In part one of our interview with Yvonne and Nancy Boules, the mother and daughter team behind Café Dahab told us about going from home cooks to restaurant chefs and how they make their bright green falafel. Turn the page to read their take on changes in their home country and about the Egyptian love of molokhia, the slimy jute plant. And check back for the Boules' recipe for koshari, a glorious carb-fest of lentils, rice, and elbow macaroni.
Squid Ink: A lot of the dishes are vegetarian. What role does meat play in Egyptian food?
Yvonne Boules: Oh they love meat. You have to understand, the main meal of the day is at three in the afternoon when all of the kids come back from school. It's almost like we adopted the European way of living, where they have a siesta in the middle of the day. So that meal at three o'clock, everyone's hungry, and we have the molokhia with chicken or we have the bamia, okra you know, or green beans with meat in it.
SI: Tell me about the molokhia.
YB: The molokhia – it's very different for the people here. Some, they say it's slimy. It's from jute plant. And we buy it frozen, but it's imported from Egypt. It's already minced, and ready. And it's added to your soup stock of preference. But it's always chicken – that's how we do it. And garlic and what have you. The best way to eat it is with chicken and onions.
Nancy Boules: And call it a day.
YB: It's a great dish for Egyptians, but a lot of Americans find it very slimy.
NB: Even though the day of the revolution, I had a group of about twelve Americans who spoke fluent Arabic. They came dressed full on in abaya, and all they ordered was molokhia and koshari.
YB: They had probably lived over there.
SI: Have you felt people's interest in the events in Egypt here in the restaurant?
YB: Since the revolution started, we've been hit with every news media.
NB: Because we pull up under Egyptian. It was pretty hectic.
SI: And what do you think about what's been going on over there?
YB: We knew it was bound to happen – when was the question. It was bound to happen because the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. That's where the problem was.
SI: Are there traditional Egyptian ingredients that are still hard to find in this country?
YB: Not anymore. In the beginning when I came out here 30 years ago, the first time I made the molokhia, the only molokhia that we had was the dry one. And I never had done it back home, so for me to cook it the first time with that, everyone was laughing at me. Apparently, you're supposed to rub it in your hands and make it softer and more flaky. But thank God, we now have it frozen.
Our cousin owns the factory back home that makes it. That makes the molokhia, the bamia [okra.] It tastes almost fresh. I had fresh molokhia when I went back home, and it didn't taste that different.
NB: It was good, but it wasn't a make it or break it. It was greener.
SI: So when you get a fresh molokhia, what does it look like?
NB: Spinach. A leafy situation.
YB: The spinach has a stem and one leaf. This one has a stem and many leaves. Oh, almost like mint. But longer stems. The trick is, you kind of rip the green leaves. You don't want any stems in it.
NB: It's also because that's bitter too. It's texture and a bad taste.
YB: And that's where it gets the sliminess from too.
NB: It is slimy. There's no getting around it.
SI: Is it sometimes served as rabbit as well?
YB: Yes! Not long ago, I invited family, and I made it with rabbit and chicken. 40 some people.
SI: And is the molokhia ever used in other dishes?
YB: No. This is it. No one has it other than that. Every kid is raised with this. The moment you can eat solid foods, this is it.
NB: It's the green soup.
YB: Not everyone can like it. Everyone likes koshari. But not everybody can eat the molokhia.
SI: The koshari is such a comfort food.
YB: This is poor people food. The ingredients are really cheap. It's not like meat; it's not like fish.
SI: When would you eat koshari in the course of the day?
YB: Lunch usually. Lunch is the main thing. And the plate that you eat it in. What would you call that here?
NB: It's equivalent to stainless steel mixing bowl. And there's that portion, and then there's something called a kamalla, and they give it to you in a bag and it's the continuation of your first plate.
YB: It's always served in a big bowl. And these places, that's all they do is koshari. It's just a shop for koshari. There would be a window, and there would be big trays that have the koshari assembled. One big one, it would have the rice and the lentils in it. Just like we have it. And then they assemble it and go. And assemble it and go.
NB: There's also carts that make them in plastic bags.
SI: So it's kind of a street food?
NB: Mmm hmm.
YB: Not only cheap ingredients, but it's filling.
NB: You could feed an army with it. You make one big pot and you feed fifteen people with it, and it's easy.
YB: And I'll tell you one thing, you put the koshari plate among kabob and other things and it will be the first to go. Everybody reaches out for that. Kabob, anybody can make. Anybody can have at any time.
SI: Why do you think Egyptian food isn't as well known in the U.S. as other Middle Eastern cuisines?
NB: There are not too many Egyptian restaurants because there are not too many people who can master it.
YB: It's very involved cooking. There are a lot of steps. Like I was trying to condense the recipe for you just one plate. And you see the work that is involved.
NB: Also a lot of the traditional foods, it's common to eat them at home. You don't go to a restaurant to eat them, you know? Whereas, the basics, the kabobs, the hummus, the whatever, you can eat that anywhere and it could be identified as anything. But these foods, first of all, you don't eat them alone. It's a feast situation. And secondly, it's hard to make. And coming from an Egyptian, you're skeptical to another Egyptian. People are like, “You really have koshari?” Then when they taste it, they're like, “This is like my mom's.” And they're like shocked.
We are so fortunate. We get a lot of the single men that are out here studying, and they're like, “Oh my God, this totally reminds me of back home.”