I’m not going to even try to comment or explain the long absence…suffice it to say that I do apologise. That being said, with all that’s going on right now in Egypt, I thought I would focus on a recipe today that takes me to the serene and clear waters of the north coast.
It’s a little slice of heaven, an area called Marsa Matruh, and not too far from Alexandria. Here the waters are crystal clear, the sand is fluffy and soft like powder and the villages are quaint, pretty much leaving you with nothing else to do but relax and look out at the waters. And fish.
The area used to be dotted with small fishing villages. My Uncle Fouad (Foo-Foo), told me that when they were younger, they would come up here for a few days of fishing and camping. It was the place to go for reconnecting with nature and escaping the chaos of Cairo.
Forward to the late 1990s, and the idea of restort towns and owning a condominium in the area is in vogue. My first introduction was sadly not to the quaint fishing village of said by-gone era, but instead a tranquil subdivision by the sea. In all fairness, it was beautiful, and simple. Not tacky (suprisingly) and serene. It was just on the sea and at your doorstep was the squeaky white sand and clear waters. That resort town is called Montazah.
However, the loud and obnoxious sister to Montazah is Marina. It’s a quick drive away, and it’s an overload of the senses….well last time I was there. Suped-up cars, music blasting loud enough to rattle anyone’s bones, and young teens/tweens roaming around doing what they do best: talk loudly and and try to get noticed.
But back in the calm and serenity of Montazah, was a boardwalk along the beach. There you can find little stores and grocerers, and food for take-out. When I was there, we were in a big group with family friends, who go there often and knew what snacks were worth the effort to find. And so, while this may have been well over ten years ago…I remember this moment perfectly. We were all out late, sitting on the beach and someone ran to grab a snack. 30 minutes later he returned with what he termed ‘egyptian pizza’, called ‘fiteer’.
It’s essentially phyllo (filo) pastry, so flaky layers of buttery loveliness stuffed with either savoury or sweet fillings. In this case, we had both. One had icing sugar, raisins, nuts and shredded coconut, and the other had a type of local feta and vegetables.
To my surprise, when I got back to Cairo, a cousin took me out one day for lunch to a fiteer stand just down the street. And there it was in all its glory: a small hole filled with men hanging about. But you walk in and the guy behind the counter is busy stretching the dough. You say what kind of filling you want, he assembles it, throws into the oven and hands it back to you all wrapped and ready to eat.
Where does it come from though? Well let’s remember that the dough is phyllo pastry that is just layered numerous times. So the phyllo pastry likely trickeled down from the Turks under the Ottoman empire. The idea of stretching dough until it reaches a paper-thin consistency can be traced back to Istanbul, at the Topkapi Palace. This was the main residence of the Ottoman Sultans for nearly 400 years.
Prior to the palace kitchens, the idea of folding or pleating bread could be related to the earlier form of phyllo called ‘yufka’, which means ‘thin’ in an older Turkic dialect.
When the Ottoman empire took over Egypt in 1519, as has been the case with many other foods or beverages, the phyllo pastry likely fell into common practice.
Either way, just about every culture has a version of dough stuffed with something, so it’s not that much of an original concept; but it’s the local ingredients that make it unique.
In this case, savoury or sweet. But the local ingredients for savoury will include feta cheese, torshi (pickled vegetables), olives, tomatoes, cucumbers. The sweet one will have crushed pistachioes, dried coconut, raisins, honey, icing sugar and a local form of clotted cream.
I’ll start off by saying buy your own phyllo pastry. I convinced myself it could easily be done at home, and while I did have a tasty version of it, it was not the same light consistency of a traditional feteer.
That being said, here is the recipe:
Total preparation time: 1 hour
Yield: 2 persons
2 1/3 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
1. Mix flour, salt and water together in a bowl
2. Keep kneeding by hand (you can use a mixer) until dough becomes smooth and stretchy
4. Shape into balls and grease with melted butter
5. Set aside for 15 minutes
6. Preheat oven to about 400 F / 250 C
7. Take one ball and cut into five pieces
6. Grease with butter (or oil)
7. Using a rolling pin, roll out each piece as thin possible
8. Once each piece is thin, try to further stretch it out by hand, taking care not to rip the centre
11. Carefully bring up the dough to seal in the filling
13. Bake in the oven until it is golden (about 15 minutes)