I grew up disliking qulqas, the Egyptian taro dish my mother cooked religiously every winter. She would stock up and freeze enough khodra – the green herb paste that formed the base of the stew, imparting flavour to the otherwise bland starchy root vegetable – to last the entire season.
My gourmet uncle who lived overseas and had no access to either taro or khodra would request qulqas every time he visited, often returning home with one or two jars of the precious condiment. Yearly, with disappointment, I monitored her enthusiasm for qulqas season preparations. As soon as the cold weather arrived, the thick coriander and Swiss chard bunches piled up in our kitchen.
The green leaves were washed, dried then chopped together with garlic. She would then stir-fry the three ingredients in vegetable oil and ghee until the garlic was cooked to gold perfection and the leaves that had filled the pot to the brim shrivelled to a dry, dark green, rough consistency, the heat stripping them of moisture and integrity. It was then ground into a smooth paste in a blender, ready for the qulqas.
Reader, I hated qulqas, but I relished the sweet scent of the fried garlic-coriander mix, even forgave the fragrance that lingered in every corner of the house.
The brown, rough, thick skin of the taro, often covered in dried mud, is peeled off the smooth pale flesh. It is chopped into bite-sized cubes and simmered in broth until cooked al dente. Within seconds, the starch is released: the broth loses its clarity to form a cloudy liquid. Once the taro softens, however, the milky factor dissipates and the stew regains clarity. A few tablespoons of the paste are mixed in, instantly turning the colourless mix a dark moss green.
My qulqas coming of age was gradual and followed a long culinary journey that really started in the territory of Asian cuisine. It was exotic and many of its ingredients were hard to find, making my gastronomic pursuit all the more thrilling. It was by incorporating Egyptian, via Levantine, western, fusion, you-name-it delicacies into my repertoire that I rediscovered the same local dishes I grew up eating and loving.
Cooking Egyptian food, I realised, is not the same as eating it. It is achieving the balance between delicate flavor and simplicity. It takes a minimalist, uncomplicated approach that respects the integrity of ingredients without overpowering their original flavours with spices or multi-step creations, something that can easily be mistaken for lack of sophistication.
The popular koshari, fuul and ta’ameya might be the iconic flavours of local food. But if Egyptian cuisine could be summed up in only one authentic dish, that should be qulqas: the butter-soft, mellow, subtly sweet, starchy vegetable poached in garlicky, coriander flavored stew with a hint of lemon squeeze.
Few dishes connect us with what our ancestors ate since antiquity the way Egyptian qulqas does. Eating, more so cooking, qulqas in the green herb stew is time travel. It is history’s resonance in our contemporary, minimalist kitchens.
Because the Coptic year is based on the ancient Egyptian calendar, Epiphany, Eid El-Ghitas, falls on 19 January. On Tuesday evening the vast majority of Egypt’s Copts mark the feast by eating qulqas for dinner after a brief fast. The hot stew graces the dining table as the main course, perhaps complemented by sides. It is the only moment of true veneration afforded to taro, which receives little recognition on the popular Egyptian food pyramid for the rest of the year.
Taro has sacrosanct parallels steeped in history with its symbolism of Christ’s baptism in Egyptian Coptic culture. Ghitas, from the Arabic root ghatas, means immersion. Boiling qulqas in water eliminates its harmful toxins, recalling humans being purified of sin when immersed in the baptismal water. Taro root is buried underground before it is pulled out to become food, just as baptism is burial or death followed resurrection in Christ.
While the root vegetable is not mentioned in the New Testament, the Coptic historian Atif Naguib explained that the association is inspired by the Biblical verse “having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead”.
There is no end of the baptismal allegories, he tells me. Qulqas’s “outer skin has to be peeled off first to be consumed, just as we shed our robes of sin in baptism. When baptised, we wear the clothes of purity, then we become the children of God.” The greens in the qulqas stew refer to a new life.
Because of its remarkable symbolism, qulqas is controversial in our contemporary food culture. It could be unpopular with most children, although many, like myself, eventually develop a palate for it as adults. Most Copts have to eat at least a spoonful of it on Epiphany, a fact reflected in an Arabic children’s rhyme that says “if you don’t eat qulqas, you’ll wake up with no head”.
Maybe the rest of us should be grateful for the threat of headlessness. If qulqas wasn’t a ritual central to the Coptic Epiphany, would we still be cooking it this way? Would it have survived in our contemporary tomato-centric food culture?
In her 2004 World Health Organization paper on “Food habits of the Egyptians: newly emerging trends”, the nutritionist and health policy analyst Habiba Hassan Wassef persuasively argues that the ritual foods of the Copts, which have been transmitted from generation to generation for nearly 20 centuries, provide an insight into the culinary traditions of the ancients.
She places dark green leafy vegetables and herbs – added to taro and some legumes – among the “pillars of the traditional Egyptian food system” established by the crop composition of the Nile valley for millennia.
It is not clear at what point in history taro became associated with the Coptic Epiphany. Naguib says clerics in medieval Egypt encouraged the adoption of popular rituals related to food and drink in order to bind popular festivities with religious rituals. This was probably some time in the 10th century when Egypt was under Fatimid rule. The Fatimids encouraged festivities for all the faiths observed by Egyptians at a time when Coptic and Jewish populations formed sizable communities.
Historians believe taro appeared in Egypt after the Arab conquest in the 7th century although recent archeological finds suggest it could have been much earlier. The 12th-century Egyptian historian Al-Maqrizi observed that it was planted with sugarcane, which Copts also eat on Epiphany.
Food historians have reason to believe that qulqas was popular among medieval Egyptians. One of the most celebrated references cited is the anonymous 14th-century Mamluk cookbook, Kanz Al-Fawai’d Fi Tanwi’ El-Mawa’ed (Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table) which was translated to English in 2018 by the Iraqi food historian Nawal Nasrallah.
With its 830 recipes, this is the last known cookbook believed to be Egyptian before the arrival of the Ottomans in the 16th century, which cast its culinary shadow over Egypt and the region and to which, to this day, all good food is rightly or wrongly attributed.
In her introduction Nasrallah writes that qulqas was an important crop “favored for its fine taste and texture.” So much so that the cookbook offers a variety of recipes for the root vegetable.
Today’s simpler version of qulqas appears to share common characteristics from seven centuries ago. The ingredients cited in Kanz are more elaborate, but at least two of them feature chard, coriander and meat with the taro.
“(56) Recipe for summaqiyya with qulqas:
Cook the meat in a pot, and when it is half-done, add the taro, and let it cook until done. You will have prepared finely pounded sumac, put it in a bowl and set it aside, so that when the meat is cooked, [you can] sprinkle it with enough sumac to cover it.
If desired, add chard (silq), walnuts, garlic and all kinds of spices and herbs (tawabil) to the pot. Also, if desired, the garlic may be kept whole.”
Eleventh century fresco of the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim Bi Amrillah who banned qulqas because it was named after the Abbasid caliph Al-Mutawakkil
Green recipes using not just chard and coriander but also mint, purslane and parsley are plentiful in the book. In one of the footnotes, Nasrallah explains that the recurring phrase, huwa’ijuhu “what is necessary” specifically refers to “cilantro pounded with garlic, white onion, and suet (shaḥm)” which shares the modus operandi of the contemporary khodra paste for qulqas.
According to Nasrallah, the controversial Fatimid caliph Al-Ḥakim bi-Amrillah restricted certain types of food for sectarian reasons. He prohibited a popular dish cooked with qulqas called al-Mutawakkileyya because it was named after the 9th century Abbasid caliph Al-Mutawakkil. After Al-Ḥakim’s death, however, Egyptians resumed eating their favourite foods and al-Mutawakkileyya acquired another name, sitt al-shana‘ or ‘the best of the maligned dishes’.
“(89) Recipe for Mutawakkiliyya:
You need meat, [strain it], and then fry it with the garlic, cilantro and black pepper, [and onion]. When it is done, add the [strained] broth, and bring it to a boil. When it is done, you have the choice of adding the taro after frying it, or just washing and adding it without frying. Let the pot simmer on the smoldering file until it settles, and then ladle it.”
In her pioneering 2011 book “Food and Foodways of Medieval Cairenes”, Paulina B. Lewicka notes that two kinds of qulqas were sold: heads (ru’us) and fingers (asabi’). It is quite probable, she writes, that qulqas was also consumed as an appetizer. This could be the case with fried taro as mentioned in one of the versions of “The Christian Broker’s Tale” of the Arabian Nights’ Hunchback cycle. In one scene, the Baghdadi merchant prepares a food tray for his Cairene lover: he obtains “nuts and almonds, and arranges mufalfal rice under them, and arranges fried qulqas, as well as fresh and dried fruits.”
It is almost if pieces of fried qulqas corm, Lewicka remarks, were eaten the way French fries are eaten today.
She eulogizes the status of qulqas then and now. Medieval Cairo consumed okra, mulukhiyya and legumes, which became the distinguishing marks of contemporary Egyptian-Cairene cookery. “Others, such as colocasia (qulqas), have lost their importance in the local menu.”
RED VS GREEN
Qulqas might have fallen from grace since medieval times, but it has preserved its ancient DNA as a green minority in a red-majority culinary constituency (compare the Coptic minority). Today we are so blinded to the ubiquity of tomatoes in our food it is difficult to imagine that before the 19th century, we didn’t even know the crop – nor did anyone else in the Middle East. Tomatoes arrived less than 200 years ago, and it remains unclear how Egyptian cuisine evolved in that direction, sealed in a tomato jar.
Anyone with any culinary experience knows that cooking with fresh tomatoes is a very different matter from cooking with that intense, thick, acidic substance: preserved tomato paste.
Tomato juice will add flavor and colour, but remains subtle on the taste buds, too weak to give Egyptian food an identity. Tomatoes became a popular ingredient in Egyptian cuisine once incorporated in our local ingredients in the mid-19th century, but remained in the background of the local food profile, secondary even to onions and garlic.
In fact, up until its 1976 edition (still in my mother’s possession), not one recipe in Egypt’s quintessential cookbook by the dame of modern Egyptian cuisine, Nazira Niqola’s (aka Abla Nazira) listed tomato paste as an ingredient. Tomato paste is also absent from the first cookbook by an Egyptian woman, Basima Zaki Ibrahim, in 1935, and from Niqola’s first book, The Fundamentals of Cooking, co-authored with Bahiya Othman in 1941.
Imported and local tomato paste preserve existed in Egypt by the 1940s, but it was not a widely available or a necessarily popular substitute for fresh tomatoes.
This is echoed in the food vocabulary used in Niqola’s cookbooks, which adopted culinary meanings that are very different from how we understand them now, demonstrating the speed with which Egyptian food culture has changed. The word salsa, for example, meant sauce of any colour or flavour (she cites brown, white and broth-based) whereas today the same word only means rich red tomato sauce.
Nasser’s nationalisation of Kaha increased its tomato paste production, unwittingly influencing Egypt’s food culture
The preserved food industry in Egypt took off in the second half of the 20th century, after Gamal Abdel-Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, and soon after, privately owned enterprises, including such food companies as Kaha (founded in 1940) and Edfena.
Under government management and for the next three decades, these companies expanded considerably by virtue of the Nasser-era socialist policy where the public sector practically monopolised the local food and beverage industry. Kaha’s canned tomato paste became widely available at affordable prices (among other production lines that included jams, juices and canned vegetables, which were often exported to African and Middle Eastern countries).
Mokhtar Khattab, the former minister of public enterprise, tells me the year-long availability of tomato paste “beat previous seasonal and geographic limitations, probably leading to changes in Egyptian tastes by the second half of the 20th century.”
Is it possible that Nasser’s nation-building program unwittingly influenced contemporary Egypt’s food ways? The Egyptian popular cooking method of sautéing chopped onion, adding fresh tomato left to simmer gently on low heat until reduced to the flavorful tasbeek – to which almost any vegetable can be added – was already established by the turn of the 20th century, but it was time consuming. Enter Kaha’s preserved tomato paste cans, simply known as “salsa”: a cooking shortcut that suited the busy lives of modernized and industrialized Egyptians, especially its growing class of urban working women.
The instantaneous effect of one tomato paste tablespoon is unparalleled. Once added to the sautéed onion or garlic, or both, it achieves the umami depth of flavour required by the tasbeek process as well as the dark maroon sauce that defines Egyptian cooking. No amount of fresh tomato reduction at home can achieve the intensity delivered by the paste. And no truly Egyptian fridge or pantry is devoid of tomato paste jars.
The garlicky, tangy and often spicy tomato sauce that makes or breaks the iconic koshari can’t exist as we know it without the paste. This extends to almost every red recipe in our comfort food zone: from fatta, peas-with-carrots, sliced potato bake, musqa’a, stuffed vegetables – to pasta. The marriage of fresh tomatoes to the concentrate has become so integral to the taste and smell of Egyptian cuisine it is hard to imagine our food without it. It is even harder to imagine that it wasn’t entrenched six decades ago.
This culinary shift might be uncomfortable to digest, since its recency amplifies the disconnect between out present-day kitchen and its not so distant history.
Qulqas recalls our culinary past and present. Its relative obscurity and controversial reputation – compared, for example, to the celebrated molokhiya – is a fitting metaphor for contemporary Egyptian cuisine.
To experience it is to eat it at home, by a masterful cook gifted with nafas: “breath” in Arabic. But its culinary meaning also involves intuition: the soul of cooking and taste.
Few expatriates and tourists experience Egyptian cuisine beyond street food like fuul, ta’ameya, koshari and, bizarrely in recent years, macarona béchamel (the scrumptious Egyptian version of Greek pastitsio). For a tourist country that reveres food the way we do (Egyptians spend 37 per cent of their income on food), Egypt has little to offer visitors by way of authentic dishes.
Somaya El-Assyouti made a name for herself when she opened Fushet Somaya, a tiny home-cooked eatery in downtown Cairo serving only Egyptian food, ten years ago. Business took off fast and she was able to expand into a bigger space in recent years. Her restaurant could be the only place in Cairo that serves qulqas, when in season, with duck on Tuesdays.
El-Assoyti tells me that 60 per cent of her cliental are tourists, 20 per cent are her original customers who have no access to home cooking, and the remaining 20 per cent are new. She calls them “Egyptian tourists” who cook at home, but still want to dine on local food.
“There’s a huge market for Egyptian food, yet it is so underrated,” she says.
To Anny Gaul, the cultural historian of food and gender, this is the legacy of the unique cultural politics and tastes of Egyptian elites during the 19th and 20th centuries. A modern restaurant culture emerged “that was more concerned with serving European or even Shami foods than it was with developing and promoting an Egyptian cuisine.”
This was reflected in cookbooks as well as on restaurant menus. Gaul, who wrote her profound dissertation on kitchen histories in modern North Africa, cites Abla Nazira and her contemporaries, who included recipes for uniquely Egyptian dishes, but also dedicated significant space to European and Levantine foods, devoting far more space to expanding the breadth of their books beyond Egypt than to documenting local or regional specialties within Egypt.
“I think this is part of the reason that today the best Egyptian food, in my opinion, is home cooking – recipes that are passed down from mother to daughter, or grandmother to granddaughter.”
My gourmet uncle passed long ago, but my mother still makes batches of the qulqas khodra paste and freezes it in little jars. My relatively recent first attempt at qulqas was little more than a reenactment of her method. It had been etched in my visual memory long before I could realise.