Last evening while re-reading “Letters from Egypt“, by Lady Duff Gordon (1821-69) , I was delighted to find the following recipe for fattah – a delicious lamb, rice and bread dish topped with a garlic-butter-vinegar sauce. The recipe is exactly the same as the fattah that I have eaten in the western Delta prepared by a bedouin family whom I knew. I’d totally forgotten the wonderful description that she gives of the dish and of the people who shared in the eating and the sheep that provided it.
The garlic-vinegar-butter sauce that she describes is called taqliyyah and is usually made with semnah (clarified butter).
Lady Duff Gordon lived in Egypt 5 years, primarily in Luxor, in order to ease her suffering from TB. In the summers she would go by boat to Cairo, and it was in Bulaq-Cairo that the following dish was prepared by her staff. She was a fascinating woman, a ‘Sylvia Beach’ of the mid 19th. Century, who gathered literati about her in England prior to her forced departure due to illness.
While in Egypt it is said that she learned Arabic and moved comfortably amongst the people. While still in England she had translated several books from French and from German – can’t remember which – but clearly, a gifted linguist and scholar in her own right.
Her book presents a window to life during the Ottoman’s harsh rule of the country that is both fascinating and humane. The letters in the book are all addressed to her husband.
To Sir Alexander Duff Gordon_. OFF BOULAK _August_ 27, 1866.
Dearest Alick, ……..
…On the day when Omar killed poor Ablook, my black sheep, over the bows (of her new boat)* and ‘straked’ his blood upon them, the three _Ma-allimeen_ came on board this boat to eat their dish, and I followed the old Arab fashion and ate out of the wooden dish with them and the Reis ‘for luck,’ or rather ‘for a blessing’ as we say here; and it seems that this gave immense satisfaction.
My Reis wept at the death of the black sheep, which used to follow him to the coffee-shop and the market, and ‘was to him as a son,’ he said, but he ate of him nevertheless. Omar surreptitiously picked out the best pieces for my dinner for three days, with his usual eye to economy; then lighted a fire of old wood, borrowed a cauldron of some darweeshes, cut up the sheep, added water and salt, onions and herbs, and boiled the sheep.
Then the big washing copper (a large round flat tray, like a sponging bath) was filled with bread broken in pieces, over which the broth was slowly poured till the bread was soaked. Next came a layer of boiled rice, on the top of that the pieces of boiled meat, and over all was poured butter, vinegar and garlic boiled together.
This is called a _Fettah_, and is the orthodox dish of darweeshes and given at all _Khatmehs_ and other semi-religious, semi-festive, semi-charitable festivities. It is excellent and not expensive. I asked how many had eaten and was told one hundred and thirty men had ‘blessed my hand.’ I expended 160 piastres on bread, butter and vinegar, etc. and the sheep was worth two napoleons; three napoleons in all, or less–for I ate for two days of the mutton.
* The slaughter of an animal and smearing of the blood – in this case over the newly-constructed boat – was a common action to bring good luck to a venture or trip. I last experienced this in el-Obeid, Sudan (Eastern Sudan), before a long overland drive back to Kartoum. This was before a road was built between el-Obeid and Khartoum, and so one simply followed sand tracks, which could be extremely confusing.
Before beginning, my driver slaughtered a chicken and smeared the blood on the 4wd pickup. We did get to Khartoum about 18 hours later, delayed because about half way there I realized we were going Southeast instead of Northeast (by roughly calculating the position of the stars). The driver was so busy negotiating the sand that he’d not realized we were following the wrong set of tracks! Thereafter, he continued to drive and I to navigate. A good arrangement.