Wed, 18 Oct 2000

Wonders of Egyptian cuisine at Shangri-La

By Mehru Jaffer

JAKARTA (JP): It is as if the pyramid itself has traveled to the Shangri-La's Coffee Garden Restaurant in Jakarta, bringing with it all the goodies buried in its bosom.

There is the ware'enab (grape leaves stuffed with rice), papa ganog (eggplant dip), borghol (bulgur salad), dawoud kofta (meatballs in tomato sauce), stews, kebabs and a variety of pastas, rices and desserts on which the pharaohs are known to have dined.

But the most valuable treasure of all is Khalid Zienelbden, the 30-year-old Egyptian cook with fingers dripping in magic.

Khalid's guests are welcomed by camels standing on guard at the entrance. Once inside it seems that all the heat and dust of the desert has been left behind, as paintings and handicrafts dating back thousands of years greet visitors, who are seated below pillars painted with pictures of Egyptian women more beautiful than Cleopatra.

Atia MH Diab, an Egyptian businessman based in Jakarta for the last eight years, sighed contentedly over the fact that he had not eaten a meal like this in a long time. On the other hand, Khalid, who came to Jakarta just a year ago, is busy preparing the little-known Egyptian cuisine for people here, but is himself enjoying nasi goreng, satay and gado-gado.

He loves Indonesian food, but he still believes no cuisine can compare to all the food found in Egypt.

"It is simply the best in the world," he says. It is said that the pharaohs fed the same food to their countless slaves, infusing them with the raw energy that went into building the remarkable pyramids.

Thousands of years ago, the Egyptians started out by eating aysh, or bread, along with red beans prepared in countless ways -- by boiling and mashing it with vegetables, filled into an aysh sandwich or minced with spices and formed into patties called tamiyya in Cairo and falaafil in Alexandria, and deep fried. Most of the time aysh is made from barley and emmer wheat, the most common crops in Egypt.

A long time ago when the rest of the world was still covered in jungle and most other people hunted for their food, the Egyptians cultivated crops in vast fields and had farms overflowing with fish and fowl. They had domesticated geese and pigeons and a wide variety of wild birds like herons, pelicans, cranes and ducks. The river Nile supplies people to this day with a harvest of fish, including catfish, mullet, bolti and perch.

The gardens were irrigated and full of fruits and vegetables like figs, grapes, plums, dates, watermelon, beets, sweet onions, radish, turnips, garlic, lettuce, chickpeas, beans and lentils. Beef, mutton and wild game such as hyenas were also part of the diet, eaten along with bread, usually baked in a conical mold placed over an open fire.

In fact different kinds of bread made in different ways accompanied the main course at meals. In modern times the cuisine has become completely cosmopolitan, even as it remains fiercely traditional.

It reflects the country's melting-pot history. Native cooks like Khalid use local ingredients and have modified Greek, Turkish, Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian traditions to suit Egyptian budgets, customs and tastes.

The dishes are actually quite simple but wholesome and hearty, made with naturally ripened fruits and vegetables and seasoned with spices that are usually fresh. Egyptian-style kebabs have chunks of lamb seasoned in onion, marjoram and freshly squeezed lemon juice, and roasted on a spit over an open fire.

A lunch-time favorite is the shwarma sandwich, a pita-type of bread stuffed with slivered pieces of roasted lamb and seasoned with fresh green vegetables and a yogurt sauce.

Rich and heavy as they might be the desserts are not to be missed, whether it is the konafa, the filo-dough pastry stuffed with nuts, or a piece of the fatir. Umm ali is a delight named after a Mamluk queen and mahallabiyya, the rice pudding, also is topped with nuts like pistachios.

A sip of ahwa, the famous coffee which is not just a drink in the Middle East but a tradition in itself, is a must, too. Alternatively there is the shay, or the bedouin version of tea, or a glass of mint tea that is so good for helping one to digest all the good food.

One wonders if karkaday, the native drink that resembles the color of blood and is popular in the south, is also being served? Made from dried hibiscus flowers, sweetened to taste and served either hot or cold, the karkaday is said to calm the nerves.

Also very different from anything found in this part of the world are the mezze, or small dishes called turshi (vegetables soaked in spicy brine), sesame seed paste by itself or added to mashed eggplants or a chickpea paste. Eaten with small morsels of aysh this is a meal in itself along with a portion of bulgur salad.

The best cooking, of course, is still found in the smaller towns of Egypt, but until one makes it to the faraway land the best bet is to give Khalid's kitchen an immediate try. It is open at the Shangri-La's Coffee Garden Restaurant until Oct. 22, after which all the colors and flavors of Egypt, including the camels, the koftas and Khalid himself, may just disappear as if they had never visited Jakarta in the first place.