Another Victorian travellers tale gives us a menu for a dinner in Egypt in 1874. Amelia Ann Blandford Edwards (1831-1892) was the daughter of one of Wellington’s officers, and a writer and Egyptologist. She visited Egypt in 1873-4, and wrote up (and illustrated) her experiences in A Thousand miles up the Nile. She gives a lively account of a dinner with Mustapha Aga in March 1874.
“In the round of gaiety that goes on at Luxor the British Consulate played the leading part. Mustapha Aga entertained all the English dahabeeyahs, and all the English dahabeeyahs entertained Mustapha Aga. We were invited to several fantasias at the Consulate, and dined with Mustapha Aga at his suburban house the evening before we left Luxor.
The appointed hour was 8.30 P.M. We arrived amid much barking of dogs, and were received by our host in a large empty hall surrounded by a divan. Here we remained till dinner was announced. We were next ushered through an anteroom where two turbaned and barefooted servants were in waiting; the one with a brass basin and ewer, the other with an armful of Turkish towels. We then, each in turn, held our hands over the basin ; had water poured on them; and received a towel apiece. These towels we were told to keep ; and they served for dinner-napkins. The anteroom opened into a brilliantly-lighted dining-room of moderate size, having in the centre a round brass table with an upright fluted rim, like a big tray. For each person were placed a chair, a huge block of bread, a wooden spoon, two tumblers, and a bouquet. Plates, knives, forks, there were none.
The party consisted of the Happy Couple, the Director of the Luxor Telegraph Office, L., the Writer, Ahmed, and our host.
"To-night we are all Arabs," said Mustapha Aga, as he showed us where to sit. "We drink Nile water, and we eat with our fingers."
So we drank Nile water; and for the first time in our lives we ate with our fingers. In fact, we found them exceedingly useful.
The dinner was excellent. Without disrespect to our own accomplished chef, or to the accomplished chefs of our various friends upon the river, I am bound to say that it was the very best dinner I ever ate out of Europe. Everything was hot, quickly served, admirably dressed, and the best of its kind. Here is the menu :–
MENU. MARCH 31, 1874.
White soup : — (Turkey).
Stewed pigeons. Spinach and rice.
Kebobs* of mutton. Kebobs of lambs' kidneys.
Tomatoes with rice. Kuftah.*
Turkey, with cucumber sauce.
Pilaff* of rice.
Mish-mish.* Rus Blebban.*
Samak: a large flat fish, rather like a brill.
Dall: roast shoulder of lamb.
Kebobs : small lumps of meat grilled on skewers
Kuftah: broiled mutton.
Pilaff: boiled rice, mixed with a little batter, and seasoned with salt and pepper.
Mish-mish : apricots (preserved).
Kunáfah : a rich pudding made of rice, almonds, cinnamon etc etc
Rus Blebban: rice cream
Totleh: sweet jelly, encrusted with blanched almonds
These dishes were placed one at a time in the middle of the table, and rapidly changed. Each dipped his own spoon in the soup, dived into the stew, and pulled off pieces of fish or lamb with his fingers. Having no plates, we made plates of our bread. Meanwhile Mustapha Aga, like an attentive host, tore off an especially choice morsel now and then, and handed it to one or other of his guests.
To eat gracefully with one's fingers is a fine art; to carve with them skilfully is a science. None of us, I think, will soon forget the wonderful way in which our host attacked and vanquished the turkey – a solid colossus weighing twenty lbs., and roasted to perfection. Half-rising, he turned back his cuff, poised his wrist, and, driving his forefinger and thumb deep into the breast, brought out a long, stringy, smoking fragment, which he deposited on the plate of the Writer. Thus begun, the turkey went round the table amid peals of laughter, and was punished by each in turn. The pilaff which followed is always the last dish served at an Egyptian or Turkish dinner. After this, our spoons were changed and the sweets were put upon the table. The drinks throughout were plain water, rice-water, and lemonade. Some native musicians played in the anteroom during dinner; and when we rose from the table, we washed our hands as before.
We now returned to the large hall, and not being accomplished in the art and mystery of sitting cross-legged, curled ourselves up on the divans as best we could. The Writer was conducted by Mustapha Aga to the corner seat at the upper end of the room, where he said the Princess of Wales had sat when their Royal Highnesses dined with him the year before. We were then served with pipes and coffee. The gentlemen smoked chibouques and cigarettes, while for us there were gorgeous rose-water narghilehs with long flexible tubes and amber mouthpieces. L. had the Princess's pipe, and smoked it very cleverly all the evening.”
Here is a nineteenth century English take on ‘pilaff’ (or pillaw or pilau), from John Mollard’s The Art of Cookery (1836).
Pilau Of Rice.
Wash, pick, and dress, in the same manner as for plain rice, observing only, that before setting in the oven, a little pounded mace must be added to the rice ; then put into a stewpan a chicken half boiled and a piece of pickled pork three parts boiled, and cover with the rice. On serving, place the fowl and pork at the bottom of the dish, with the rice over, and garnish with boiled or fried button onions and halves of hard eggs, hot.
Pilau Of Rice (another way).
Wash, pick, and boil a pound of rice in plenty of water till half done, with a dozen of whole cardamum seeds; then drain it, pick out the seeds, and put the rice into a stewpan, with three quarters of a pound of fresh butter and some pounded mace, and salt. Cut a loin of house lamb, or some fresh pork, into small pieces; put them into a frying-pan, add a small quantity of cinnamon, cloves, cummin and cardamum seeds pounded and sifted, with a bit of butter and some Cayenne pepper, and fry the meat till half done. Then add two bay leaves, and four good sized onions sliced, to a pint and a half of veal broth; boil them till tender and rub them through a tamis cloth or sieve. Then boil the liquor over a fire till reduced to half a pint, and add it to the fried meat and spices, together with some peeled button onions boiled. Place some of the rice at the bottom of another stewpan, then a layer of meat and onions on the rice, and so on alternately till the whole is put in. Cover the pan close, set it in a moderately heated oven for two hours and a half, and when to be served, turn the rice out carefully on a dish.
Quotation for the Day …
Traveling, you realize that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents.
There's an art shop here in town called "Mishmish."
Happy New Year,
This was very interesting as I am interested in that period of Egyptian travel. I love to read the Amelia Peabody novels. I googled the book and even the newer editions are quite pricey. I keep saying I need to get to the library, a must now for 2009.
Thanks for sharing. It is really fascinating how much the East and West cuisine share in common.
Your take at culinary history will help us a lot at Foodista. We have launched an online food and cooking encyclopedia ala wikipedia and we'd like you to see what the foodie community have contributed. Hope to see you there.
I would love to have that meal, as well as the narghileh afterward. It just sounds so luxurious and almost decadent, to lounge about and feast with your fingers. I'd want to skip the Nile water, I think.
I love the Amelia Peabody books as well, and it reminds me of one of the meals they had, but was barely described.
By the way, I'm very allergic to cigarettes, but smoking a narghileh doesn't make me sick at all. And it is quite wonderful after a meal.
Rochelle, if you happen to find any of those books on google books or Project Gutenberg, let us know?
Excellent quote -- is it from "Invisible Cities"?
Someone should write an article about food in Calvino's works...
Sorry Gary, didnt make a note of the quotation - a lot of them I collected way back when it didnt seem necessary .....
So, are you going to write the book then?
This didn't seem to register last time, so I'll try again. I found the full text of Amelia Edwards' "A Thousand Miles up the Nile", at this link. Enjoy!
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