Cooking to Keep Memories of Egypt Alive
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Commentator Yasmine Noujaim enjoys keeping her Egyptian heritage alive. She just doesn't like to do it in the kitchen. But she's afraid that her mother's old recipes may one day disappear, so she took out a frying pan and decided to try to give one of them a shot.
My mother came to the United States from Cairo, Egypt, more than 20 years ago. She carried with her, in the lining of her luggage, the recipes of her childhood. I should have acquired my mother's most cherished cooking secrets by observing her. But while I enjoyed eating her dishes, I was never really interested in preparing them. Now she claims that all her recipes will die with her one day if I don't start to learn.
Had we been living in Egypt, this would have been a great embarrassment to my family. My grandmother reminds me every time she visits us that cooking should be second nature for an Egyptian woman, like belly dancing or knowing the words to the songs of the famous Egyptian singer Om Kalthoum.
The other day I decided I wanted to learn how to cook. I asked my mother if she knew of any simple recipes she could share with me. She chose a vegetarian dish needing little more than one eggplant, some olive oil and, of course, garlic, the most common ingredient in Middle Eastern dishes. Kitchens in Egyptian apartments reek of garlic all the time, the stench ingrained in the floors, the cabinets and the ceiling from years of cooking with it.
The recipe, bittengan matli(ph), calls for frying the eggplant slices in some olive oil. Many of the recipes my mother cooked in our kitchen at home required frying. As I dropped my eggplant slices into my pan, the oil sizzled, cracking and popping with the presence of the vegetable. The eggplant soaked up the oil quickly, its middle turning from a pale white to a darker green as the fluid absorbed. While flipping the pieces over, the flesh was softening, the skin turning a golden brown. My eggplant was coming along nicely. It had turned a crisp brown on top, and when I poked a fork inside, it cut right through like it was supposed to.
I sprinkled a bit of garlic on top and took a bite. As I put the piece in my mouth, none of the flavorful taste of my mother's cooking rushed to my senses. The taste of my eggplant was weighed down by too much salt and grease, the oil dripping in big drops from my fork.
My mother's reaction to my kitchen mishap, however, was surprising. She told me that, in fact, she didn't really learn how to cook until she was married, making many mistakes of her own and usually using my father as the guinea pig. She said at some point in my life I will crave one of her dishes so badly that I will find a way to make it, do it well and pass it on for future generations.
SIEGEL: Commentator Yasmine Noujaim lives in Washington, DC. This summer she was our intern at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
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