Dyna Eldaief’s The Taste of Egypt is more than just a collection of recipes and pretty pictures. There’s so much of the Egyptian-Australian food blogger’s experience in there that it’s almost a culinary journal, featuring tips and precious tidbits about Egyptian homecooking and food traditions. We chat with Eldaeif about why she decided to explore this format rather than a traditional cookbook, her time on the Australian edition of The Taste cooking competition, and her favorite dishes back home.
by Noha Mohammed
images courtesy AUC Press
How did you come up with the idea for your new book and what made you decide to use a combination of illustrations, still life pictures from everyday Egypt and realistic food shots?
I wanted to capture the food my parents grew up eating and what my mother cooked for us as I was growing up. As I cooked and recooked these dishes they brought back memories for me and I felt a connection to my family in Egypt. I wanted my children to have those recipes from their heritage but also to know where and how they came about. I want them to be able to feel that connection through those memories and give them a link to the past.
Once I had most of the recipes, I began to recreate them in order to photograph them. Having no experience in food photography or food styling, I spent hours working out how to get a good food photo. I spent eight months taking photos (as I had two small children at home and life was already full) but it was the publisher that wanted to focus on the stories and commissioned an illustrator. We both liked the idea of having photos from everyday Egypt to bring the feel of the culture more to the fore.
There’s a global movement toward healthier food and a growing trend to bring in more nutritious alternatives. Could that make Egyptian cooking less authentic or too globalized?
I think the trend toward healthier food is not a bad thing. My father developed high cholesterol levels and my mother began using oil in her cooking instead of so much butter. I also found that I needed to alter my cooking as my daughter who was born almost eight weeks early was intolerant to dairy foods. As she grew, I began to change dishes so that she could eat them. It was exactly this reason that I made a basbousa that is dairy free. I was happy my daughter could eat basbousa (and I think it is still Egyptian although not strictly traditional) but I was absolutely thrilled when my stepmother said it was the best basbousa she had ever tasted. So while it may not have been the basbousa that my grandparents would have made, I believe that as food and crops and knowledge about ingredients improves, there will be changes and that may not be a bad thing at all, just evolving food as the generations evolve and change and their needs change too.
I do feel that new trends will be incorporated into Egyptian cuisine. I myself have experimented with falafel made with quinoa. I quite liked the taste and while it is not typically Egyptian it can still be a type of falafel. Just as the Egyptians make their falafel with broad beans and the Lebanese use chickpeas to make theirs, quinoa may well be the next generation of falafel — and not defined by country border but the generation of the time. This generation is exposed to so much choice and often have the freedom to exercise that choice – or are forced to do so for their own health and wellbeing – so it is natural that Egyptian cuisine will evolve to accommodate these options and tastes.
How important is it to preserve traditional Egyptian cuisine? Or do you feel that culinary traditions mutate and develop?
I want to preserve the knowledge of traditional cuisine, traditional ingredients and methods of cooking. However, I am not afraid to experiment with food or to mix things up a bit. I do sometimes though feel a need to get back to basics. While I almost always buy bread for the convenience of a busy household, when I have the time and when life gets too busy I find myself being called back to basics. I feel a need to combine my own ingredients to make bread, have it bake in the oven and to be patient while it proves and cooks. I like to make freshly squeezed juice even though it is time consuming and messy and I love to grow the vegetables in the backyard, tend to them, nurture them and then I feel so much more love for the meal that results, because I know how much effort it took to make it. I always think about the effort our forefathers exerted just to survive. I want my children to know that while we have ways and means to make life easier, sometime just going back to the origins of food make it so much more valuable. A way to feed the soul when we are overworked or overstressed. So while culinary traditions will always mutate and develop, I would also like to think that the original, traditional ways will also survive.
Tell us about your experience on The Taste cooking competition filmed here in Egypt. What did you enjoy most about being a part of it?
I have an Egyptian cooking blog and YouTube Channel called Dyna’s Egyptian Cooking. I was discovered through my online presence in Egyptian cooking. I really appreciated the opportunity to travel to Egypt and to expand my Arabic, but what I really enjoyed was the new friends I made over a shared experience.
What is your own favorite food here? And your favorite restaurant?
I must admit I do like street food for its simplicity and authentic nature. I do love falafel and hawawshi. And my most enjoyable meal was at Zooba. So much so that I seriously thought about approaching the company to start a franchise in Australia. Still not out of the question, if Zooba would be interested I would love to talk with them. Hint hint!
How do Australians feel about Egyptian food?
I feel like Egyptian cuisine is not appreciated in Australia as much as it could be. Egyptian food does not have the same exposure in Australia as say Asian food or Italian food. When I was here for the show I really enjoyed exploring the different cuisines in Egypt and particularly comparing the foods from a Lebanese restaurant to those from an Egyptian one. In the shopping centers, I found that the food courts are largely the same with various cuisines and fast food restaurants on offer but there is not the variety of take away Middle Eastern food in Australia that I found in Egypt.
I think a restaurant like Zooba with its modern feel and fresh, tasty food would convert many more Australians. There are a few Egyptian restaurants but not many really. I think Australians are intrigued by Egyptian culture and cuisine and particularly as there has been such a change in the diet of Australians who now are quite comfortable trying new foods and stepping outside the “meat and three veg” standard meal from a generation ago. Generally, however, there is little understanding of Egyptian food by many Australians.
Do you see an evolution in Egypt’s food scene?
I did find it exciting to find street food becoming more “trendy” and moving into the sit-down restaurants because I think it makes it more available to tourists who travel but are unsure of ordering from a street vendor. I also loved to see so many families sitting and eating together eating Egyptian street food instead of fast food. I hope that continues into the next generation.
How is your book helping to raise awareness of Egyptian food abroad?
Coming to Egypt for the cooking show sparked a passion for spreading my love of Egyptian cuisine and for bringing together people around a table regardless of race or religion. I would love to see more of a food revolution where we celebrate our differences. My hope is that The Taste of Egypt sparks interest in the West about the cuisine of the Middle East as well as the Middle East finding interest in the cuisine of the West. My hope is to develop a range of products that make cooking easier for Westerners to explore the tastes of the Middle East in their cooking. While I have run cooking classes in Egyptian cuisine in Australia, I hope the flavors of the Middle East will infuse into the Western culture more. My hope is that I will be able to showcase Egypt and its cuisine in food tours in Egypt for Westerners and that tourism in the Middle East will once again flourish. But for me it is one step on that journey at a time.