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Egypt's traditional recipes get a makeover

Ambitious restaurant owners give traditional dishes a makeover and often give them English names, while traditionalists simmer in anger over the degeneration of gastronomic heritage of Egypt's traditional dishes.

Koshari, one of Egypt’s national dishes, is often claimed to be a vegetarian's dream. Made of rice, macaroni, lentils, chickpeas, crispy fried onions and topped with tomato sauce, it has provided an affordable option for a filling meal for centuries.

Then it got a makeover.

During its opening six years ago, Shadi Srour’s small shop offered its customers the traditional Koshari dish. A year later, Srour wanted to beat the competition by innovating the recipe, so he added another Egyptian traditional street food: shawarma. Shawarma, known also as doner kebab, is made with meat placed on a rotating spit and its shavings are served often in pita bread.

"We added shawarma to koshari to increase its appeal to young customers who like to try new dishes," Srour, the owner of Kosharina Restaurant, told Al-Monitor. “We took the recipe to another level.”

For Srour, modernizing traditional recipes is necessary to stay in business, as customers are always on the lookout for new foods. “If you insist on serving the same recipes year after year, without bringing any change or innovation, you will lose business even if you serve good quality food," he said. Time proved him right — he is now the proud owner of four branches of Kosharina.

The traditional bowl of koshari is still on the menu for 6 Egyptian pounds (roughly $0.35), while the dish with chicken shawarma costs 18 pounds ($1). A bowl of koshari topped with meat shawarma is sold for 20 pounds ($1.10). Srour noted that despite the price, many customers go for the shawarma koshari.

Srour is not alone in wanting to modernize the recipes of traditional Egyptian foods to attract trendy young customers or push his dishes upmarket.

Some restaurant owners add sausages to traditional dishes made of foul (fava beans) and make stuffed falafel with pastrami. New recipes of traditional hawawshi, Egyptian bread stuffed with minced meat with spices, is enriched by adding chicken, vegetables or imported foodstuff that is a novelty for Egyptian customers, such as mozzarella.

The modernized recipes are given new names, often in English. Tameya, aka falafel, a popular vegan food, becomes “green burger” or “veggie burger," and zalabia, a fried dessert, is rebranded as "Middle Eastern or Greek doughnuts.” The traditional koshari may be advertised as "Egyptian pasta.” The inexpensive fruit harankash (physalis) now goes by the more glamorous name of "golden berry," both in restaurants and supermarkets.

Some oppose the renaming trend as ridiculous and downright misleading. "Koshari is koshari, it never can be called ‘pasta.’ It is made of different ingredients, not only pasta. If we changed the recipe, it wouldn't be the popular dish as we know it but something different," Tarek Yousef Zaki, the manager of Abou Tarek Restaurant and son of the owner, told Al-Monitor.

Abou Tarek is one of the well-known traditional koshari restaurants in downtown Cairo, which prides itself on keeping up the tradition; Zaki is firmly against making changes to the original recipe or changing the traditional Egyptian names.

“We should keep our gastronomic heritage by maintaining the original recipes and names because that is what makes us different from any other country,” Zaki said.

Depending on their size, koshari bowls served at Abou Tarek cost between 10 Egyptian pounds (roughly $0.55) and 30 pounds (roughly $1.70). The restaurant, which was established in 1950, has a three-story branch downtown and a branch in Saudi Arabia.

"Koshari is an inexpensive dish and many people buy it for this reason. Christians eat it during their fast because it doesn't contain meat. If I would add meat, the price would increase and a large number of people would not be able to afford it and vegetarians would not order it," Zaki noted.

Egyptian desserts have had their share of a gastronomic makeover, too. Konafa, Ramadan’s favorite dessert of shredded pastry stuffed with cream and nuts, is now filled with Nutella or red velvet cake. The cake forms the center of the konafa instead of the traditional cream and nuts.

Nutella is now also added to zalabia, puffy fritters soaked in syrup. But the latest — and possibly the most controversial — trend emerged in June during Eid el-Fitr, when one of the Egyptian dessert shops announced that it offers kahk — Eid cookies made with cinnamon and sesame seeds, with red velvet cake.

Renowned chef and nutritionist Sally Fouad told Al-Monitor that she is all for innovation based on traditional recipes, as long as the new variations do not replace the original recipes.

"In my recent kahk recipe, I added more corn starch than flour, and people liked it and said it tastes better than the original," said Fouad, who hosts the popular TV food show "Helw & Hadek" on CBC Sofra, the first Egyptian cooking channel. "But as we develop the recipes, we should refer to the original and make sure that the traditional recipe can [still] be found in restaurants,” she added.

However, when asked if she would agree to make kahk with red velvet cake, Fouad hesitated before saying, "Not to that extent, but who knows? Maybe.”

One of the new inventions in sweets is led by a new dessert shop called Cream 'n Rice, which is making roz bel laban, a rice dessert with milk, with new flavors such as chocolate and cheesecake.

Cream 'n Rice started as a small kiosk in 2016 and now has two branches in two big malls in Giza, close to Cairo. It refers to itself as a rice pudding shop, while to the traditional Egyptian, it is simply selling roz bel laban.

"Rice puddings are served in different countries in different ways. I saw it in a restaurant in New York and I wanted to bring the idea to Egypt," Mohamed Samy, the owner of the shop, told Al-Monitor.

Many gastronomy experts believe that rice pudding traveled to the West from the East, and its origins may be either Arabic or Indian. Others say that rice pudding, known as sutlac or sutlu as ("food with milk") is of Turkish origin and came to Egypt during the Ottoman Empire with the people of the Balkans.

"Although some people like the taste, others asked me why I changed the recipe of roz bel laban. But I'm offering a new product, not the same old one," said Samy, who serves rice pudding with 11 flavors including blueberry, cheesecake and chocolate.

Changes to traditional food recipes attract many customers, but some experts consider this a passing trend and maintain that the traditional Egyptian food culture will prevail.

TV presenter and host of "El-Akeel" broadcast on CBC Sofra, Murad Makram, said that the identity of Egypt's gastronomic culture cannot be erased easily because it is hundreds of years old.

"English names and new recipes cannot threaten Egypt's gastronomic culture. Over the past hundreds of years, Egypt witnessed occupations and was under the control of foreign countries, and it did not lose its gastronomic culture. On the contrary, we taught the invaders our culture and they loved our recipes," he said.

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