A peek into the grand kitchens and sumptuous celebrations of the twentieth-century Egyptian aristocracy.
I started to collect recipes in the last decades of the twentieth century. At the time, many of the food habits of my childhood were gradually disappearing as a result of the socio-economic changes brought about by the 1952 Revolution. These recipes were common to people with similar socio-economic backgrounds, mostly large, landowning families of either Turco-Circassian origin related to the ruling elites or, as in our case, Egyptian notables. Even if the latter’s roots were in the countryside, by the end of the nineteenth century many of them had moved their households to Cairo to enjoy the new ‘westernized’ ways of life offered by the capital or, as in my grandfather’s case, because the head of the family had received an education allowing him to become a civil servant. In urban surroundings, both groups shared similar habits and living standards and often intermarried.
‘Relying on my memories of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, I managed to retrace some of the traditions and recipes I grew up with.’
This was a society that felt uncomfortable in post-revolutionary Egypt and tried as much as possible to keep a low profile so as not to attract attention to their affiliation to the monarchy. Large mansions were sold, the staff that manned them dispersed, and extended families fragmented. The painful souvenirs of old ways of life were repressed and the recipes that were part of this dolce vita gradually forgotten. Strained financial circumstances were also partially responsible for this eradication of memory.
Excavating the past
There was almost no published material on the recipes I was attempting to document. Relying on my memories of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, I managed to retrace some of the traditions and recipes I grew up with. I then found more in a very rare book published by the chefs of King Fuad. The well-known reference book written some years later by Nazira Nicola, known more commonly as Abla Nazira, omitted most of them. Apart from the chicken in walnut sauce or charkasseyya, contemporary cookbooks did not even mention them.
Luckily, some of the families that had developed recipes of their own were still perpetuating them. The Abaza family, for example, was still celebrated for its famous abbazeyya, a chicken dish cooked in a lentil paste. Recovering other recipes, however, was a slow process that relied on interviewing dispersed surviving family members and comparing different versions.
‘Experienced cooks tended to jealously hide their recipes and their assistants were never formally trained and learned only by spying on them.’
While recipes were passed from mother to daughter, there was a further complicating factor: In these grand bourgeois households, the cooking was left to chefs. My mother recalled being told by her grandmother when she married that it was not important that she did not know how to cook, but what was extremely important was that her cook should never realize it. When these skilled professionals were eventually dismissed, most recipes were lost.
Until the 1950s, the staff of large households, particularly cooks, were there for a lifetime. They usually came as young kitchen assistants to the senior chef and learnt the family recipes by furtively keeping an eye on his every movement. Experienced cooks tended to jealously hide their recipes and their assistants were never formally trained and learned only by spying on them. Occasionally, the mistress of the house would introduce new dishes she had sampled at a friend’s table, and in many cases, cooks were dispatched to learn from each other—something they found humiliating and hated but had no alternative but to comply with. On the other hand, whenever chefs were recruited at a mature age they also came with the recipes of their former employers. Both these factors established a kind of osmotic process whereby recipes were exchanged between households, with each one adding its particular spin on it.
Daily staples, lavish banquets
There were three types of menus: everyday menus with dishes served on a daily basis for family lunches and dinners; and menus composed of ‘prestige foods’ intended for both smaller and larger formal occasions with the only difference between these last two categories being the number of dishes served.
Daily meals were usually seated lunches and dinners at home and included either meat, poultry, or fish with a vegetable or pastry garnish, a vegetable side, and either rice, pasta, stuffed vegetables, or savoury pastries. It was usual to serve one kind of dessert in addition to fresh fruit. Though ‘prestige foods’ often appeared at daily meals, the simpler recipes of the daily table were never included on the buffets of special events. In the case of meat dishes for example, the traditional kabab halla (meat stew) and Dawud Basha kofta and even some westernized recipes such as the escalope Viennoise frequently included in family meals were dismissed as not fancy enough for guests. Roasted or grilled chicken was also considered too basic for important occasions and replaced by more elaborate recipes.
If the number of guests did not exceed the capacity of the hosting party to seat them, formal occasions took place in family dining rooms. The menus generally consisted of dishes of meat, poultry, and fish as well as a savoury pastry, two vegetables, one kind of mahshi (stuffed vegetables), and a salad. At the end of the meal, fresh fruits were offered—sometimes in the form of a fruit salad—and at least three desserts were included.
Larger parties, often held to celebrate occasions such as weddings, success in elections, or appointments to important positions, usually took place in the gardens of the family villas. The food was served on extended buffets, and generally, next to the specialties prepared by the family chef, the services of a professional caterer were required. In Cairo, this was inevitably the fashionable and very chic Groppi.
In winter a marquis would be set up in the garden. These were not western-style tents, but rather the traditional, colourful patchwork khayameyya tents reminiscent of the marble panelling of the reception rooms in Mamluk palaces.
Banquet buffets consisted of an endless display of all kinds of food. It was customary to serve a variety of impressive meat dishes such as whole lambs, legs of veal, and a variety of cold cuts set in aspic and moulded in long, easily sliced rectangular shapes. An assortment of poultry was also de rigeur: Turkeys were essential and were served carved and arranged on red rice sprinkled with raisins and roasted nuts (rozz bi khalta). These displays usually included charkasseyya, ducks in fancy preparations, and pigeons. However, instead of being stuffed with rice or flattened and buried in cracked wheat as was usual for ordinary meals, the birds were divided in two, boned, and presented as small roundels filled with minced veal and topped with silver paper finials. This preparation, apart from being more elegant, certainly made them easier to consume.
Fatayir, flaky, savoury pastries, often appeared on weekly family menus, but they were also served in different shapes and forms filled with cheese or minced meats and vegetables as an integral element of formal buffets. They were always homemade, and it took hours to first prepare the dough, then leave it to rest for at least two hours, then roll it out in almost translucent layers before deep frying or oven baking, sometimes piece by piece. I remember my mother saying that the cook who had not mastered pastry making was not a chef.
Cold versions of mahshi, and particularly the sweet and sour meatless dolma kaddaba (yalanji dolma in Turkish) were another requirement of reception buffets. Beautifully decorated vegetable dishes were common to both family and special event tables. Usually they were cooked in pots with bevelled sides called de’eyya; if the vegetables were small in size, like okra, they were arranged in rows one by one at an angle; but if larger, such as zucchini, they were first sliced with a slant then placed carefully next to each other inside the de’eyya. Once the cooking was done, the pot would be upturned onto the serving plate and removed to display a dome of vegetable pieces arranged in swirling patterns. Carrots, cucumbers, or bell peppers would often be cut and arranged in floral patterns to garnish the dishes.
One of my favourites was the coating of the cold dish of green beans with a pale-coloured paste of pine nuts called ṭaraṭur embellished with a floral motif of finely cut tomato skins and parsley leaves. The result, I realized years later, reproduced, on our table, seventeenth-century Iznik ceramic patterns! Another way of presenting large vegetables such as artichokes and aubergines was to scoop out the hearts while raw, and once cooked, stuff them with different kinds of meat or vegetable fillings, oven-bake them, and present them sprinkled with nuts or covered in cream, beautifully arranged on large silver platters.
These sumptuous buffets lasted for nearly two hours and keeping dishes hot was always a problem. Of course, there was an assortment of heating devices and double boilers placed under the silver platters, keeping them warm, but to simplify matters, the menu usually included many cold recipes as well. Another important factor in the choice of menus for formal events was, I suspect, economic: it was important to present one’s guests with the most expensive foods prepared in the most elaborate ways.
What’s in a name?
Some recipes had Ottoman names but were not necessarily Turkish. Many belonged to the ancient cultures subjugated by the Ottomans. For example, I believe that most of the yoghurt-based dishes could have originally been Armenian. It is also important to point out that by a strange coincidence many of the so-called Ottoman dishes of Cairo were not adopted in other countries under Ottoman rule. Could it be that they were originally Egyptian and re-baptized by Ottoman chefs ? After all, it is a well-established fact that Selim I, returning victorious to Istanbul from Cairo, took with him all the master craftsmen of the country, thus giving new dimensions to Ottoman culture.
After the 1952 Revolution, the grand old bourgeois classes feared being stigmatized by the new socialist regime. After the family mansions were sold off, these large stately homes were soon demolished and supplanted by apartment buildings. The garden celebrations were replaced by fancy events in impersonal hotels and an entire way of life with all its traditions and culinary variety retreated into nothing more than a vague memory.
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Shahira Mehrez holds an MA degree in Islamic art and architecture from the American University in Cairo and has conducted post graduate research at Oxford University while teaching at the faculty of Tourism of Helwan University. Her concern for endangered traditional Egyptian heritage led her to change her career and for the past forty years she has been researching and collecting Egypt’s unparalleled but hitherto little-documented costumes and jewellery. She is currently working on publishing her collections.