Rural Egypt was a different world, centuries old. Now it has come to town. When I went back after more than 30 years, the city had become swamped by the countryside. People had flooded in from Upper Egypt and the provinces (the city had grown from two million to 15 million). There were sheep in the street, chickens on roof tops and people packed everywhere. I walked through the market streets of the old city in a state of exaltation, like a fish might feel when it returns to its own waters - every sound (the squeaking and clucking of birds in crates, the shouts of vendors), every sight (piles of figs and dates; cape gooseberries hanging in garlands by their papery calyx) and every smell (mint; garlic frying with coriander) bringing a rush of memories. I sat in a cafe that had only one table and only lentil soup on the menu. They asked if I wanted spring onion with it, and a little boy rushed to a stall and brought back three fat ones.
I was invited to dinner by a woman who lived alone in the family home after her parents died. While she had spent a month in hospital with her sick mother, squatters had built dwellings in the large garden. It was a few years since they had settled in, and she couldn't get them out, but I think she had got used to them and was not trying too hard. They had built a stone oven and a dovecote where they kept pigeons, and chickens were running around. They grew all kinds of vegetables and herbs and gave her some of the produce. She watched their daily antics, noting that, though they quarrelled all the time, the pigeons were loving and faithful towards each other. And, while her cook was preparing stuffed pigeons and minty broad beans with artichoke hearts for us, we watched the squatters cook their pigeons on the grill, together with slices of aubergine and onion.
Doing the rounds of old family friends and new acquaintances, I discovered dishes that I never knew before. I asked for a recipe for fish tagen - fish baked with rice in a clay dish - and was told: "Ask the cook. It's from Upper Egypt." When I was a girl, most cooks and domestic servants came from Upper Egypt. But, then, they left their tastes and their cooking with their families in the villages and learnt the cosmopolitan styles. Now their ways and tastes are part of the city. Cairo has become truly Egyptian - all of Egypt is there.
Bissara (Bean Puree), serves 6-8
Ful - broad beans - are the Egyptian staple. They appear in various forms - stewed, in purees, as fritters, in pilafs and salads - and are eaten for breakfast and throughout the day. Street vendors let them simmer for hours in huge, round vessels with a small neck - sometimes, overnight in the ashes of a public bath. They have sustained the peasantry since time immemorial. Stores were found in Pharaonic tombs, and the government was involved in a project which made them grow. There are fields now of these pharaonic beans. Debunkers of the idea have suggested that the beans may have been stored by tomb robbers,
This garlicky bean dip, green with herbs, is made with a large type of dried broad bean which you buy without their skins. You can find them in Indian as well as Middle Eastern and Greek groceries. Serve it as a mezze or appetiser with pitta bread.
250g (9 oz) skinless dried broad beans, (soaked overnight)
1 onion, sliced
5 or more garlic cloves, chopped
1 tbsp dried mint
Large bunch of dill
Large bunch of coriander, chopped
Large bunch of parsley, chopped
1 tsp ground cumin
Pinch cayenne pepper, or to taste (optional)
For the garnish
2 onions, cut into rings
5 garlic cloves, chopped
juice of 1 or more lemons
Drain the beans, cover with fresh water and bring to the boil with the onions and garlic. Cook for about an hour until the beans are soft. Add the herbs, salt and spices and cook for another 10 minutes.
Drain the beans, reserving the liquid. Puree the bean mixture in a food processor with enough of the liquid to obtain a smooth creamy paste, and pour into a wide shallow serving dish. The mixture should be very moist - it will stiffen as it cools.
For the garnish, try the onion rings in 3 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium-to-high heat, stirring constantly, until very brown almost caramelised, adding the garlic towards the end.
Serve the puree hot or cold, garnished with the fried onion rings and with plenty of olive oil and lemon juice dribbled over it.
Hamam Mahshy Bil Burghul (Pigeon Stuffed with Bulgur, Raisins and Pine Nuts), serves 6
Raising pigeons is one of the passions of Egypt - both for eating and as carrier and racing pigeons. All the villages along the Nile have tall, conical pigeon towers, and in Cairo you see small dovecotes sticking out of balconies and windows. At night, you hear people whistling and calling back their flocks for fear that a neighbour should entice them away. In spring and summer, Cairo markets are full of tiny live pigeons (they are eaten when about four weeks old), ducks, geese, quails and chickens. Eating pigeons in the cafes that specialise in them along the Nile is one of the nostalgic memories of my childhood. They are so young and tender you can eat most of the bones. Stuffed pigeon is one of the delicacies of Egypt, which you serve "if you really want to show somebody you love them". Fillings range from minced meat, rice and fereek (whole green wheat), to bulgur (cracked wheat). It is the coarse bulgur, available from Greek and Middle Eastern stores, which you need for this dish.
Our tough, gamy English pigeons are a different bird to the Egyptian breed, but a few butchers here sell the French pigeonneaux, which are the same. Otherwise, use squab or small poussin. In Egypt, stuffed pigeons are more often first cooked in broth, then fried, but I prefer roasting them.The amount of stuffing given here is enough for a side dish, too.
Six baby Mediterranean pigeons, squab or small poussins
1 large onion
The juice of 1 lemon
6 tbsp sunflower or vegetable oil
Salt and pepper
112 tsp ground cardamom
112 tsp cinnamon
34 tsp allspice
For the stuffing:
2 litres (312 pints) stock or water 500g (1lb 2oz) coarse bulgur (cracked wheat)
Salt and pepper
112 tsp cinnamon
150g (5oz) pine nuts
50g (2oz) raisins or sultanas, soaked in water for half an hour
5 tbsp vegetable oil or butter
Cut the onion into pieces and put it, together with the lemon, oil, salt and pepper, cardamom, cinnamon and allspice in a blender or food processor and liquidise. Rub the birds with this mixture inside and out.
For the stuffing, bring the water or stock to boil in a pan. Add the cracked wheat, salt, pepper and cinnamon and stir, then cook, covered, on very low heat for about 15 minutes or until the liquid is absorbed and the grain is tender. Fry the pine nuts in a tablespoon of the butter or oil, stirring and turning them until golden. Stir the nuts, the drained raisins and the remaining oil or butter (cut into pieces) into the cracked wheat in the pan, and heat through.
Spoon some stuffing into each of the birds to fill the cavity, and secure the openings with toothpicks. Arrange in a baking dish, breast-side down. Roast in a preheated (180C/35OF/Gas Mark4) oven for 35 minutes. Turn them over and roast for another 10 minutes or until golden brown and the juices no longer run pink when you cut in the thick part of a thigh. Reheat the remaining bulgur stuffing in an oven dish in the oven, covered with foil, for about 20 minutes.
Bamia Marousa (Okra in a Mould), serves 6
This can be served cold as a first course or mezze with pitta bread or hot as a side dish.
1kg (21b 2 oz) okra
5OOg (l lb 2 oz) tomatoes, peeled and sliced
Salt and pepper
2 - 3 garlic cloves, crushed
Juice of 1 lemon
85 ml (3 fl oz) sunflower or vegetable oil
1 tbsp sugar (optional)
Preheat the oven to 160C/325F/Gas Mark 3. Wash the okra and trim off the stem ends. Arrange layers of okra and tomatoes in a round, shallow baking dish or tray - starting with the okra and packing it tightly with the pointed ends converging like rays towards the centre, and sprinkling lightly with salt and pepper and garlic in between.
Beat the lemon, oil and sugar with about 150ml (5 fl oz) water and pour over the top, adding a little more water, if necessary, to cover the vegetables.
Bake for 45 minutes or until the okra are tender. Carefully turn out onto a large flat plate, letting any excess juices run out and being careful not to upset the okra pattern. Serve hot or cold
Om Ali (Baked Milk and Pastry Pudding), serves 6
This is one of the foods from Upper Egypt that is now commonplace in Cairo. Om Ali means mother of Ali. When I asked about it, a joker said it was bread pudding introduced in Egypt by a Miss O'Malley, an Irish mistress of Khedive Ismail. People make it in all kinds of ways: with bread, puff pastry or filo. The rich gamoussa (buffalo) milk is approximated by adding double cream to our milk.
5 sheets of filo weighing about l00g (312 oz)
150g (5oz) mixed nuts, such as pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts, coarsely chopped
60 g (2oz) raisins or sultanas
1 litre (134 pints) milk
100-150g (4-6 oz) sugar or to taste 300ml (10 fl oz) double cream
1-2 tsp cinnamon (optional)
Pre-heat the oven to 240C/475F/Gas Mark9. Bake the sheets of filo on separate shelves or loosely, one on top of the other, for 2-3 minutes or until crisp and dry. Break into pieces by crushing it in your hands and place in a greased baking dish or individual ovenproof bowls (I use clay bowls), sprinkling the nuts and raisins in between layers.
Lower the heat of the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4). Heat the milk with the sugar and add the cream, then pour over the filo and nut mixture. Sprinkle, if you like, with cinnamon and bake for 20 - 30 minutes or until browned. Serve hot.
Variations: add 1tsp ground cardomom or 5tbsp of grated dried coconut to the milk