Written by Danielle Oteri
Our collective knowledge of Egypt in the United States goes something like this:
- King Tut
- The Pyramids of Giza
- Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra
- Anwar Sadat
- The Bangles
- The Mummy
- Tahrir Square protests
None of these does an iota of justice to one of the world’s most ancient, nuanced, and sophisticated cultures, not to mention that hardly any American can immediately identify a single Egyptian food or dish. Fortunately, Amy Riolo’s cookbook Nile Style: Egyptian Cuisine and Culture presents an affectionate and edifying survey of Egypt’s food history, much of which we really ought to know more about.
Originally published in 2009 and re-issued with updated stories and recipes following Riolo’s stay in Egypt during the overturning of Hozni Mubarak’s government, Nile Style should easily slide onto the shelf where you keep your most dog-eared cookbooks.
It’s full of easy, healthful dishes like a zucchini soup you could whip up in less than 20 minutes for Meatless Monday, or Bedouin lamb stew that can be left simmering on the stovetop for a cozy Sunday family supper. Nile Style is like Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem, full of stories and meals that will find their way into your regular recipe repertoire—minus the sometimes-clumsy ingredient lists glossed over by beautiful layouts.
Riolo is a Washington, DC-based chef, writer, and culinary historian who also leads culinary tours of the Middle East. Though she is Italian-American and an expert on Calabrian food, she has lived in Egypt and has a keen and compassionate understanding of its culture and cuisine. She organized the recipes in Nile Style around Egyptian holidays and feasts, drawing together Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions, which inevitably demonstrate the ties between all of them.
Did you know, for example, that the Egyptians invented foie gras? Fortunately for the French, the Louvre Museum holds the first illustration of the dish on a fifth-century BCE funerary apt of Ti. Ancient Egyptians watched wild geese gorging themselves before migrations and starting doing the same with domesticated ducks and geese. In Nile Style, Riolo includes a recipe she calls Pharoah’s Foie Gras that uses butter, onions, garlic, stock, and inexpensive chicken livers.
In the period defined as as the “Old Kingdom,” 2575-2150 BCE, Greeks called Egyptians “the bread eaters.” The celebration of the resurrection of the Nile god was associated with the growth of wheat. Pyramid workers were rationed five pounds of bread per person per day, which they enjoyed with beer, onions and garlic for good health. This all to say there are many fantastic bread recipes in Nile Style including a sesame challah and a simple Bedouin bread that reminds of the kind of good crusty bread always served in Southern Italy. (Also, Charlton Heston movies aside, pyramid workers were not Jewish slaves, but farmers who were out-of-work during the season that the Nile flooded. Sort of an ancient Egyptian Works Progress Administration.)
Italophiles will find much to love in Nile Style as so many classic Italian ingredients and preparations were absorbed from North Africa. When I met Riolo last year, she told me how on her first trip to Egypt she felt immediately comfortable, as it reminded her so much of Italy. Having never been to Egypt, I took her word for it, but I didn’t see the parallels until combing through the recipes in Nile Style.
Lupini beans, my favorite Italian festival treat, are also a common Egyptian snack and were commonly used in face creams and scrubs during the time of Cleopatra. Ashoora wheat berry pudding with honey, milk, and raisins sounds an awful lot like the Sicilian cuccia, and an eggplant salad with pomegranate molasses is easily the forerunner to caponata. Cherry-topped semolina cookies would be at home behind the counter of any good Italian bakery on Arthur Avenue.
I can’t help but suspect that if Nile Style had a slicker design, this book would be a kitchen staple. Its title and headnotes are in the dreaded Papyrus typeface that seems like a good idea, but ultimately betrays the easy sophistication of Riolo’s writing and instruction. If you’re looking for new recipes for your repertoire with simple preparations, healthy ingredients and fascinating lineages, Nile Style will satisfy mind and body.