Do you remember Egypt, or has it become muddled in your mind- stuffed towards the back of your brain with all those other Arab countries in rebellion? Life is busy, and time goes so fast, at least it does for us here in the United States. I would bet Egyptians feel differently, that to them time passes slowly, and change takes place over generations, not days or weeks. It’s been a year since Egyptians flooded Cairo’s Tahrir Square protesting the autocratic rule of president Hosni Mubarak (January 25, 2011). On February 11, 2011, Mubarak resigned, and the Egyptian military took control of the country. Did you know even after parliamentary elections Egypt is still under martial law? Watching Fredricka Whitfield interview blogger and Egyptian activist Gigi Ibrahim on CNN, I heard Gigi say, “After a year nothing has changed, we’ve been facing the same regime, if not worse.” A year later, Egyptians are still protesting, and the violence has escalated again. Just three weeks ago more than 70 people were killed in an outbreak of violence at a soccer match in Port Said. When asked, “Was the expectation that military rule would be gone by now?”, Gigi responded, “A year ago I knew it would not be over in 18 days, no revolution is started in 18 days or even 18 months or 6 years.” Here in the United States, we like situations to be tidy, we want to put Egypt in a box, because it’s difficult to understand the complicated issues of old nations. Egypt has risen and fallen many times over thousands of years. Military leaders have conquered and then been dominated by other nations. It’s messy.
In the article, A Lesson in Egyptian Classics from the February issue of Food & Wine Magazine, Salma Abdelnour writes, “I hope one result of all the eyes on Egypt will be a renewed interest in its culture, including its food traditions.” What is Egyptian food? According to Eric Monkaba, founder of Cairo cooking school Qasr Twenty, it’s the cooking of housewives, not haute restaurant cuisine or even street food. It’s cooking by hand, grinding spices with a mortar and pestle, chopping with a makharata (what we know as a double mezzaluna), and carefully stirring a pot of soup as it simmers. In this dessert land, the staples include rice, yogurt, spices, garlic, flatbreads, stewed meats and poultry, and pulses, such as lentils, fava beans, and chickpeas. One of the classic recipes Salma Abdelnour learns at Qasr Twenty is Egyptian Red Lentil Soup, known as shorbet ads, in Arabic. The velvety puréed soup is a brilliant orange color. It’s a simple recipe, nothing fancy, which may lead you to think it’s not special. You would be wrong, and that is the beauty of Egyptian cooking. It’s that gifted touch of taking humble ingredients and turning them into a delicious meal. The act of softening diced onion, carrots, celery, and garlic in butter, then sprinkling in cumin, coriander, and ancho chile powder, letting the aroma overwhelm the kitchen, is the beginning of something good. Tomatoes (I used 28 oz canned plum rather than fresh) and red lentils go into the pot to simmer for half an hour until meltingly tender. The soup yields easily to a hand-held immersion blender, collapsing into a luscious purée. Garnishing each bowl with a squeeze of lemon is mandatory, as the acidity wakes up flavors of fruity chile and earthy spice buried under brash tomato. A spoonful of yogurt and a few bright green cilantro leaves are refreshing atop the hearty lentil soup. This recipe makes a large batch of soup, enough to serve eight people. My husband and I ate the soup for lunch four days in a row, licking our bowls clean at each meal.
Watching events unfold in Egypt and the surrounding Arab nations, I think of the soup. I think of the mothers, the children, the brothers and the sisters, wondering what the new Egypt will be like. I may not be able to fully comprehend the problems Egyptians face, but I get Egyptian Red Lentil Soup. Because of this, the issues go from black and white into full color, and the people are humans, not just apparitions on the television screen.
Egyptian Red Lentil Soup
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ancho chile powder
1 pound tomatoes, seeded and diced
2 cups red lentils (14 ounces)
Plain yogurt, lemon wedges and warm pita, for serving
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
3 celery ribs, finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
Each week I contribute a column to the Whole Foods Market Cooking Boulder website. For my original article plus more on this recipe, click on the icon below.