The Mediterranean Dish
“If you truly wish to find someone you have known and who travels, there are two points on the globe you have but to sit and wait, sooner or later your man will come there: the docks of London and Port Said.”
Port Said: My Mediterranean Roots
My love for the big, bright flavors and intrinsically healthy ingredients of the Mediterranean was born long before I ever heard of this thing called “the Mediterranean Diet.”
It began in my birthplace, the cosmopolitan city of Port Said, Egypt, a nineteen-mile stretch of Mediterranean coastline at the north entrance to the Suez Canal. Since its construction more than 150 years ago, the waterway connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea—and offering a more direct route between the North Atlantic and northern Indian Oceans—has opened a world of trade, bringing in boatloads of goods and tourists from all over the world and influencing all aspects of the city’s culture, from food to architecture and fashion. When I was growing up, the Suez Canal was only a fifteenminute leisurely walk from my family’s flat, and we would often stroll along its boardwalk enjoying Italian gelato and roasted nuts while watching large white passenger ships, flying flags from Europe and elsewhere, go by. Our favorite pastime was cruising the canal with our church friends in small motorboats we’d rented for the day.
Like most Egyptians, we walked practically everywhere: to work, to the beach, or to a restaurant to meet up with friends. Public transportation was so crowded, and while we did have a car, we still preferred to walk whenever we could.
One of my earliest memories was tagging along with my dad, Baba, and walking to the open-air marketplace we called the souq. I must have only been five or six. Baba was in charge of picking up ingredients that my mother turned into simple but bountiful azoomas
(feasts) for our family and frequent guests. These souq outings were not about quickly gathering groceries; for Baba, it was about connecting with people, and I loved being out with him for hours in the community. Baba was a well-loved pastor and a very busy man, who had friends from all walks of life and in all corners of Port Said, across Egypt, and in fact, around the world. He was friends with dignitaries and government officials, he conducted business with all sorts of people, and he was also a friend to many locals no matter their occupation. He never met a stranger and he took pride in knowing everyone by name. And many of the merchants at the souq knew his name.
On souq days, I remember vividly how his hand held tightly on to my tiny one as we navigated the busy, narrow streets lined with carts and merchants. All around us, the warm, salty air teemed with scents of fresh herbs, especially mint and dill, or the sweet fruit from the stands where fresh mangoes, bananas, and strawberries were being pressed into juice; just-caught fish were displayed in bins of ice or were broiling in the forn, our local clay oven, at the neighboring souq el samak (fish market).
Whenever a vendor called out to Baba, he always stopped, even if we had already bought what they were selling. I remember thinking, “But Baba, we just bought oranges,” as he bought yet one more kilo of them from another vendor. And he would always be sure to buy those last few bunches of parsley from the older widowed women who sat on the ground, barefoot, wearing black garb from head to toe. He was keen on noticing those quieter, frail ones who were not waving large signs to advertise their goods, and whose voices were often drowned out by the shouts of other merchants—some with megaphones— competing for shoppers’ attention. “Since we bought the last of her herbs, she can go home and rest. It’s our job to care for the widows in our community,” he explained.
My dad had a knack for picking the most perfect produce. He would hold up a tomato, feeling its skin, and giving it the gentlest squeeze, he would bring it a little closer to my face. “Smell it; it smells ripe, right?” Or he would pick up a watermelon and say, “This one is not too large, but it’s heavy for its size. You know what this means?” I did—it was a juicier watermelon. Then he’d bring it up closer to his ear and give it a tap as I stood there thinking, “What is he listening for? Is the watermelon speaking to him in some sort of code?” To this day, I cannot buy a watermelon without giving it a quick thunk
. Does it really make a difference? I just do it. My favorite stop on those leisurely souq excursions was Mr. Bishay’s falafel joint. Mr. Bishay and Baba were good friends, and while the two men caught up on life, I snacked on freshly fried falafels—so herby and fluffy.
Even decades later, when Baba and Mama visited us in America, we kept up some of these same souq rituals as we strolled together through the farmers’ market of our Atlanta suburb. I was now the one to lift the heavy watermelon and give it a tap to blindly determine if it was sweet. Baba watched, smiling proudly. Like him, I too developed a knack for picking out the best produce. By now he was in his early 70s, his hair had thinned and turned a silvery gray, and he had added a few pounds. But to me, he was still his handsome self: tanned skin, dark eyelashes and eyes—one brown and one black, which absolutely fascinated my girls—and chiseled cheekbones that we called pharaoh cheeks (which I like to think I inherited).
He loved the weather in Atlanta and the fact that the farmers’ market carried gorgeous stone fruit that he thought were just like the ones you’d find at the Port Said market. In my kitchen, I often charred the fruit and finished them with a little honey and crushed pistachios (see page 258); or I made something like a Mid-Summer Tomato and Peach Panzanella (page 50) with toasted day-old bread to enjoy out on the back porch.
We’d come home with our spoils from the market plus a few organic lamb shanks from the local grocery store. Baba loved it when I braised them in a red wine sauce with cinnamon and rosemary (see page 244), which was one of the most popular recipes on my website, The Mediterranean Dish
. He never understood exactly what I did and how millions of people could stumble upon an article I’d written or a recipe of mine on the internet, but he didn’t care about the logistics. What excited Baba most was that his little girl was “breaking bread with the masses.”
The last time I made my lamb shanks for Baba was Christmas of 2018. That was also the last time I ever saw him. One early morning in January I received a phone call informing me of his sudden passing. He had been well. He simply went to bed and did not wake up.
I was fortunate to attend his funeral with a couple thousand of his closest friends from all over Egypt and the world. It was my first time back to Port Said in fifteen long years, and I spent my days listening to story upon story about this man I called Baba, his legacy of love, and the profound impact he had both on individuals and on the city as a whole. The governor stood to share a few words at the post-funeral celebration. He said, “Today the city lost one of its greatest pillars, and I lost a dear friend.” As I listened, I simply wished that I could hold Baba’s hand to walk through the sunny souq one more time.
It took me a good month to return to the kitchen again, but I had to do it. So, I put on Baba’s gray V-neck wool sweater, which I had brought back with me from Egypt—the last thing he wore. It was warm. It smelled like him—spicy and sweet, but subtle. He was not a flashy guy.
Then I stepped into the kitchen and made lamb shanks.
Baba had a saying: “Make it your job to put a smile on someone’s face.” He made so many people smile—at the souq and everywhere else he went—and I have tried to live my life accordingly, no matter where I lived, be it the Mediterranean Basin, Canada, the American Midwest, or finally Atlanta, the hub of the American South. The best way I know to make people smile is by sharing the hospitality, instilled in me as a child, that comes with a simple, nutritious home-cooked meal.