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A Taste of the Egyptian countryside

Published: Tuesday, May 31, 2016    

On the first Friday of each month, New Season Restaurant at City Seasons Hotel brings
Egyptian culture to life by featuring not only that country’s cuisine but also its folkloric, fastbeat
music. Yara Boraie headed down there for a taste of home…


Down by the Nile River, the Egyptian countryside’s farmland area of the North is where the country’s renowned, mouth-watering sugar cane is grown in a serene setting of miles of lush, green fields with date palm groves lining every hectare. This tranquil scene is surrounded by desert, hills and mountains stretching out into a fading infinite horizon.

The traditions of the villages there were passed down from generation to generation – from ploughing, sowing and reaping their own goods, to living as communities in near culde- sacs of mud-brick houses perched near the canal flowing in from the rich Nile Delta. .

And it is this ambiance of togetherness and camaraderie that is recreated for Egyptian Nights in New Season Restaurant at City Seasons Hotel on the first Friday of each month, when the focus is on authentic Egyptian food and music from the countryside. .

The theme night is a collaboration between the hotel and Al Ain’s Egyptian Club, and is designed to strengthen tourism to Egypt by celebrating the country’s culture. In so doing, it brings together both Egyptian and other communities in The Garden City. .

Since its inception earlier this year, different nationalities from around the Eastern Region and further afield have come to savour traditional Egyptian delicacies prepared by the hotel’s Executive Chef, Mahmoud Mohamed Ramadan. .

Pharaoh-dressed waiters greet diners as they arrive at the restaurant, and the environment is accentuated by the smooth, rolling tones of traditional, Egyptian folk music, while the décor adds an authentic touch to the evening. Tables are positioned close to each other – but not overly so – to bring an intimacy to the evening, with Sadu - traditional Emirati woven cloth - used as table covers, decorated with miniature versions of the three Great Pyramids of Giza – a nod to both local Emirati and Egyptian cultures. .

Chef Mahmoud presides over the kitchens and is more than eager to share his recipes and experiences. “It brings me joy and a sense of triumph seeing the indulgent look on people’s faces when they take their first taste of one of my country’s dishes,” he confided. .

“People living in Cairo visit the countryside every once in a while to get a taste of the vibrant, flavourful cuisine that abounds – and which is not usually found in the capital,” he explained. .

“Today, the majority of meals consumed in the capital contain frozen ingredients, so they are not as fresh as the locally sourced goods you’d find on the farmlands, where people are not in such a hurry and have time to devote to preparing food in time-honoured tradition,” he added. .

“The fresher the food the better it tastes. And that’s what I make sure of here - all my ingredients are honest and fresh.” Chef Mahmoud has been with City Seasons Hotel for a decade now, and became Chef Executive two years ago. He is experienced in a range of international cuisines, his specific specialities being Egyptian, Arabian Gulf and Italian dishes. .

While some of the appetiser and dessert dishes on the buffet during this theme night, are designed to appeal to different palates, the accent is on typical Egyptian fayre and I was delighted to see that some of the dishes, while being generic throughout the Middle East, were prepared ‘a la Egypt’. .

After my appetisers, I moved on for my first course of Egyptian countryside cuisine – lentil soup. I’m not usually a soup-person, but the pungent aroma of this popular starter in Egypt drew me in. Combined with cornbread, the puréed soup had a zesty touch, and was not as filling as I expected it to be, leaving enough room before I headed for the main course – or perhaps, that should be ‘courses’. .

I began with the traditional Koshari, since it is one of the richest dishes in Egyptian cuisine, dating back to the 19th century. .

Considered to be a national dish, Koshari is a melange of she’reyya (Arabic for noodles), lentils, rice, and every kind of pasta imaginable (small enough to make sure that people can easily grab a spoonful). This is topped with chick peas and thin strips of caramelised onions, fried till crisp and garnished with tomato-vinegar sauce. .

The simmering sauce was spicy but not entirely unbearable and the explosion of rich spices from coriander and cumin to garlic that I experienced from the very first bite was a delightful attack on my taste buds! The careful attention Chef paid to the ingredients ensured that they flowed together in harmony. .

Next came a melt-in-your-mouth turkey accompanied by Rozz Bel Khalta, a nutty mixed rice. The perfectly balanced sweet and salty ingredients such as raisins, cinnamon, caramelised onions and the fried rice with toasted nuts, complemented each other remarkably. The nuts were sautéed and barely identifiable in the mix – all in all, enhancing the flavour of the turkey. .

Yet another national favourite I savoured was Molokheyya, a broth containing finely chopped jute leaves with a hint of a spices-rich sauce enhancing the chicken base. Its aromatic scent transported me back home to Egypt and my family’s kitchen! .

The Molokheyya was light and perfectly complemented the soft, fluffy chicken and the Rozz Me’ammar – baked, creamy rice – which accompanied it. Rozz Me’ammar is always a better alternative than the plain white rice that is usually served along with Molokheyya. .

Next, I chose the mixed Chicken and Beef Kababs and Koftas, intriguingly served with barbecue sauce, which were charcoal-grilled to perfection – crunchy on the outside, yet juicy and tender inside. .

The earthy Mahashi came in next, the plate was a vibrant assortment of stuffed zucchini, potatoes, bell peppers, and eggplants. For those who aren’t familiar with Mahashi – think sushi, but with a Middle Eastern twist! The said ‘twist’ is detectable in the staple (parsley, coriander and dill leaves) added to the rice stuffing, along with the semi-cooked tomato sauce. .

Also on the menu was the famous Egyptian dish of seasoned pigeons – that are usually laden with rice or wheat and herbs, then broiled. This time the pigeons were served without stuffing and were laid on a bed of the aforementioned She’reyya. .

From the range of desserts, I couldn’t resist the Umm Ali, the heart-warming bread pudding which is a favourite across the Middle East. In Egyptian cuisine, it is combined with shredded, toasted crunchy almonds making for the perfect finalé. I found it surprisingly light and not too sugary. .

I ended my Egyptian feast with a cup of tea which also symbolises the essence of Egyptian hospitality and traditional etiquette. .

When it comes to the aesthetic of the platters, Egyptian food doesn’t look specifically luxurious – but if you’re not too concerned about presentation, then I can assure you that when you start eating, it’s a boundless journey where you explore something new in every bite. .

To experience an Egyptian culinary journey, don’t forget to reserve in advance and enjoy your meal – or as we say in Egypt, ‘bel hana wel shefa’! .

 
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