Om Ali is one of Yvonne Boules' signature dishes at Café Dahab, the Egyptian focused Mediterranean restaurant that she runs with her daughter Nancy. Puff pastry, hazelnuts, and coconut are layered in a blessedly oversize ramekin before being soaked in a luxurious bath of milk, sugar, and butter. Named for the mom of some guy named Ali, this soulful, nurturing dish serves as the perfect culinary metaphor for a restaurant that derives its strength from the mother's kitchen, built on the recipes that Boules learned as a child in Cairo from her mother and grandmothers. Boules herself began as a home cook (albeit regularly serving feasts for up to 40 relatives and friends) before she left her job as a travel agent to help Nancy open Café Dahab in 2001 – first amid the myriad Persian restaurants on Westwood and for the last 6 years in its second home on Sawtelle.
We sat down to talk to the mother and daughter pair about transitioning from cooking in the home to the restaurant, what makes Egyptian falafel, and perfect Bulgarian feta. Turn the page to read the first part of our interview and check back later for the rest and for the Boules' recipe for koshari, the ultimate Egyptian comfort food.
Squid Ink: So you grew up in Cairo?
Yvonne Boules: My dad's family is from Cairo. My mom's family is from Alexandria. We went to school and my dad worked in Cairo. In the summertime, Alexandria being on the Mediterranean, we would go visit my mom's family.
SI: What brought your family to the US?
YB: My husband is my first cousin. Our mothers were sisters, which is very common back home. You marry in the family. He immigrated here in 1967. He went through Lebanon through the Church. They were doing a lot of immigration through Lebanon.
And then he came back to visit. We saw each other and we met, and then you know, we were family. It was not arranged marriage or anything like that. Our parents were always very open-minded.
SI: And how did you get into the restaurant business?
YB: She was the idea behind it. My daughter Nancy.
Nancy Boules: It was more a sense of wanting to go to a place or have a place where we could just hang out and socialize – where it's not just coffee and it's not a bar or club-like atmosphere. Late night dining is what I was really going for. And given that it's traditional in Egypt to eat late. [There] you could pretty much leave the house at eleven or twelve o'clock, and there's nobody that's closed. Here it's a matter of finding who's open.
YB: I've been in the United States since 1974. There hasn't been an authentic Egyptian restaurant. We're the first. Every time LACMA has something to do with an Egyptian exhibition or showing Tutankhamen or all that, they always look us up. Anybody that Googles Egyptian food, I think we're the only ones who come up on the Westside.
NB: Jordanian, Palestinian, Lebanese. A lot of our basic food, the appetizers, we all derive from the Lebanese style mezze, but then our authentic dishes are clearly different.
YB: We mix and match to kind of cater to every taste. That's why we call it Mediterranean cuisine because we have the Greek salad, from Lebanon the tabouleh. And kabob is kabob. The only difference is spices. How you spice it.
SI: How do you spice your kabobs?
YB: We use a lot of salt and pepper. Not like the Persians, they have the yellow turmeric. We want the chicken flavor to come out. We don't want to overpower it. Same thing with the meat. With our filet mignon, we taste it and you really get the flavor of the meat, rather than overpowered by the spice.
SI: So how did you learn to cook?
YB: My mom has always been a great cook and her mom. It's handed down, one generation to another. And in order to be qualified to be a good wife, you have to know how to cook. Even though we had our cooks back home and we had our maids and everything, Mom made sure that my sister and I are involved in the day-to-day cooking and cleaning.
NB: It's cultural.
YB: I came here, I was seventeen years old, but at least I knew the basics. And then I picked up from friends and family, and I picked up the phone and asked, “How do I do this and how do I do that?”
SI: So when you guys were opening the restaurant, you had been a home cook. Cooking for a family. How did you learn to translate that to a restaurant kitchen?
YB: Let me tell you, it came in steps. When we first opened, we hired a cook, but he was a Turkish guy, and he was mainly for the kabobs. He had nothing to do with our Egyptian food.
NB: That's when my grandma came in and taught us how to do the molokhia.
YB: We knew how, but–
NB: But she came in and showed us because she helped us with the proportions. You have to make adjustments.
YB: And we were trying to master a couple of things. Master the falafel. Master a couple of things before we introduce it and put it on the menu. We were adding and deleting, adding and taking away. That was the first year, and after that I took over.
I have to say, We owe a lot to my husband because he was the one who started to say, “Hey nobody has Egyptian food. Let's put feta cheese with tomatoes on the menu.” The stuff that he loves the most. Eggs with bastirma, which is a cured beef.
SI: What were the first Egyptian dishes that you put on the menu?
YB: We had the falafel. We had the gibna with tomato. We had the egg with bastirma. I can't remember if the lentil soup was in the beginning. The molokhia was from day one. Those basic things. The koshari we added later.
NB: And actually our falafel are insane.
SI:And it's different right? Egyptian falafel?
NB: Yeah, they're green inside. And they're fluffier. Because we use greens and we don't use garbanzo beans. We use fava beans. We put them through a meat grinder, and we grind our own dough.
YB: Lots of greens. We put onions, we put dill, we put cilantro. It's a lot of vegetables.
SI: So is falafel traditionally eaten in Egypt?
YB: Oh yeah. Big thing. People eat it for breakfast and lunch also.
NB: Because our breakfast is really like at eleven o'clock. Not at seven. Not like Americans.
SI: So you would get up and not eat anything?
NB: You'd have tea or coffee. Or sometimes you see, because people stay up late, they don't wake up at six in the morning, you know.
YB: Or people eat cheese in the morning. The feta cheese is a big thing in the morning and olives and eggs. Those are usually more breakfast.
SI: Tell me about the feta and tomatoes.
YB: Of course we buy the feta cheese. We don't make it. There's Greek feta, there's Bulgarian feta, and there's French feta. The best of them is the Bulgarian feta. The French feta hardly has any salt. The Greek feta is not that tangy, I think. The Bulgarian feta is the best.
NB: It's the closest to what they make in Egypt because they make their own feta cheese over there. It has a tanginess. It's hard to explain, but the Bulgarian feta here is the closest we can get to it.
YB: And what we do is break the feta very small and crumble it. Then cut the tomatoes in very tiny pieces and add some olive oil, and you can do crushed red pepper if you want or add jalapenos. We like it spicy. In our tradition, this is a side dish with every meal, whether breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Gibna bel tamatim, that's what we call the dish. Gibna with tomatoes.
SI: It's so creamy.
YB: That's the oil. After crumbling it with a fork, we make almost a paste out of it with the oil. That's what makes it creamy like that. I think adding the jalapeno in there makes it a great taste.