Can you smell that? That burning, smokey air? That’s fall. The season I probably despise the most, because what comes after fall? Winter. It’s probably about to start now…any minute.
But, we’re more than half way through the fall now, and so I suppose I’ve gotten use to it, and can participate in those cozy fall things people like to do. I don’t wear wool, so that’s out of the question, but for me, cooking heartier meals is a fall thing. So yay me.
I decided to revisit one of my favourite stews: Basila wa roz
(peas with rice). A simple and hearty stew that’s easy to flavour and even easier to eat.
As an undergraduate student in freezing cold Montreal, I had a good Lebanese friend. I think my way of trying to connect with people from the Middle East is immediately through food, because the language thing ends as soon as it starts, with some blank stares from my end. And then I usually blush out of embarrassment. In any case, my friend Rasha and I bonded over studying and food. My excitement was heightened at our new friendship when she invited me over for dinner. She told me she was going to prepare something simple, and when I came by she pointed to the stew waiting on top of the stove: fasolia wa roz (beans and rice). “It’s one of my favourites” she told me. I think I wanted to pretend I knew it, so I responded with a “mine too”.
Luckily, I wasn’t too far off. It is more or less the exact same stew both my parents made for us growing up, but as I mentioned, we used peas instead of beans. But beans are a common addition to the stew in Egypt as well. However, string beans or green beans, or ‘fasolia’ are not native to Egypt, or the Middle East for that matter.
They are native to the Americas, India and China. When the Spanish began their trade outside of Europe, they introduced the green bean to the French around 1597. That’s probably why the green beans have evolved over the years into the name of ‘french beans’.
The first round of French colonization of Egypt was in 1798, which lasted only three years, so not much time for their culinary influence to seep in just yet. However, the second wave of French colonization of Syria and Lebanon after World War I guaranteed that the French culture found its way into day-to-day cuisine, which was inevitably brought over to Egypt by the Lebanese, Armenian-Lebanese, and Syrians.
When the more recent wave of immigrants trickled into Egypt in the late 1800s, early 1900s, the French and Italian influences were solidified in Egyptian cuisine. The Italians also brought along their love of cooking with the string beans.
To vary the dish a little, I decided to showcase my aunt’s rice dish. It’s a common way of serving rice in Egypt. Rice pilafs are not very popular in Egypt; the fanciest we get with our rice is often one of three ways: white rice with ground liver and pine nuts, white rice and pine nuts, and white rice with small vermicelli.
The latter is the more popular presentation. Although it may not the fanciest of rices, it still adds a touch of ‘I care’ in the meal. And it adds a slightly nutty flavour to the rice.
The addition of vermicelli probably came about with the large Italian influx of immigrants in the late 1800s/early 1900s. In arabic, vermicelli is referred to as shaareyah, which comes from the word ‘shaar’ meaning hair. However, the vermicelli used is normally bought already cut into small pieces. If you can’t find that, just buy regular vermicelli and break it yourself.
The rice dish is called: roz bil shaareyyah
Total preparation and cooking time: 2 hours (including rice)
-can be longer depending on cut of meat
Yield: 4 persons
1 tablespoon of olive oil (or butter)
1 white onion
1 lb. of cubed beef (or lamb)
2 cans of tomato paste (156 ml)
1 stick of cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground allspice (if available)
2 cups of water
2 cups of green beans (fresh or frozen)
1 cup of short-grain white rice
1/4 cup of vermicelli (broken into small pieces)
1 tablespoon of olive/vegetable/corn oil
1 and 7/8 cups of water
1. Dice onions
2. In a stewing pot, heat oil and fry onions
3. When onions are soft, add beef
4. Brown beef for a few minutes until everything is seared on the outside
5. Add tomato paste and water
6. Add cinnamon and allspice. Salt and pepper to taste
7. Let stew cook for about an hour or more; until meat is tender
8. Cut off stems and ends of the beans
9. When meat is tender, add beans
10. Let cook for another 15 minutes
11. Serve on rice with fresh green onions or sliced onions in lemon juice (or white vinegar) and salt
1. On high heat, add oil to pot
2. Add vermicelli to oil and continuously stir until all the pasta has turned brown (but not burnt)
3. Once the vermicelli has changed colour, take the pot off the heat.
4. Add water and salt to taste.
5. Once water is boiling, turn heat to low.
6. Add rice.
7. Stir and keep covered until rice is cooked (about 15 – 20 minutes)
And there you have it. A simple variation on a household staple with some fancy rice.