Baked yellow lentil falafel, warm freekeh and aubergine salad, Moroccan chicken with green olive and harissa salsa, and roasted quails with cinnamon and pomegranate molasses are all dishes that can grace your sofra (dining table), should you take your cues from Bilhana: Wholefood Recipes From Egypt, Lebanon and Morocco, a cookbook published in June by the American University in Cairo Press.
Co-authored by sisters Yasmine and Shewekar Elgharably, who live in Cairo, Bilhana is sumptuously illustrated with photographs by Egyptian-British photographer Yehia El Alaily.
As indicated in the introduction of the heritage-infused book, “bon appetit” is the closest translation to bilhana. However, those in the know would agree it does not entirely capture the cultural nuances of this Egyptian-Arabic word. A term that signifies generosity, warmth and the act of coming together to share lovingly made food, bilhana is perhaps untranslatable.
Healthy Middle Eastern recipes
“We wanted to focus on our heritage recipes, [especially] the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern styles of cooking,” Yasmine tells The National. “Our aim was to highlight that our traditional food can be cooked in a healthy way, and that it is clean as well as grain and vegetable-based.”
The sisters grew up in a family of home cooks. Yasmine is the founder of CairoCooking.com, “a collaborative platform spreading cooking inspirations between passionate home cooks”, while Shewekar is a holistic health coach, nutritionist and recipe developer.
“I studied health coaching and designed a culinary nutrition programme that helped me understand how to use ingredients in healing, and which ingredients should be cooked together to ensure the greatest absorption of vitamins and minerals,” Shewekar says. “This [knowledge] was reflected in the recipes we developed for this book.”
It took the duo two years to finalise Bilhana – from developing and testing some recipes to perfection, and editing, modifying and replacing others. Working closely with them was El Alaily, whose decluttered, modern and enticing images give this book a soothing vibe.
“The main idea was to show Middle Eastern food in a modern way. We didn’t want to feature the copper trays or khayamiyya tablecloth [usually used as props]. We were after a very modern book,” El Alaily says.
“The backgrounds are the same throughout. No plastic was used in keeping with the healthy aspect. We used handmade clay products, mostly sourced from Fayoum [Egyptian city], as well as some porcelain and ceramic products.”
Focus on local ingredients
Beyond the twist of innovation recognisable in most recipes, Bilhana celebrates local seasonal ingredients cooked to uphold their flavour.
“Yasmine and I are always inspired by the sight of vegetables on carts in Egypt and across the Arab region. We always want to stop and buy,” says Shewekar. “I’m also signed up with farms that deliver baskets of fresh produce. I love the element of surprise that comes with deciding what to cook with these ingredients. I think it is this passion that inspired our recipes for the book."
When it comes to the cooking process, the duo tries to “bring out the best in ingredients as opposed to overcook or kill [their flavour] with spices. This is how we normally cook at home and it was just reflected in the making of our book,” says Yasmine.
The sisters were also eager to design the recipes to be accessible to amateur cooks and kitchen experts alike, “without overcomplicating things”, says Shewekar. Accordingly, Bilhana opens with an In Your Pantry section, a two-page guide advising readers on the best products to buy, from good-quality olive oil, tahini and pomegranate molasses to fresh parsley, arugula and mint, as well as a vast selection of spices, grains, legumes and pulses.
“As part of my health coaching and culinary programme, I had to give some workshops [teaching] people how to cook. I’d always receive questions about where to source clean ingredients and how to store them to prevent them from going bad,” Shewekar says of the reason behind penning this section.
Also included are easy-to-follow instructions on how to store cooked food and the most efficient kitchen equipment to use.
Following the introduction are the Breakfast & Mezze, Soups & Stews, Salads, Pulses & Grains, and Veggies & Greens sections, each featuring clean, appetising and simple-to-make dishes, such as vegetable-filled egg shakshouka, Moroccan chickpea soup, beet and mint salad, and vine leaf pie.
The Roasts & Grills and From the Sea sections include a vast selection of popular Middle Eastern dishes, including chicken messakhan and almond-crusted sea bass.
As for dessert, there is plenty to pick out from the delightfully titled Sweet Things section, which comprises “power snacks for before or after exercise, or in the middle of the day when you’re in a hurry”, says Yasmine.
Examples include date and tahini cups and orange hibiscus ice-pops.
Finally, the Drinks section promises the same delectability, with date jallab and iced Turkish coffee being some of the featured options.
The result is a recipe book that has something for every meal planner yearning for a Middle Eastern treat. As Shewekar pus it: “Be it keto, vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian or paleo, Bilhana fits all diets trending right now. Those not on a diet will still end up with a beautiful sofra.”