These past couple of weeks have been absolutely killer, wrapping last month’s issue of the magazine, my husband pulling 20-hour work days and having to still keep up with the day to day.
So by the end of last week I was so beat up mentally and physically that all I could think to sooth my ills was some good old fashioned comfort foods.
Forget the macaroni and cheese, the chocolate pudding and the chicken soup. I wanted a big hearty bowl of creamy, tangy kishk lapped up with baladi bread crisped and charred right on the hob.
Kishk is a dish almost everyone I know absolutely loves for reasons no one can fully understand. My theory is that its appeal lies in the fact that the dish is abundant in umami, or the fifth taste that has been described as savory deliciousness. Scientifically, umami is the taste of savory protein found in things like meats, broth, some vegetables and fermented products. If you know what kishk is made of you've already made the connection.
While there are many ways to make kishk, the dish is basically yogurt or soured milk whisked in with a savory broth and thickened with a variety of products like rice, flour or the traditional dried wheat balls called kishk seedi. Most of the time it is topped with caramelized onions and poured into bowls so it can attain a pudding-like consistency before being eaten with bread. There are no spices, herbs, complicated ingredients or fanciness here. It's straight up starch, fat and salt.
I took my Egyptian comfort food craving and weariness straight to, surprise, my mother. Fifi adores kishk. There would be days she'd prepare elaborate meals for family and friends and yet make one small humble bowl just for herself.
I begged her for some kishk more than I'd ever begged for a pony as a child — which I did, a lot. "I thought you didn't eat carbs anymore, what's wrong with you?" asked Fifi. "I just need something comforting right now, please make me some this Friday?" I begged. "All right," she said, "but I'm charging you for it by the lo'ma (bite.)" It was a deal.
When Friday came, though, my mother wasn't her usual self. Years of constant activity have gotten the best of her, leaving her back weak and fragile. An unfortunate slip that morning caused her to remain in bed for the rest of the day and most of the week after. I arrived in a panic, worried sick and feeling guilt well up inside me that I'd even asked her to make anything that day.
"I'm sorry I can't make your kishk," she said, the idea of being taken care of eating her up more than my guilt. "Mama, it looks like you need more comfort than I do today. I'll make the kishk."
Several minutes of back and forth yelling later, and I managed to wrangle the recipe out of her and made, for the first time, my own batch of kick. My mom and I shared my kishk in her bed on a tray covered in the charred flecks of the bread I'd crisped and two untouched spoons. In a way, even though I was the comforter that day, cooking one of my mother's recipes for her and watching her enjoy it was more comfort than having it served to me.
So here’s Fifi’s recipe for the ultimate Egyptian comfort food.
3 tablespoons flour 1 cup of yogurt 4 cups broth of your choice
2 tablespoons ghee, divided 3 tablespoons white short-grain rice 1 medium onion chopped finely Salt, to taste
1. Mix together the flour and the yogurt and let it sit.
2. Heat one tablespoon of ghee in a pot and add in the rice. Cook until toasted and golden brown.
3. Add the broth to the rice and let it cook until the rice is completely cooked through and almost overcooked, like rice pudding.
4. Whisk in the flour and yogurt mixture until it all thickens and comes together. Salt to your liking.
5. In another saucepan, add one tablespoon of ghee and caramelize your onions until they're a deep brown.
6. Add half the onions into the kishk and mix in.
7. Pour into individual-sized ramekins or one large bowl.
8. Top with the rest of the onions and eat using hot, crispy bread as makeshift spoons.