BENGALURU: Moustafa Elrefaey, executive chef and co-founder of Egyptian street-food chain Zooba Restaurants, which recently opened a branch in Riyadh, speaks fondly of growing up on a wholesome, and mostly vegan, diet: Fresh cheese, a variety of breads, and foul mudammas were staples — all sourced from his grandmother’s farm in Tanta, Egypt.
After several years of experience in the United States — graduating from prep cook to sous-chef, to executive chef — Elrefaey returned to Egypt’s growing culinary scene.
At a time when many of the country’s chefs were looking to the future — introducing new flavors and creating fusion cuisine — Elrefaey went the other way, searching deep into the country’s past for inspiration and asking himself, “What did the builders of the pyramids eat? How did they sustain themselves through the arduous task of building the architectural wonders that dominate Egyptian iconography?”
Working with historians, farmers, and local chefs, Elrefaey is on a mission to unearth the culinary history of Egypt and bring simple, natural, healthy food back.
His most intriguing discovery yet? A 4,000-year-old cookie recipe that uses tiger nut flour, is stuffed with dates, and fried in olive oil.
Q. What is your top tip for amateur cooks?
A. When you prepare to cook a dish, read the recipe carefully — take it step-by-step. It makes a huge difference.
Q. What’s one ingredient that can instantly improve any dish?
A. I was taught by a brilliant chef that Worcestershire sauce can elevate anything. The really interesting tamarind flavor in it works with everything.
Q. What is the most common mistake you find in restaurants you visit?
A. Overcomplicating things. We have restaurants in Egypt that serve only one item and that item is fantastic. Some sophisticated restaurants try to impress you with several dishes and half of their food is mediocre. I always look for simplicity.
Q. When you go out to eat, what’s your favorite dish or cuisine?
A. I enjoy any type of beef — grilled or smoked. I’m also a sucker for Indian food; I look for it everywhere I go. If a city has good Indian food, it usually means that it has really good food full stop.
Q. What’s your favorite dish to cook?
A. I adore okra. I use a traditional recipe; I make it how my mother and others have been for years and years: Smash the okra and cook it in broth, then garnish it with lemon juice. It’s simple, and so delicious with bread.
Q. What’s the trickiest dish to get right?
A. People in Egypt take some dishes for granted. For example, koshari. There are several ways to make the same thing and people think: “Oh, it’s street food, so it’s simple.”
But it’s really not. If you don’t get it just right, it will be a mediocre creation, but if you nail it, people will wait in line for it.
Q. Are you a disciplinarian in the kitchen? Or are you fairly laidback?
A. I might snap when we have a really big crowd, if the team is lagging behind. Other than that, I love my team. We work in a challenging environment and stand on our feet for 12-13 hours a day. It’s a really, really tough job.
Q. What do you love about your job?
A. Everything that I just said: The challenging environment. I work well under pressure. When people finish their food and leave with a smile, it makes me so happy.
Chef Moustafa’s Egyptian-style okra
400g okra; 2 cups hot water; 4 cups fresh tomato juice; 1 medium onion, diced; 1/2 cup green peppers, diced; 1 tbsp lemon juice; 1 tsp salt; a pinch of ground cumin; 1 tbsp olive oil; 2 cups garlic cloves
1 cup freshly peeled ginger; 11/2 cups white of lemongrass; 1 and 1/2 cups sunflower oil
Make the ginger-garlic paste:
Place the garlic, ginger, lemongrass and sunflower oil in a blender and mix until the paste is formed.
1. In a pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until it turns a light golden color.
2. Add a tablespoon of the ginger-garlic paste and sauté for two minutes.
3. Add the green pepper and cook for one minute.
4. Add the tomato paste and cook for one minute.
5. Add salt, cumin, and hot water.
6. Bring the mixture to a boil. Add the okra and simmer for 30 minutes.
7. Remove from stove and garnish with lemon juice.
8. Serve with warm bread.
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