If you follow me on Instagram then you may be aware that this year for Thanksgiving, I subjected my family to a culinary experiment as part of my dissertation research. It involved simultaneously cooking two very different recipes for duck, Egyptian style: one written in formal Arabic (fusha, pronounced FOOS-ha) and the other part of an oral tradition in many Egyptian families. Today I’m blogging about the former.
If you want to jump straight to the duck recipe, go right ahead. If you want to know more about where these recipes come from, how I translated and adapted them, and what ducks have to do with cookbook history and sauces and diglossia (#duckglossia, that is), keep reading right here.
The dissertation I’m writing on the history of the “modern” kitchen in Egypt and Morocco really began with a visit to the Ezbekiya book market in Cairo in the spring of 2014. I was wandering around asking vendors about books related to food, and one of them thrust a copy of Usul al-tahi, better known as Kitab Abla Nazira (“Abla Nazira’s book”), into my hands. I will be forever grateful: that cookbook asked me most of the questions I’m trying to answer now.
Abla Nazira (“Auntie Nazira”) was an Egyptian woman dispatched to England in 1927 to learn modern domestic science and cookery. She returned to Cairo two years later to work for the Egyptian Ministry of Education, and in 1941 she wrote a 900+ page cookbook. Written in formal Arabic, it includes recipes for everything from koshari and mulukhiyya (Egyptian classics) to vichyssoise and scones. (Abla Nazira actually co-wrote the book with another woman, Bahiya ʿUthman, but nobody seems to know very much about her.)
The book was originally written for schools but quickly became a popular cookbook, a common gift for new brides among Egypt’s rapidly expanding middle, educated classes (giving cookbooks as bridal gifts was commonplace in Germany among a certain class in a certain era, a colleague tells me –– please do chime in with a comment if you know of similar traditions elsewhere!). By 1978 Kitab Abla Nazira was ubiquitous enough to be the basis of a series of jokes in Faisal Nada’s comedy Al Motazawegoon. A brief clip from that play is included early on in this episode of Egyptian television show Sahibet al-Saada (at 7:30):
The joke, briefly, for non-Arabic speakers: the wife cooks mulukhiyya according to Abla Nazira’s precise instructions and the husband finds it unpalatable to the point he thinks it might even kill him. Punchline: “Is this from the mulukhiyya page or the obituary page?!”
The host of the episode and her guest soon realize that the book’s Arabic is so formal they have to use a dictionary to understand its recipes. Their subsequent attempts to cook a few recipes from the book are nothing short of hilarious, and worth a watch if you understand Egyptian Arabic.
Today Abla Nazira is a cultural reference, fodder for jokes, and perhaps still the most famous Egyptian cookbook in print. Many, many Egyptians I spoke to had a copy somewhere in the family. But it seems that Faisal Nada’s jokes about it landed for a reason; very few people remember actually cooking with it, in part because its directions are so complicated. The cookbook was something you owned, not something you used, in other words.
In some respects this is not so very different from how cookbooks operate today: they’re something we buy or gift, an object to display. I find few cookbooks I own to be truly functional as practical manuals. But because Abla Nazira’s cookbook was so rich with material and its author such a cultural icon, I began wading through its pages seeking something worth writing about. I found it in the sauce chapter.
The description of what we might call “sauce theory” at the start of this chapter sounds like it was written by someone who was trained in the French mother sauces (Abla Nazira was. I went to her college archives in Gloucestershire to check). To make a sauce, she and ʿUthman write, you need a fatty substance, like butter, plus a thickening agent like flour, then you add a liquid (milk, broth, etc) and then other elements for added texture or flavors; they are more or less setting out the framework for making the French mother sauces.
Such sauces, they write, do all sorts of wondrous things. For example, they can “decrease the aroma (nakha) of excess fatty material in certain foods, like duck and goose” (p. 67). To that end they recommend serving duck with apple sauce and brown sauce.
Duck and goose are important in Egyptian cuisine; they’re closely associated with the region of al-Fayyum and with rural culinary heritage (Basima Zaki Ibrahim’s 1934 cookbook al-Ghidha wa-l-matbakh wa-l-ma’ida included a whole chapter on the food of the ancient Egyptians, including the image to the left). So I contend that the cookbook’s treatment of duck is a significant intervention: an attempt to preserve a traditional dish but “civilize” it with elegant, European sauces.
I personally have always loved the traditional Egyptian duck recipe––which I’ll be revisiting in my next post, and which might be described as the vernacular counterpart to Abla Nazira’s fancy fusha duck: it’s mostly been passed down in families through oral and embodied traditions. So I decided to compare these two recipes, and see how they might map onto the distinction between registers of Arabic that exists thanks to the phenomenon known as diglossia. Hence the terrible food pun of the day: #duckglossia.
Diglossia occurs in Arabic and other language systems wherein two registers of a language are used by a single community. The language an Egyptian woman uses to describe a recipe to you and the language Abla Nazira uses to write her recipes are both Arabic, but there are significant differences between the two in vocabulary, tone, and syntax.* It struck me that cooking my way through both duck recipes, like studying texts in different registers of Arabic, might offer some insight into the differences in how people create, learn, transmit, and execute different kinds of recipes.
So I flipped to Abla Nazira & ʿUthman’s poultry chapter, where the instructions for roasting duck did not disappoint as an example of a “high register” sort of recipe. It was as complex, and rewarding, as a challenging excerpt of classical Arabic literature. To start with, it wasn’t one recipe, it was four: the duck, the recipe for onion stuffing from the “Miscellaneous” chapter, a recipe for brown sauce, and a recipe for apple sauce.
Below is my translation of the recipe with comments on putting it into practice. I converted some of the measurements (the book uses teaspoons and tablespoons, but for larger quantities it uses the ratl, for which some complicated conversions to grams and cups are given at the start of the book). The original text appears in bold; my remarks are interspersed. Recipes and ingredients have been slightly remixed for clarity. Get out your verb charts, dear readers: this one’s a doozy.
from Usul al-tahi: al-nazari wa-l-ʿamali by Bahiya ʿUthman and Nazira Niqula, better known as Kitab Abla Nazira, pp. 78, 98, 201, 909.
Ingredients and method:
2 cups chopped onions
½ cup pieces of European bread
Yes, this seems like very little. But ducks aren’t so large, so it worked out fine. I tore up pieces of a baguette and let it sit out and stale a bit before mixing the stuffing.
1 tablespoon clarified butter
Salt, pepper, seasonings
What seasonings might they mean? I am not sure. I just used salt and pepper.
½ teaspoon thyme
She doesn’t specify fresh or dried; I used fresh.
Egg or milk for mixing
I used milk.
Rub onions with salt, pepper, and seasonings, and add the thyme and clarified butter and bread, mixed all together. Knead with milk or egg making a pliable mixture.
I melted the clarified butter just a bit, to make it easier to incorporate, and added just enough milk to make it all come together.
Large apple, peeled and sliced
I doubled this entire recipe and it made an appropriate amount of sauce for a 6 pound duck.
Peel of one lemon
Sugar for sweetening
1 teaspoon water
Clove or grated nutmeg
I chose nutmeg in honor of my favorite cat Nutmeg (1999-2017).
Place all ingredients on low heat until they are well cooked. Strain and serve.
Quite straightforward: I cooked this covered on low heat for about 40 minutes. I didn’t strain it. It only takes a very little bit of sugar and just a little bit of water, and before long it all breaks down into a nice simple apple sauce.
Light brown sauce (to make 1 cup):
½ tablespoon flour
½ tablespoon clarified butter
2 cups water or broth
I used beef broth.
Salt and white pepper
1. Heat the flour and clarified butter until they are browned
2. Add broth or water gradually, stirring well; continue to stir then strain well before using
This is a pretty standard, simple, roux-based sauce. The hardest part is not burning the roux, by using low heat and keeping your eye on it. I stirred until the liquid was reduced by about a third, then seasoned to taste and strained.
Putting it all together:
2 tablespoons clarified butter aka samna, aka ghee
[Parsley] In brackets because it was not included in the list of ingredients but is mentioned in the instructions.
1. Clean the duck and prepare as you would a chicken and fill with onion stuffing.
Her instructions for preparing a chicken include removing the feathers. Happily all I had to do at this stage was rinse it with cold water then fill the duck with the stuffing.
2. Place on a dish covered with clarified butter, and cover the surface of the duck with clarified butter.
3. Place in a hot oven until cooked well (between an hour and an hour and a half; baste periodically with more clarified butter).
This was, well, a little too vague. I consulted Mark Bittman for some specifics about recommended timing and temperature and decided to adapt his instructions slightly.
Roast the duck at 425 degrees Fahrenheit; after 30 minutes, breast side down, prick the bird with a knife, baste with clarified butter, then flip and roast another 20 minutes before pricking and basting again. I used an instant-read thermometer to cook the thigh to 155 degrees Fahrenheit (which didn’t take much longer).
4. Garnish with parsley and brown sauce
I opted to pour the brown sauce all over the bird as it rested, before it was carved.
5. Serve with apple sauce
…on the side.
Wow, you say, that is a lot of work for a duck. It was a lot. It was also…delicious. More on that below but first some notes about this recipe.
Provenance. I used the Facebook page of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery to crowd-source ideas about where this recipe might have come from. The group’s brilliant hive mind turned up several useful comments: one person pointed out that it would be a sensible recipe anywhere with duck hunting and apples in the fall –– so perhaps it originated as a seasonal recipe. Another person found recipes for preparing duck and goose with apples and onions and sage in several 19th and early 20th century English and American cookery books; these recipes also typically feature some kind of gravy made from the drippings, which we can see somewhat paralleled in Kitab Abla Nazira‘s brown sauce. And another contributor confirmed that serving apple or quince sauce (quince!) with fatty meats like duck and goose was a common traditional combination (meaning, I assume, in the Western culinary tradition).
Given all this, and the combination of English recipes and French techniques Abla Nazira learned at her British college, it seems likely that this was a translation of a recipe that Abla Nazira and/or ʿUthman were taught in school in the UK.**
Seasonings. The enigmatic reference to “seasonings” in the onion stuffing recipe has me puzzled. Is it an invitation for the Egyptian housewife to add in some mastika (Arabic gum) and cardamom––a common Upper Egyptian combination for cooking duck? If European cookbooks included sage with apple-duck-onion recipes, why use thyme here? Sage is certainly well-known in Egypt and the rest of North Africa and the Middle East: friends report it is used to season poultry and roast lamb in Jordan and Palestine, and to stuff duck or chicken and in kofta recipes in Iran, though I admit I’ve yet to see an Egyptian use for it other than in tea. Either the cookbook authors figured thyme was more common and likely to be embraced by their Egyptian readers, or they adapted the recipe from a European one that did use thyme.
Clarified butter. So many of these cookbook’s recipes appear unaltered from their European versions, with their scientifically measured ingredients and fussy roux and parsley garnishes. Abla Nazira and her co-author make very few significant adaptations to their European recipes, but one concession that is absolutely everywhere in this book is the use of clarified butter rather than fresh butter in everything except the most traditional European pastries. This is fascinating, and I have many thoughts, but they will all go into Chapter Four of my dissertation, which will be all about fat. Until then, I’m making a note of it here.
Tasting notes. I have to admit I was not expecting this duck to turn out so well (perhaps an indication of my bias towards simpler recipes with four or five ingredients). But everyone at the table agreed that this duck was delicious: juicy, succulent, brimming with flavor, and tender. To me it was a bit like eating a rare filet mignon: brimming with savory juices, buttery texture, just enough give. The stuffing was good too, and I suspect it played a far greater role in offsetting the pitfalls of duck than the brown sauce––it kept the duck from drying out while absorbing much of the fat drippings. But the brown sauce certainly didn’t hurt, and the apple sauce was lovely on the side.
As for how it stacked up to the “vernacular” duck (a family recipe from an Egyptian friend), I must admit that the classical fusha duck was the clear favorite. Everyone agreed that both versions were tasty, but Abla Nazira’s was preferred.
Before I revisit that recipe in my next blog post and reflect on the differences between the two recipes, I’m going to try making the family, “vernacular” recipe again––because I think my first attempt was flawed. This has to do with some insights into Egyptian sauce theory that I hadn’t quite fully processed before starting this particular experiment, and I think Duck No. 2 deserves another trial. I also have some thoughts on wild duck vs. farmed duck and eating styles that play into it, but before I can delve into all that, I need to get back into the kitchen. Watch this space!
** If you watch the video clip above you’ll notice it’s unclear where Bahiya ʿUthman attended school in the UK (there’s no question about Abla Nazira’s school; Kuliyat Gloster is without a doubt the Gloucestershire College for Domestic Science, at the time the premier domestic science training institution in the UK). In Arabic, ʿUthman’s school sounds like “Bridge House” when the hosts sound it out from the book’s title page (I thought exactly the same when I first read it). Poring over some archival notes from the British National Archives the other day I found a reference to “Berridge House,” a domestic science training college in Hampstead. I think we can safely assume this was her mystery school.