One of my favorite pastimes is encountering a new ethnic cuisine. I love meeting the chefs, who show me the delicacies they learned to prepare when they were growing up, and I love tasting the new flavors and then watching how the dishes are put together. And as I learn the new techniques, I often hear stories from their childhoods and the cultures of their or their parents’ home country.
It’s kind of like speaking of terroir when referring to French wine, which is the set of all environmental factors that affect the wine’s character. I feel this way when I meet people who cook ethnic food.
This week, I met Ziona Ozatzkir-Masri, who agreed to prepare a traditional Egyptian meal consisting of dishes she learned to prepare from her mother, Fortuna. Fortuna grew up in Alexandria in a family with roots in Spain, and the family spoke Ladino among themselves. They had lived for a few generations in Jerusalem before moving to Egypt, which was a liberal and economically strong country at the time. She recalls hearing stories about neighbors from Europe and other Arab countries who spoke English, French and Italian.
Masri’s great-grandfather on her father’s side reached Egypt from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He was an active Hagana operative and helped many young North African Jews reach Palestine in pre-state days. At one point he was caught and spent a year and a half in prison. After serving his time, his family was thrown out of Egypt, and Ziona’s family made its way to the Be’er Ya’acov ma’abara (transit camp) in Pardess Hanna, where they began acclimating to life in Israel with all the other new immigrants.
Egyptian cuisine is based on fresh seasonal vegetables, such as artichoke, leeks, okra, green beans, cauliflower, radish, garlic, onion, sweet potato and herbs, such as parsley and cilantro. It also uses lots of legumes and fruits, such as pomegranates, figs, grapes, dates and mango.
In Alexandria, everyone used the neighborhood oven to bake their own bread, and this was also where everyone would leave their hamin (cholent) pot for Shabbat lunch. Desserts incorporated a lot of silan and honey.
Fortuna would use leftover bread in desserts or as bread crumbs and add leftover vegetables to omelettes. Nothing went to waste. On Rosh Hashanah they would make fried pumpkin with honey and cinnamon, and on Passover they’d make haroset from dried dates, nuts, raisins and cinnamon. When a baby’s first tooth began showing, they would prepare a big celebration featuring a dish made from wheat, milk, raisins, almonds, honey and cinnamon.