For a country with such a well-documented history and frequent attention from people living outside its borders, books on Egyptian cuisine are comparatively rare, so I am always interested when I see one in a shop. As luck would have it, on my last visit to the book shop there were two: One was shrink wrapped, which prevented me from browsing through it. The other was this one: Nile Style by Amy Riolo.
The book is a 240 page paperback with a glossy front cover depicting an enticing looking plate of koshari and a photo of what looks like part of the Cairo skyline on a hot and hazy morning. Do forgive me if this isn’t what the photo is of. I’ve never been to Egypt. The book felt sturdy and was printed on good quality paper, mostly in black and sepia text, with 16 pages of colour photographs of some of the dishes described in the book, and a second set further on, of 8 pages of colour photographs of sites in Egypt, both rural and urban. The photographs of the food were all quite close-up, with fairly plain backgrounds, allowing the viewer to concentrate solely on the food. The location shots all had a ‘holiday snap’ feeling to them, giving the viewer a window into someone else’s experience of their travels. There are also numerous black and white photos throughout the book which, although much smaller, convey the same message as the larger colour ones.
The quality of the printing and the layout of the book did cause me to wonder if I would want to take it into the kitchen with me, where it would have to be held open on a book easel and risked getting splattered with cooking sauce and lemon juice, but the lure of the recipes was simply too great to resist, so I have incorporated a summary of my experiences cooking from the book later on in this review.
So, on to the content. The book begins with an introduction describing the author’s interaction with, and experience of, the cuisine, followed by a potted history of how it has developed over the last 7000 years. This is set out as a timeline, followed by brief comments on the significant events in each era, and showing when, and from where, key ingredients were introduced. The summary is, by necessity, brief. This isn’t purporting to be a history book, but the author clearly feels that it’s still important to understand how the cuisine has developed in order to be able to appreciate it fully.
The way that the recipes are organised is definitely worth commenting on. Under three parts, entitled; ‘Ancient Celebrations’, ‘Significant Ceremonies’ and ‘Modern Celebrations’, are contained a number of menus, each with recipes intended to complement each other. I liked the evocative titles given to some of them, for example; ‘Bedouin Tent Party’, ‘Eid Al Fattir Celebration’ and ‘Nile-Style Street Food’. This may cause frustration in some readers, who might prefer recipes divided into more familiar and I guess more easily accessible ‘starters’ ‘main courses’ ‘salads’ etc sections, but I quite liked it. It was something a bit different. Not unique, but a bit of a challenge, which I don’t mind on occasion. One word of caution though, the menus are quite large, so if you’re planning to prepare one for a dinner party, it’s wise to read through it first to see what needs prepping and in what order.
Of course, there’s nothing preventing a mixing and matching of recipes from different sections, and there is a recipe index at the back of the book for anyone wishing to select their recipes in this way.
I found the chapter on religious communities interesting, and several Jewish, Christian and Islamic festivals are described, followed by an example menu for each. I also love to collect bread recipes, so was delighted to find twelve different ones, reflecting the importance of bread in the Egyptian diet.
Some may criticise a few of the recipes for being over-simplistic and not ‘’proper’ recipes, for example there is one for yoghurt with honey stirred through it, but I really didn’t mind this. The recipes are what they are. All are contextualised and placed carefully into each menu, accompanied by a commentary in the same way that the more ‘complex’ recipes are.
But are these recipes any good? I selected three to try, all from the earlier sections of the book. The first two are from the ‘Ancient Egyptian Nile Festival’ menu, with the last being from the ’Smell of the Fresh Breeze’ menu.
It’s important at this point to say that the serving quantities quoted in the book are based on them being incorporated as part of the whole menus, so what’s listed as ‘8 servings’ in the book will be fine for serving 4 people if you’re only preparing 4 dishes.
Chicken Pitta Bread Sandwiches (Shwarma bil Firakh)
I’ve tried some very fine chicken schawarma recipes before now, so this one was up against some tough competition, but it provided a new combination of fabulous flavours and I’m pleased to say that it was up there with the best. The marinade provided just the right amount of kick to the chicken, while the condiments added heat and creaminess. I like books with plenty of sauce recipes and there are five in this one. I served the completed dish on a home-made flatbread and it was delicious. In fact, I was so focussed on starting the meal that I forgot to add the specified garnishes of pickled chillies and preserved lemon skins. Luckily I made enough to have for lunch tomorrow.
Salad with Grapes and Fried Feta Balls (Salata bil Aghnib wa Gebna Makleyah)
This was a simple but effective salad with the most complex element being the preparation of the feta cheese balls. The recipe called for them to be deep fried, but as I was counting the calories, I decided instead to try baking them in the oven. This yielded a completely unexpected but very pleasing biscuit like appearance which is shown in the photograph. I also used little gem lettuce rather than romaine, for the simple reason that they are easier to divide up; one lettuce serving 2 people. The salad combined sweet and salty flavours from the grapes and cheese, with crunchy textures from the lettuce and citrussy tang from the dressing.
Cherry Topped Semolina Cookies (Biskoweet bil Smeed wa Kareez)
Sometimes semolina cookies can be a bit bland tasting, but the addition of cinnamon and especially the apricot jam glaze on these really brought them to life. In fact, they were so gorgeous that Jay and I ate the whole batch and need to bake another in order to enjoy them with lunch tomorrow. The recipe states that there is enough dough for 20 cookies but we only managed to get 11 out of it. We also had to use glace cherries as we couldn’t find any maraschino cherries, but I don’t think that detracted from the recipe too much.
In conclusion then, this is a great book, packed with fabulous recipes, which I will certainly be using again.
Reviewed by Dee, 15th and 16th November 2014