Not long ago, my husband and I, along with some expatriate friends, had the opportunity to dine at the Khan Farouk Tarab Café, a newly opened Egyptian restaurant in Doha located at the Katara Cultural Village. The “Cultural Village” complex sports an impressive opera house, an open air amphitheater, the Qatar Music Academy, a cinema, a beach, and a variety of international restaurants.
When we arrived at Khan Farouk Tarab Café at 6:00 on a Friday evening for dinner, early by Arab standards, the restaurant was already quite full, and since we didn’t have a reservation we had to squeeze into a corner where we sat atop a bench with comfy cushions splashed in hues of red, blue and green. Similarly colored portable cushioned armrests helped to give the restaurant the feel of an oversized majlis (sitting area commonly found in Arab homes and used for social functions).
In the opposite corner sat a middle-aged Arab woman (not sure if she was an Egyptian native), cross-legged, tending to the preparation of Egyptian bread the old-fashioned way. The mixed dough was in a silver bowl with a smaller silver bowl placed in front of her. Wetting her hands she would pull a doughy mold from the larger bowl and pat it in her hands in a circular formation, and place it on a large wooden tray filled halfway with crushed wheat seeds. Once the wooden box was filled, an oversized, and extended, wooden spatula was used to place each of the mounds in the gas-fired oven. When cooked, the round, flat, doughy bread was placed in another large rectangular wooden box to cool down before being put in a woven basket to be served to restaurant guests. Bread is an important staple in Egypt, and the larger Arab world, and is used as an edible utensil for dipping.
The restaurant, with outdoor and indoor seating, including a “family section,” was teeming with people, families and single men in thobes and ghuttras, all enjoying what I’ve been told by Egyptian expatriates is the only authentic Egyptian restaurant in Doha. The restaurant had a pleasant buzz with people chattering, several tables of young Qatari men smoking fruit flavored sheesha, and waiters decked out in green vests, tarbooshes (fezzes) with gold tassels, and harem pants, scurrying around.
Over the speakers, Umm Khultum’s wailing songs of love and loss could be heard throughout the restaurant. Umm Khultum, an Egyptian native who lived from the turn of the last century until 1975, is considered by many in Egypt, and the Middle East, in general, to be the greatest singer of all time. In her prime, Umm Khultum, (which means ‘mother of Khultum’), would sing two or three songs on stage, with certain lines repeated over and over again, that could last up to four hours depending on her creative mood and the reaction of the audience.
Once settled into our corner table, we had an opportunity to review the extensive menu. For starters we had Foul, or “Ful,” (a mashed up fava bean dish). There were quite a few options for ordering the Foul: with olive oil and lemon, with lemon, with butter, with tahini (a sesame seed paste), or with eggs. We decided on the “with olive oil and lemon” option. We also couldn’t do without Falafel, (made with fried chick peas), and sampled the “Tahina with Parsley Salad.” Parsley, or “baqdounis” in Arabic, is widely used in the Middle East as an ingredient rather than simply as a garnish, as is the case in the U.S.
Our friends also ordered Koushari, which brought back fond memories for some of the family members of their time in Egypt, and for others, not so much. Koushari is made with black lentils, rice, chick peas and pasta served with separate tomato sauce, and our friends called it “Egyptian spaghetti.” Along with these culinary delights we had the grilled chicken kebabs (the standard is the lamb or mixed grill kebabs) and the Molokhia, (like green spinach), with chicken, a favorite of mine and my husband’s. The Molokhia (sometimes cooked with rabbit) rivaled what my husband’s Lebanese mother used to make for him and the rest of the family. Tummies filled to bursting, we decided to forgo the famous Egyptian desert oum ali (literal translation is “mother of Ali”), made of bread, milk and honey.
Egyptian recipe of “Molokhia” or Melokhia (also known as tossa jute)
- 6 cups chicken stock
- 1/2 kg of fresh molokhia (or melokhia) leaves cleaned
- one tablespoon tomato paste (optional)
- one hot chili pepper (optional)
- one bay leaf (optional)
- one small onion, finely chopped (optional)
- black pepper
- two tablespoons of butter
- several cloves of garlic, minced
- one teaspoon ground coriander
- one teaspoon salt
- one tablespoon fresh coriander leaves (also called cilantro) or fresh parsley, finely chopped (optional)
- juice of one lemon or a teaspoon vinegar (optional)
- ground cayenne pepper or red pepper (optional)
- Chop the molokhia leaves as finely as possible. In Egypt, the perfect tool to finely chop molokhia leaves is a makhrata — a curved knife with two handles similar to the Italian mezzaluna
- Over high heat, bring the chicken stock to a near boil in a large pot. Add the molokhia, stirring well. Add the tomato paste, chili pepper, bay leaf, and onion (if desired), and black pepper, continuing to stir. Reduce heat and simmer. The molokhia will simmer for about twenty minutes.
- After the chicken stock and melokhia have simmered for about ten minutes: heat the butter in a skillet. Using either the back of a spoon in a bowl or a sharp knife on a cutting board, grind the garlic, ground coriander, and the salt together into a paste. Fry the mixture in the oil for two to four minutes, stirring constantly, until the garlic is slightly browned
- After the melokhia has been simmering for about twenty minutes and has broken down to make a thick soup, add the garlic mixture and the butter it was fried in to the simmering molokhia. Stir well
- Add any of the remaining optional ingredients that you like. Continue simmering and stirring occasionally for a few more minutes.
- Serve immediately, hot. Molokhia soup is often served over boiled Rice and sometimes with boiled chicken.