“Financial pressures can create challenges in preparing food and carrying out various recipes, but we can follow the tricks of our grandmothers who were able to create recipes that have lived on in our memories for decades and do so with minimal resources,” TV chef Hala Fahmi said in an interview designed to help people get ready for the extra cooking needed during the holy month of Ramadan.
“At the beginning of my television career, I received an offer to host a cooking programme on one of the new channels. The production had limited resources, and I had to bring the ingredients and utensils needed to prepare and present the dishes from home. My daughter and I used to carry everything we needed in a large bag, including large dishes and serving trays. I didn’t even receive a salary for my work on the programme,” Fahmi recalled.
“Difficulties, financial or otherwise, may confront us regularly, but we must conquer them through perseverance. I tried to master a lot of recipes until I developed my own cooking style, which soon turned into a profession,” she added. “I started by preparing food for family occasions, and then my children insisted that I share the recipes I prepared on Facebook.”
She remembers how excited she was the first time she posted one of her recipes on the Web. “I kept checking my phone every minute. At first, 10 followers commented on the dish, and this number grew as I continued to upload recipes on a regular basis.”
Fahmi has been keen on reviving authentic Egyptian cuisine since the beginning of her career and in her various TV shows. “From the start of my programmes, I have been a supporter of Egyptian cuisine to the extent that the names of my programmes reflect our popular heritage, such as Al-Baladi Yewkal and Sufra wa Tablya. I have been working on a programme called Hala’s Kitchen for the past six years.”
“The problem today is that we have a new generation that is losing their own food identity. Nowadays, young people are always looking for Italian or US restaurants when going out to eat. That’s why I wanted to revive our Egyptian cuisine, which does not rely on hydrogenated oils or similar artificial ingredients. I encourage the replacement of these harmful industrial ingredients with natural ghee, which science has proven to be healthier than hydrogenated oils because it is made from natural milk.”
“Reviving our own recipes can also save money by following the way our mothers prepared and cooked food. Or even making alternative plant protein recipes such as the classic tagen al-arous, a rice dish served with eggs, a cup of hummus, or a dish of beans or lentils. Our mothers used to make these recipes naturally to provide nutritious and delicious meals.”
While Fahmi wanted to learn from her mother and grandmother, she also wanted to study the scientific foundations of cooking, so she took some courses in Egypt and Dubai. “Through these courses, I improved my talent for cooking and learned when a dish needs a fatty substance and what ingredients I can use without altering the taste of the food,” she said.
Today, the Internet is full of people with false recipes and advising substitutes to make fake savings, she said. But understanding the principles of food preparation is necessary to know how to replace recipe ingredients accurately. For example, some may substitute eggs with baking soda in cake-making, but the correct way is to substitute every two eggs with half a teaspoon of baking soda and use baking powder to achieve the required texture, she said.
“Innovation can also help us to replace a more expensive main ingredient in recipes. For example, the soup that a housewife always needs for cooking food such as molokhiya can be replaced with a mixture of two cups of water, an onion, a tomato, a clove and salt and pepper, where the ingredients are left to boil on the stove, strained, and then added to the molokhiya as a substitute for soup,” she added.
“We can use the same mixture with two cups of boiled milk and a tablespoon of ghee as a substitute for the soup to use in Egyptian beef pie.”
Expensive food products can also be made at home, providing healthier and more cost-effective alternatives. Examples include luncheon meat, yoghurt, and sour cream, which are used in various dishes. “To make sour cream at home, mix a cup of cold milk with a tablespoon of butter using an electric mixer. Then keep the mixture in the refrigerator for two days before using it,” she advised.
Cost-effective recipes to try at home
Muammar rice casserole
One kg of Egyptian rice, one litre of hot boiled milk, two tablespoons of butter, three tablespoons of thick cream, a pinch of sugar, salt and black pepper.
Grease the bram (clay baking pot) with some butter ghee. Put in the washed rice and season. Pour in the hot milk and stir and then add the rest of the butter. Stir well and then add the thick cream. Cover the bram with foil and bake in a pre-heated oven for 45 minutes. Remove the foil and re-bake under the grill for 10 minutes until golden brown then serve.
Egyptian moussaka with vinegar and garlic
One kg of cubed aubergine, half a kg of cubed potatoes, three cubed bell peppers, four cubed tomatoes, two chilli peppers (optional), salt, cumin, a teaspoon of sugar, chilli powder (optional), one tablespoon of tomato paste, oil, a tablespoon of minced garlic, one tablespoon of vinegar, and two cups of water.
Fry the aubergine and potatoes and set aside. Sauté the minced garlic and then add the bell peppers and chilli pepper. Add the cubed tomatoes. Stir well. Add the tomato paste and season with salt, cumin, and chilli powder (optional). Add the vinegar and water and let the mixture simmer. Add the fried potatoes, cover, and after five minutes add the fried eggplant. Let the mixture simmer for another five minutes. Pour the mixture into a bram. Put into a pre-heated oven for ten minutes and then serve.
One roll of dough, liquid ghee.
To make the syrup, use two cups of water, two cups of sugar, one tablespoon of lemon juice, and a few drops of rosewater. Heat the syrup ingredients on the stove until boiling and then let them cool. Add the rosewater.
For the filling, use crushed peanuts, two tablespoons of powdered sugar, and two tablespoons of syrup.
Brush two sheets of dough with liquid ghee and place a skewer on the edge of the dough for easy folding. Then add the filling and roll it up, folding from the sides. Remove the skewer and place the rolled dough in a greased baking dish. Brush it with liquid ghee and cut it into finger-sized pieces with a knife. Bake in the oven at 180 degrees Celsius until golden brown. Remove from the oven and pour cold syrup over it.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly