We Arabs have an innate desire to feed people. Friends, neighbours, strangers, it doesn't matter. Sharing is fulfilling. But be warned, if an Arab tells you they're making meatballs, they're not. If they try to entice you with promises of a pasta bake, they're lying. Pizza? Not a crumb. You might, however, get lamb kofta with toum, or saneyet macarona bubbling out of the oven, or man'oushe always heavy-handed with za'atar.
I was born in Egypt but Sydney is home. Even as they were trying to make ends meet, my parents ensured I bonded with my birth country through language, stories and food. This didn't always bring me joy as a child. It took courage to open my lunchbox and release the waft of onion and garlic into the air among a class of Vegemite and Kraft cheese slices. At the request of my mother, my teacher Mrs Kirby made sure we all ate our lunch before we went out to play so there was no fresh air to dilute the aroma.
I often tried to pass off my hawawshi as a sandwich to my classmates. It's spiced meat encased in bread and then grilled over charcoal or baked in the oven. Technically, it could pass as a sandwich. But it isn't.
Hawawshi is more than a sandwich. It's busy Cairo with its incessant traffic. It's commuters double or triple parking to grab a bite from a street cart. It's the smell of charcoal and hot bread competing with dust and car exhaust. It's my dad as a young man grabbing a snack after finishing his exams. It's my grandfather taking a shortcut through the laneways and grabbing a few to treat his kids. So no, it's not a sandwich. The name 'hawawshi' is a connection to our family's memories. A connection to a life in a country left behind, and to people no longer within reach.
"It's my grandfather taking a shortcut through the laneways and grabbing a few to treat his kids."
The connection between food and language is well documented. Linguistic ethnographer, Martha Sif Karrebaek recalls her interest in food sparking in a Danish kindergarten. Not so much because of the kids' culinary skills, but because of what was in their lunchboxes. Martha tells us of an immigrant student having his lunch described as unhealthy by a teacher because it didn't feature rye bread, a staple in the Danish diet. It quickly became apparent that it's not only what we eat, but how we talk about food through our understanding of the world. The teacher was simply categorising food based on what she knew. It's something we all do because language and culture add layers to the food we eat.
Lucky for me Mrs Kirby often gave me five stars for a healthy lunch, despite what I unleashed into her tiny classroom.
Lunchboxes today are very different from what they used to be in the 90s. Sushi, bun cha, kofta, pide. It's all there. And seven year old me wants to sing.
My mother packed hawawshi in my lunchbox because she was keeping culture alive. She saw everyday activities and conversations as opportunities to pass on culture. Now that I have my own kids, I understand her tenacity. I'm teaching my kids to call Egyptian dishes by their names. Kushari is not lentil rice. And molokheya is not green soup. The same applies to food from all cultures. Thai coconut soup is called tom kha ghoong.
Describing food and drawing similarities to dishes that people may be more familiar, helps to capture minds. But imagine if we also captured hearts by celebrating food and culture completely, no matter how onion-y.
Even busy Cairo locals line up for these. The aroma of spicy meat and bread kissing the charcoal calls everyone to the street cart. It's traditionally made with beef mince, but this lamb variation guarantees a juicy filling every time. Recreate this laneway snack at home without a barbecue.
- 250 g lamb mince
- 1 onion, finely diced
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 tomato, finely diced
- 1 small red capsicum, finely diced
- ½ cup parsley, finely chopped
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp ground cardamom
- 1 tsp sumac
- 1 tsp paprika
- ½ tsp chilli powder (optional)
- Salt and black pepper
- 5 mini wholemeal flatbread (about 16 cm diameter)
- 3 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 nub of charcoal
1. Preheat oven to 180˚C.
2.Combine all the vegetables, spices and minced meat in a large bowl. Mix well by hand until incorporated. Set aside.
3. Carefully cut along the seam of the flatbread, keeping a portion intact so it can be closed back up. Fill with an even layer of the meat mixture. Close the loaf and apply gentle pressure with your hand to ensure the meat is well distributed. Repeat until all the flatbreads are filled.
4. Lay the hawawshi on an oiled baking tray and brush the tops with oil.
5. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes then carefully turn over and bake for a further 5 minutes or until golden. Arrange on a platter.
6. For the charcoal flavour, use tongs to hold a nub of charcoal over an open flame for about 5 seconds. Sit the hot charcoal on a strip of foil in the middle of the platter. Add a drop of oil on the lit charcoal to get it smoking. Cover the platter with foil and allow the charcoal flavour to infuse the hawawshi for 2 minutes.
7. Cut into halves or quarters and serve with tahini sauce, pickles and fresh salad.
Note: You can find the mini wholemeal flat bread at any supermarket. Choosing fresh bread makes it easier to open without tearing. You can use beef instead of lamb but ensure it contains