the white sauce:
- Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the sifted flour, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon.
- Return the saucepan to the heat and continue stirring for 3–4 minutes, making sure not to burn the mixture.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat and allow to cool slightly.
- Add the liquid gradually while continuing to stir.
- Return the saucepan to the heat and allow the mixture to boil and thicken while continuing to stir for at least 7 minutes to make sure the flour is cooked through.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat and allow to cool slightly.
- Add the lightly beaten eggs, mixing well.
- Season to taste with salt, pepper, and cinnamon.
- Make the meat sauce:
- Fry the onion in the melted butter until it becomes translucent.
- Add the ground meat and seasoning, mixing over low heat until it browns.
- Add the tomato sauce, mix well, and allow to simmer until the meat is cooked through.
- Assemble the macarona:
- Butter the baking dish.
- Add half the cooked pasta, followed by the meat sauce, and a second layer of pasta.
- Cover the surface evenly with the white sauce, topped with a thin layer of breadcrumbs.
- Drizzle the melted butter over the surface.
- Bake in a hot oven until the surface browns.
The fascinating history of the colourful and intricate appliqué tents ubiquitous at every Egyptian social occasion.
Few of Cairo’s historical gardens remain today, but those that still exist offer a glimpse into a lush past where gardens were both a refuge from the city’s desert heat and a status symbol for its ambitious rulers.
Some of the most drastic changes in Egyptian food culture begin to take place.
When Khedive Ismail’s palace chef retired, he shared his rich repertoire of recipes in a book. These are not for the kitchen novices out there!
Between the Arab Agricultural Revolution and the Columbian Exchange, Cairene cuisine reaches its zenith and carries the torch from Abbasid Baghdad.
The world's oldest cookbook and an ancient papyrus preserving Egyptian recipes.
Anny Gaul holds a PhD from Georgetown University, where she wrote her doctoral dissertation on the history of the urban home kitchen in modern North Africa. She has lived in Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, and Jordan. She translates regularly from Arabic to English and maintains a food blog (www.cookingwithgaul.com).