On Sunday at an official ceremony in Cairo, Magy Habib, a prominent chef from CBC Sofra – Egypt’s first cooking channel – will be inaugurated into her new capacity as the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation Special Ambassador of the International Year of Pulses.
The International Year of Pulses was created by the United Nations General Assembly as a part a mission to raise awareness of pulses as a source of sustainable food production, food security for both rich and poor, and for healthy diets.
For the coming year, Habib will be working with the FAO in Egypt, a country where pulses is a crucial item on the agricultural map, to promote the use of the 12 grains and seeds in the local food system.
This is naturally close to Habib’s heart. An expert cook, she is well-versed in international and ethnic cuisines, but for her Egypt’s “indigenous food and vintage recipes” are essential. And Egyptian cuisine, old and new, is not done without the strong presence of pulses.
In her thrice-weekly CBC programme, Habib shares an ingredient-based approach to eating and provides her viewers with recipes, from Egyptian as well as other cuisines, where the accent is put on the basic ingredients that can be done in various ways.
In one show, black lentils will be explored via Egyptian recipes as well as Mediterranean cuisines.
Habib works to two rules: thosewho cook should not be obliged to keep spending a fortune on buying rarely used ingredients for one particular recipe after the other; and playing around and improvising is a blessing, but over-stretching the assembled foods is not.
So while Habib is only too happy to consider some marron glacé items once in a while, she is not particularly comfortable with taking traditional French confection alongside the otherwise traditional Ramadan desserts like basboussa and attayef.
She is equally happy to take the viewers of her programme through the ins and outs of the popular pizza, but she is sure to hesitate when over-stretching the melted cheese experience.
And while she introduces a variety of ginger-based recipes that range from the Christmas delights of ginger cookies to the Asian diversity of chicken with ginger, she is not ready to superimpose her ginger out of its context of compatibility.
“It is about enjoying food really here; I mean you overdo the assemblies and you end up losing the pure pleasure of the distinct taste of items,” Habib said.
“This is not about imposing a particular taste for all, it is just a thought that I like to share on my programme about enjoying the particular tastes to the full and also about avoiding the unhealthy endings, weight gain included, of super dietary complexities,” she explained.
The pursuit of the exquisite taste and texture of okra often prohibits Habib from cooking it with meat.
And she is convinced that this quest for unique tastes is integral to the original recipes of Egyptian cuisine. She says that the traditional Egyptian way of eating, “where confused digestive duties are uncommon,” is typical of most Mediterranean cuisines, and has for long made Egyptian food generally healthy.
“Traditionally when we eat fish, fried or grilled, it comes with caramalised rice and a green salad – this is a delicious and health combination,” Habib said.
“Of course we keep getting introduced to new things and new ingredients and it is part of the fun about food,” said Habib who had been prompted to consider the world of cooking by long supermarket tours in Texas in the early 1990s, where she was accompanied by a husband who was lending support to his spouse’s foodie tendencies.
It was the time where Habib had just graduated and finished a two-year world-tour as an air-hostess, and she was willing to try many different foods.
But it was also the time when she learned the value of “indigenous food”, as she saw that Greek yogurt was sold for almost ten times the price of regular yogurt, “not because it was particularly different from any other yogurt but essentially because it was made of Greek milk taken from Greek-bred sheep and done in the traditional Greek sequence of steps.”
In the US of the early 1990s Habib was introduced to supermarkets whose shelves carried items simply unheard of in her nice Heliopolis groceries. And within the diverse and varied produce, she would be pleased to see some typically Egyptian items now and then.
“I really find it unfortunate that we don’t give our indigenous food due credit – and here again I am not just talking about the traditional recipes,” Habib said.
“Think of sugar-can extracted honey that we generally label as black honey; what do we do with it; we have one glorious basic way to eat which is to mix it with raw tahini and use it as a dip for traditional baladi bready, but there is so much more to it than this; it could be used for entire sophisticated recipes and it could be used as a taste fixer with some basic cooking,” Habib argued.
It was this new appreciation of the traditional that got Habib to slowly but surely steer away from the decoration path that she had taken up during her Texas years and the journalism path that she had very briefly flirted with prior to her sojourns in the US, and tune in to “food”.
“It is food not cooking that I am interested in; I mean cooking is designed to produce food, so it is both the ingredients and the final dish that really get me,” Habib said.
Back in Cairo, Habib opted for bringing food and journalism together – once with Al-Ahram décor publication El-Beit (the house) where she often switched between interior designing and cooking columns, and once with another Al-Ahram publication, Nisf El-Donya, where she was focused on sharing her impressions on food culture – and where there was an inevitable reminder that Egyptian food and traditional recipes count.
In one of her columns, Habib recalls the unavoidable appeal of traditional Egyptian food even for younger generation, especially if well-prepared. She wrote about a birthday party for one of her teen daughters where the crowd tilted clearly towards typical Egyptian savoury and sweet items at the expense of Italian and French delicacies she had diligently prepared upon the request of family and friends. At the end of the day it was the traditional Egyptian sweet of Oum Ali that took over the dessert session, and not the extravagantly prepared tiramisu, just as the traditional forms of Egyptian sausage took the light from the indulging gratins.
In another of her columns, she compared the Swiss fondue tradition with the Upper Egypt tradition of drinking tea brewed on a typical old fashioned wood lit-stove (rokka) with mini sun-baked wheat pies (battawa). And she appealed for a serious effort to keep the traditions and to put the effort into adding some of the Egyptian cuisine gems and eating traditions to the UNESCO list of heritage – “for certainly food is part of a nation’s heritage, especially when we talk of a really old nation like Egypt.”
It has been this passion for telling the story of Egyptian food that prompted Habib to enter the world of food television “in hope of doing a documentary programme on our own food and our own crops.”
This was what got Habib to join a cooking contest with one of the early Arab cooking channels. She got to the very finals but her dream of documenting Egyptian food was lost in favour of another participant who just wished to pursue on-screen cooking.
She went around the many shades of the food business: writing, collecting and sharing recipes, and doing food-styling.
However, the contest on television got Habib the offer to start her EishweMalh restaurant – literally bread and salt -- whose meaning goes a layer deeper than bread and butter, as it stands for established affinity of shared meals and not just of basic food satisfaction.