Culinary engineering

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 16 Jul 2011

Dina Sarhan, Egypt's most elegant cook, speaks about her love of the kitchen

Dina Sarhan
Photo: Amira Abdel Moneim

The carefully manicured nails and evidently moisturised hands of Dina Sarhan show no signs of time spent labouring in the kitchen. But Cairo's elegant cook, who has gained clear popularity in the country's culinary field both as an instructor and a service provider, insists that she only cooks with her bare hands.

"I have to touch things; I have to touch the ingredients and to feel them," she says as she comfortably moves around the sunny corners of the Dina Sarhan professional and beautifully designed business cuisine in Heliopolis.

To cook, Sarhan takes off all nail polish and all rings – although she does not overdo either. Sarhan also asks those who attend her cooking class to do the same: engage with ingredients.

Sarhan also asks them to do what she does: cook from scratch. This is a culinary principle to which she has remained faithful during her ten years in the cooking world – never use half-prepared material.

The third principle that Sarhan says she sticks to is to "enjoy the act of cooking; it has to be pleasurable".

She believes that if one enjoys cooking a meal it would most likely materialise into a successful dish that people will enjoy eating as well. "For me cooking is not about putting the different ingredients together and putting them on the stove; it is rather about getting the ingredients to mix and mingle and to evolve into a meal that is inviting".

Inviting for the eye, and not just for the stomach. Sarhan believes that all food should be pleasing to look at, from the simplest recipes of pasta to the more sophisticated soufflés and cakes.

Daring to innovate is also a firm element of the Dina Sarhan method. The recipes that she offers to her TV audience or to the visitors of her website (www.dinasarhan.com) are not exactly the regular "mama" food. Although there is some comfort food, recipes such as cucumber pappardelle rolls with smoked salmon filling which Sarhan offered to her website visitors a couple of days ago are more representative of her style.

The blend of the mostly atypical and the more everyday in the Dina Sarhan cookbook comes perhaps from the way she learned to cook. Sarhan was not the girl who joined her mother in the kitchen to pick up the cooking tricks – that was not a common thing for women like her who were born in Heliopolis in the late 1960s. Neither did she pursue the advice of her mother-in-law when she got married, to learn how to prepare her husband's favourite dishes. That was too much for the independent and successful mechanical engineering graduate.

Sarhan, who joined her husband for a sabbatical in Sydney, Australia, took up cooking there on her own initiative.

In the beginning, she read some cooking books from the public library. Then she read about the history of cooking, the art of cooking and then came the books on food, health and nutrition. Afterwards the engineer dared to abandon the world of steel and to pursue the world of the gourmet.

She would not have done so without a degree in cooking. Sarhan enrolled at an institute in Sydney, affiliated with the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu network in France, and got a degree in Catering Business Management. She complemented this with direct training in the kitchens of some of Sydney's best restaurants.

When she came back to Cairo, Sarhan again had to dare to differ. The daughter of the upper-middle class announced to the shock of her family that she was no longer the mechanical engineer that had left them but basically a cook.

To further shock her family and friends, Sarhan decided not to have her own restaurant because for her "it seemed boring" to be trapped in a Chez Dina sort of setting. Instead she decided to teach cooking at her own kitchen and to deliver her own cooked recipes to selected clients – varying from individuals hosting parties to restaurants embarking on new experiences for their menus.

The road was not always easy but Sarhan was a convinced cook. And today, Dina Sarhan is a top name in the world of culinary solutions.

Her kitchen, as some of the participants of her cooking courses say, is a dream kitchen that makes one inspired to cook. And her recipes, which vary from the simple to the exotic, offer interested cooks an entry to the world of cooking that could otherwise be off-putting.

Sarhan is humble about her growing popularity. She says that she just hopes that she would encourage more and more people to go back to cooking rather than depend on half-cooked ingredients or delivery food which she believes has much compromised the social habits of Egyptian families and the width of the waistline of Egyptian men and women.

Staying fit while still enjoying a delicious meal is exactly the theme of the recipes offered by Sarhan especially for the month of Ramadan – starting on August 1 this year – either through her website or through a programme that she presents on Egyptian TV.

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