Cooking with Naguib Mahfouz


Eat Your Words

In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers. 


The West has a long-held obsession with the roles of women in Muslim societies. The Cairo Trilogy, by Naguib Mahfouz (1911–2006), captures the complexity from within. Mahfouz is the only Arab writer to have won a Nobel Prize in Literature, and these three works, Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street, published in the fifties, were the first modern books originally written in Arabic to be included in the Everyman’s Library. They trace the fate of an Egyptian family in World War I—when the country was still a member of the British Empire, awash with Australian soldiers, but covertly hoping for a German victory—through World War II, when the political situation started to repeat itself.

The people at the heart of the book are Mr. Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, a Cairo shop owner who is “wealthy, strong and handsome,” a tyrant and a patriarch as befit the virtues of his time, and his wife, Amina, a woman who was married to him at fourteen and shut up in her house ever since. She embodies the feminine ideals of obedience, submission, serenity, and religious faith. Of her, Mahfouz writes, “Whenever she thought back over her life, only goodness and happiness came to mind. Fears and sorrows seemed meaningless ghosts to her, worth nothing more than a smile of pity.” Amina has “beautiful small eyes” and a “sweet, dreamy look” and does her housework with “pleasure and delight” and “incessant perseverance and energy.” The family’s downfall—and also Egypt’s, Mahfouz implies—is the structural weakness of these roles. Amina’s lack of education and judgment and Ahmad’s harshness and self-indulgence wreak tragic consequences for the next generation. 

It’s a testament to the writer’s skill and love for his culture that Amina’s dignity comes through, even to readers with a different conception of a woman’s place in society. I made a menu from her life, taking as inspiration the descriptions of her household routine. Mahfouz details the centrality of the courtyard oven room, where “a blaze of the fire gleamed from the depths … through the arched opening … like a flaming firebrand of joy in the secret recesses of the heart.” This room has “a special claim on Amina’s affections.” Every day from early morning, the sound of a servant kneading dough for flatbread comes from the oven room “like the beating of a drum.” Amina turns out “sweet compotes and doughnuts for Ramadan” and “cake and pastries for [Eid].” Other rituals around food in the household are a breakfast of beans and eggs, presided over by the patriarch, and a “well loved” sunset coffee hour attended only by women and children.

I made Egyptian-style coffee, sweet and cardamom flavored, in a type of narrow-mouthed stovetop pot common throughout the Middle East. In my oven—a wimpy GE version and not “a flaming firebrand,” alas—I baked whole-wheat flatbread followed by basbousa, a semolina cake soaked in rose syrup. And then, finally, I cooked, a “Circassian chicken dish with hazelnut sauce,” a trendy, imported dish from twenties Cairo that becomes the source of a long-running family feud among the women in Mr. Ahmad Abd al-Jawad’s household. One faction likes it; another, headed by the strong-willed eldest daughter, Khadija, is scornful. “What did we see?” Khadija says. “Rice and sauce strategically arranged and a taste that’s neither here nor there.”

Readers, try it, and fight amongst yourselves.

Egyptian Coffee
This recipe calls for a Turkish-style stovetop coffee maker.

4 tbs Arabica coffee beans, finely ground
3 cardamom pods
1 tbs sugar, or more to taste

Put the coffee, cardamom pods, and sugar in the coffee pot, fill with cold water, and stir. (The pot I used held 2 cups of water; if yours is different, adjust quantities accordingly. This may seem like a lot of coffee for the water, but it’s supposed to be strong.)

Bring to a boil, watching closely so the pot doesn’t boil over.

Turn off the heat and let sit for 5 minutes to allow the grounds to settle and the coffee to steep.

Pour. The slightly foamy surface is a hallmark of the correct brew.

Egyptian Flatbread, Aish Baladi
This recipe is adapted from Saveur. Makes 8 small flatbreads. A baking stone is ideal, but a large cast-iron pot or skillet works too.

1 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
1 1/4 cups warm water
2 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour, plus more for dusting
1 1/2 tsp large-flake salt, plus more for dusting
1 1/2 tsp olive oil, plus more for greasing
2 tbs wheat bran, for dusting

In a large bowl, whisk the yeast with the water and let stand until foamy, 10 minutes. Add half the flour and stir until smooth. Cover the dough with plastic wrap and let stand for 30 minutes.

If all has gone well, the mixture should be spongey and full of air bubbles.

Uncover the dough and, using your hand, mix in the salt and oil. Then add the remaining flour and mix until the dough comes together.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Place the dough in a large bowl greased with oil and cover with plastic wrap. Let stand until doubled in size, about 1 1⁄2 hours.

Place a baking stone (or very large cast-iron pan) on a rack in the oven and heat the oven to 500° for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, punch the dough down and divide into 8 equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball and then flatten into a 5-inch circle.

Lightly sprinkle more whole-wheat flour over 2 baking sheets. Divide the dough circles between the baking sheets and loosely cover with a kitchen towel. Let stand until slightly puffed, about 30 minutes.

Sprinkle the top of the breads with large-flake salt and wheat bran.

Working in batches, place the dough circles on the hot baking stone (or in the cast-iron pan), spaced 2 inches apart, and bake until puffed and lightly charred in spots, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer the breads to a rack, and let cool for 5 minutes before serving.

Circassian Chicken
Recipe adapted from The Mongolian Kitchen cooking blog.

For the chicken and stock:

1 whole chicken
1 carrot
1 stick of celery
1 large onion
2 whole garlic cloves
3 bay leaves
4 cardamom pods
3 cloves
5 whole black peppercorns
1 tsp sea salt
1 chicken stock cube
garlic powder

For the hazelnut sauce:

1 cup hazelnuts
4 slices white bread
1/4 to 1/2 cup heavy cream
1/8 tsp paprika
1/8 tsp nutmeg

For the rice:

1 cup rice
pinch of salt
1 tsp cardamon powder
1 tbs butter
1 tbs oil

For the paprika oil:

1 clove garlic, minced
2-3 tsp paprika
olive oil


fresh chopped parsley, for garnish

Cook the chicken and make chicken stock:

Put the chicken in a large pot with the stock cube, onion, carrot, celery, garlic, bay leaves, cardamom pods, cloves, black peppercorns, and salt.

Cover with water and gently bring to a boil, then simmer for 45 to 60 minutes until the chicken is cooked.

Remove the chicken from the pot and place on a roasting tray. Brush with olive oil, then sprinkle with salt, pepper, and garlic powder.

Roast the chicken in the oven on a high heat for 10 to 20 minutes or until golden brown, basting periodically. Remove from the oven and let cool.

Pour the the remaining liquid through a sieve or strainer until you have a clear(ish) broth.

Check the seasoning of the chicken stock, and add salt if needed.

Make the hazelnut sauce:

Remove the crust from the bread and soak in some of the stock.

Blend the hazelnuts into a smooth paste in a food processor or blender, adding chicken stock as needed.

Add the soaked bread and blend again.

Gradually add more stock, if needed, until the mixture is thick, but smooth and creamy.

Sieve the mixture into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the paprika and nutmeg, taste, and add more as desired.

Remove from heat and add the cream gradually, until you’ve achieved a creamy but not-too-liquid consistency.

Make the rice:

Melt the butter in a little oil, add the rice, a pinch of salt and 1 tsp cardamom powder. Fry until the grains are all opaque.

Add 1 cup of water and 1 cup of the chicken stock, cover, and cook on a very low heat for 15 to 20 minutes or until all the water is gone and the rice is cooked.

Make the garlic paprika oil:

Put the minced garlic and 2 tsp paprika in a pan, cover with olive oil, and gently warm through until the garlic is cooked.


Take the cooled chicken and pick the meat off the bones, mixing light and dark and shredding with your fingers.

In a large bowl, assemble in layers, first the chicken, then the rice, using about equal quantities.

Invert the bowl on a serving platter. Cover the rice-chicken dome thickly with hazelnut sauce, drizzle with paprika oil, and top with chopped parsley.

Serve warm.

Basbousa (Semolina Cake with Rosewater and Almonds)
Adapted from The Taste of Egypt, by Dyna Eldaief.

For the cake:

2 cups semolina flour
1 cup sugar
2 sticks unsalted butter, melted
1 cup milk
1 cup self-rising flour (or 1 cup normal flour, mixed with 1 1/2 tsp baking powder and 1/2 tsp salt)
20 raw almonds, skins removed

For the syrup:

1 cup of sugar
1 cup of water
juice of 1 lemon
1-2 tbs rose water

Make the syrup:

Combine sugar, water, and lemon juice and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Turn down the heat and simmer to thicken for 10 minutes.

Add the rosewater and taste, adding more, one tsp at at time, if the flavor is not distinct.

Remove the syrup from the stove and chill.

Make the cake:

Preheat the oven to 350. Lightly grease a 9-by-9 inch square baking pan with butter.

Place the semolina and sugar in a large bowl and combine. Add the melted butter, along with the milk and flour, mixing well after each addition.

Transfer the cake mixture to the baking pan. Cut it into squares of the desired size. (Yes, cut the batter; it’s thick enough that these cuts will help divide the cooked cake, as well as delineate where to place the decorative almond.)

Place an almond in the center of each square.

Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until golden brown and a tester inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Pour the chilled syrup—all of it—evenly over the hot cake. The temperature difference helps with absorption. Serve when the cake has cooled.

Valerie Stivers is a writer based in New York.

Read other installments of Eat Your Words here