Bisara: A vegetarian dish from Egypt’s Abla Nazeera

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The 893-page, twelfth edition of Abla Nazeera Nicola’s “Cooking Essentials” sits plump on the kitchen shelf in its plain brown hard cover. Its pages are old and frayed, splattered with the spices and stains of recipes tried and tested. It is austere with no pictures, and contrasts with the newer and glossier cookbooks sitting at its side penned by stars of the global culinary circuit such as Nigella Lawson or Jamie Oliver.

Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson

Nevertheless, “Cooking Essentials” is the quintessential cookbook, written by the woman who Egypt can just as proudly boast of as does America of its Julia Child or its Irma S. Rombauer.

Nazeera Nicola passed away in 1992 at the age of ninety. She was known to generations of Egyptian women as Abla Nazeera (Abla connoting both older sister and teacher).

Nazeera was the Grand Diva of 20th century Egyptian cuisine, and as such, she remains unrivaled still.

She studied culinary art in England and taught cuisine, as a teacher and inspector, at the Egyptian Ministry of Education. She hosted a culinary radio talk show in the 1960s and then authored her seminal work “Cooking Essentials”, whose editions have never run out of print.

Encyclopedic in its scope, Nazeera’s “Cooking Essentials” details Egyptians’ enduring recipes from mundane kishk, whose very name is ancient Egyptian for the sumptuous almond-based sharkaseya – perfected in Egypt by its Circassian Mamluk ruling caste.

Kishk

It includes classics such as the fava bean-based fuul and tamiya to the sophisticated Quiche Lorraine introduced in the wake of the French expedition in Egypt.

Tamiya

Nazeera Nicola, with versatility and ease, unfolds the eclectic tapestry that constitutes Egypt’s contemporary cuisine.

Here is her recipe for a popular Egyptian staple called bisara.

It can be eaten as an appetizer or a main meal.

Bisara with pita bread (photo: blogspot)

It is served warm after cooking or cold from the fridge, accompanied by Egyptian baladi pita bread.

Abla Nazeera uses dried molokheya (Jew’s Mallow) and mint for greens.

In another version of the recipe, molokheya and mint is replaced by parsley and dill.

Ingredients:

A quarter cup of dried and peeled (broad) fava beans

2 thinly sliced onions

Salt to taste

Hot chili pepper (optional)

1 sprig of celery

1 sprig of fresh mint

Half to one teaspoon dried molokheya

Half to one teaspoon roasted ground caraway seeds

Ingredients for taqleya (garnish of vegetables lightly fried in oil)

2 minced onions

1 teaspoon of powdered coriander

2 cloves of minced garlic

One and a half table spoons of oil or butter (olive oil may be used with a dab of butter)

Method:

Soak fava beans overnight.

Wash beans, cover with water and boil for 5 minutes then discard water.

Cover beans with fresh water.

Add celery and thinly sliced onions.

Let beans simmer over a low fire for 40 minutes, adding water when needed until cooked soft to a pulp.

Pass the cooked beans through a tightly meshed metal sieve or pulse, in batches, into a blender.

Add salt, spices, molokheya and mint to the beans.

Boil until cooked to medium consistency, stirring occasionally and adding water when needed.

Preparing Taqleya

Fry the minced onions until soft and yellow.

Set half of the fried onions on a plate.

Add minced garlic and coriander to the onions remaining in the pan and stir quickly until light red in colour.

Add fried onions to the cooked fava beans then stir again.

Add a pinch of hot chili pepper.

Serve the bisara in dishes.

Let cool then sprinkle the rest of the fried onions on its surface as a garnish.