By Rebecca Taggart
Egypt’s revolution and the ouster of President Mubarak has kept it in the news this year while Egypt the tourist attraction, the home of Tutankhamun and the pyramids, has been placed on the back burner due to the political unrest. But it was that Egypt, the ancient ruins and pharaoh mummies, that drew me to visit there twenty-odd years ago.
During my visit to Luxor, I had a delicious soup one night at a small restaurant near the Nile River. Lentils and vegetables were pureed together with cumin and fresh lemon juice. It was perfect after a day spent hiking through the Valley of the Kings, and I asked the waiter what the ingredients were. He said if I liked the soup, I must come to his home so his mother and sisters could cook the definitive version. I accepted the invitation and several days later, he led me to a narrow, three-story house on the outskirts of town.
In Egypt it is rare to interact with local women, so I was disappointed when he led me to the roof, where a table for two had been set to catch the breeze among potted plants. I had hoped to eat with the waiter’s mother and sisters, but as a foreign guest, I was given the best seat and sacred hospitality. We feasted on many Egyptian dishes, including goat and the wonderful soup. After several hours, he asked me if I would like to meet his mother and sisters. I eagerly said yes, and we descended the narrow staircase to the kitchen on the second floor.
Suddenly, I was surrounded by smiling women and girls, all asking questions which I couldn’t understand. The waiter and I had communicated with a smattering of French, but I was hopeless with Arabic. Nonetheless, I felt very warmly welcomed. The mother carefully showed me all the ingredients she had used in the soup, and pantomimed cooking it. We all laughed. The women acted as though my coming there was a great honor; whereas, as an American, I could not believe the generosity they showed a total stranger.
I was reluctant to leave, but finally said my goodbyes as it grew dark. After all the amazing sights in Egypt, that dinner remains my most cherished memory. Equal to the astonishing sight of the pyramids across the desert and the magnificence of Luxor, was the warmth of the Egyptian people.
And in honor of those women, with whom I couldn’t speak but shared an intimate afternoon, I offer my adaptation of their simple but lovely recipe.
Shurit Ads (Egyptian Lentil Vegetable Soup)
2 1/2 cups dried red lentils
1 large onion, chopped (reserve 1/4 of the onion and finely chop)
2 ripe Roma tomatoes, cored and chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and chopped
1 zucchini, ends removed and sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoons ground cumin
1 lemon, juice of
Salt and pepper, to taste
Water or chicken broth (about 6-7 cups)
Pinch of cayenne pepper, if desired
- Add lentils, tomatoes, carrot, zucchini, and 3/4 of the chopped onion to a soup pot and add water and/or broth to twice the height of the lentils. Simmer covered until lentils and vegetables are soft, 15-20 minutes. Puree with a hand blender or food processor and set aside.
- Heat olive oil in rinsed soup pot and sauté remaining finely-chopped onions until light brown. Add cumin and cayenne (if desired) and stir one minute. Pour in lentil/vegetable puree and reheat gently, adding some water or broth if consistency is too thick. Add lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Serve with hot pita bread.
Keeps well for several days in the refrigerator.