Food Festival: Chef Ibrahim Ismail Mustafa from Cairo is in Kochi cooking up a culinary fiesta at the Trident Cochin

Thanks to the Arab Spring, thanks to the revolution and thanks to the slowdown in tourism in Egypt that we have Chef Ibrahim Ismail Mustafa in Kochi hosting Khan el khalili, the Egyptian food fest at the Trident Cochin. Otherwise he would have no time to get away from the luxurious resort Sahl Haseesh on the Red Sea coast, it being chock full with guests round the year. And one can imagine - the lure of the Pyramids, the cruise down the Nile, Tutankhamen and all those magical tales and gorgeous sights. “Kerala is very beautiful too,” he says in response. Chef Ibrahim is in India for the first time and happy to bring the authentic flavours of his land. He has brought with him handpicked spices, zattar and sumac, herbs and home-grown broken rice to serve the true taste of his land. Not only this, the chef has gone a step ahead and brought with him the music of his region, songs sung by Kawkab al-Sharq (‘Star of the East’), singer Umm Kalthum (1898-1975).

Hookah bar

Travancore, the restaurant hosting the theme buffet, for lunch and dinner, is all ready and waiting. Umm Kalthum’s Arabian songs ring in the regional feel. Bearers dressed in dark waistcoats and red Fez walk about courteously informing interested diners about the special food. Hookahs and centre table settings with baby pineapples, and small Tutankhamen cut-outs carry the magic of sandy distant lands. An alfresco Hookah bar in bright tents and canopied sit outs in the courtyard raises the mystical experience.

Chef Ismail and Chef Eeshaan, executive chef of Trident, beam with satisfaction at having laid out a delectable menu. Food is a communal celebratory experience in Egypt with most families sitting around and savouring the experience. And hence each dish has a story, like the dessert Ummaali. It is a pudding made by Umma for Ali, her son. A milk and bread crust pudding it is enriched with nuts and butter, a gooey concoction that’s soaked in mother’s love. The story is so endearing that one enjoys eating it with double vigour.

The starter platter or the Mezze is elaborate. Familiar dishes like hummus, babaganoush, and garlic flavoured yogurt are immediately recognisable. But it is the Baladi, a fresh cubed vegetable salad, “like our kuchumbar” seasoned in olive oil that makes for a perfect light starter. For a straight-into-the-meal-start go for the beef sausages. Dolma made of fresh vine leaves, brought thoughtfully by the chef, is stuffed with broken rice and nuts and rolled into small green wraps into a neat starter.

There are some commonalities between Indian and Egyptian cuisine, informs Chef Eeshaan. Potatoes are called batata (in Mumbaiya lingo) and gaajar is gaajar is carrot here and there. Tagine is a vessel akin to a degchi with a lid and dishes made in it are suffixed with tagine, like the batata tagine, potatoes baked and cooked in tagine.

Baking, grilling, sautéing and smoking are the main methods of cooking. The lamb fata is an absolutely stunning dish, popular and party fare. With bread as base, it is layered with flavoured rice, rich with nuts and herbs and topped with braised pieces of succulent meat on the bone.

Meat and fish

The Egyptians are more meat eaters than fish but savour the mullet, sea bass, dorado and the Talabiya from the Nile. Here the fish sayadeh is a thick fish stew, delectable and a must.

Egyptians use spice generously but not too much ginger. The Moroccan spice mix of cumin, cinnamon and star anise infuse the aroma in rice and meats.

Chickpea forms the main ingredients in a lot of the dishes, while tahina or sesame paste is used in abundance. Paprika from red pimentos is another commonly used garnish.

Fine vermicelli is used in main course dishes as well as in desserts, like the tantalising kunafa, a baked pudding, a must during Ramadan.

Egyptian sweets use for their main ingredients coconuts, lots of dry fruits, sugar syrup, pine nuts and are milk based. Aziaiya is a gorgeous milk cake. Sheikalama is an almond coconut cookie.

Such a rich and tasty spread goes well with a shared Indian and Egyptian favourite - a cup of chai. That ends on a perfect note. Chef Ismail is happy that he has brought a fulsome slice of his country currently on the throes of change. Will he come again with more?

Inshaallah, he says happily.

The buffet comes at Rs.799 inclusive of taxes and the festival runs through March 9.

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