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The sweet taste of water
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 23 - 08 - 2001

By Fayza Hassan
I recently read an article about water conservation and management stating that it would make sense for countries with scarce water resources to abandon agriculture, leaving the production of food to countries where rain falls freely and provides crops with natural, free irrigation. The "dry" countries would then concentrate on exporting items that they can produce cheaply, while importing all their food necessities. A perfect master/client setup, I thought. What better weapon can be given to the countries controlling the distribution of food? Egyptians would be forced to go on a diet of hamburgers and genetically engineered potatoes, while the fellah could put all his energies (increased many times by imported vitamin-enriched bread) into the production of what? Bags of the finest desert sand?
But then a more futile consideration struck me (I am much better at following an irrelevant train of thought than at mulling over economic theories). Food, I believe, has a distinctive savour according to the place where it is grown and the way it is traditionally prepared. I happen to like the way food tastes in Egypt and would not have it any other way. It has something to do with childhood memories, of course, and more than anything else defines what I consider my real roots. Remembering food linked to family celebrations is one of the most comforting mental activities I know.
Since early childhood and during all my pre-animal rights activist days, molokhiya was my very favourite dish. Not any kind of molokhiya would do, however: only the one my grandmother prepared made my stomach sing. We always had three kinds of meat for the stock, a couple of chickens, a piece of beef and a rabbit (I can't believe now that I actually enjoyed the flesh of the poor animal). The spluttering fried garlic was thrown into the strained boiling stock and left to cook for a few minutes before the freshly minced molokhiya leaves were added, which made the dish much more digestible and was my grandmother's well-guarded secret. The pounded and slightly fried coriander came at the end, just before my grandmother, who was constantly testing the mixture with her wooden spoon, declared the concoction ready. The trick was to cook the leaves long enough to kill the germs then associated with the dish, but stop before the liquid became the slightest bit slimy.
Molokhiya days were a festive occasion in our house, with all the family sitting together in the big dining room. Mounds of white rice, warm baladi bread and the poultry and rabbit divided into manageable pieces surrounded the huge tureen. The beef did not appear on the table but was served in a delicious salad the following day with capers, hard-boiled eggs and a homemade vinaigrette flavoured with fresh parsley.
Each one of us had a particular style of proceeding. My father would begin with a first plateful of soup without the trimmings, to appreciate the aroma of the mixture fully, and then have a second serving, piling small morsels of bread, chicken and a couple of spoons of rice on his plate before generously ladling the liquid on top. I personally preferred to give up the rice in favour of more bread.
The first time my husband partook in the molokhiya ceremony he committed a faux pas that marked the future of his relationship with my family. Having filled his plate with soup and rice, he looked around: "Where are the onions?" he asked me sotto voce. My mother was quick to catch his question. An ironic smile played on her lips but she said nothing. The rest of us kept silent. Finally my father lifted his head. "The gentleman is used to eating molokhiya sprinkled with onions soaked in vinegar, the Syrian way," he said slowly. "Our molokhiya is too good to be spoiled with such strong seasoning." Silence prevailed.
Later, I often had to prepare molokhiya the "Syrian way" to please my husband, but I must say that my father was right: the addition of onion and vinegar did spoil the broth.
Spinach was another favourite of mine (second only to our home-made lentil soup) and I was always surprised at my friends' reluctance to go home for lunch when they knew it was on the menu. Then one day, I was dared by a schoolmate to come and eat it with her. As we walked into her house I knew at once that she probably had every reason to hate the vegetable. Instead of the mouth-watering aroma of fresh garlic and flour fried in butter that filled our home on spinach days, the acrid odour of overcooked green leaves wafted from my friend's kitchen. The grayish-green mess that eventually appeared on the table matched the smell perfectly. My grandmother had always claimed that it was the water of the Nile that made her food taste so good, but I know now that there was much more to it.
While I am convinced that food has never tasted the same since I grew up, and while I do appreciate a ripe Camembert and French baguette eaten in Paris and a fondue eaten in the Canton de Vaud, I am dead against doing away with indigenous cuisine. I don't believe that food travels well; nor is it as satisfying when uprooted and deprived of its emotional content. Life would never be the same if I was one day deprived of a delicious fuul sandwich and had to replace it with refried beans on Doritos.
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