“The recipes in this book are inspired by our love of cooking, our passion for sharing food and recipes, and our rich culinary heritage” reads the About This Book section of Bilhana: Wholefood Recipes From Egypt, Lebanon, and Morocco, the new cookbook that’s been making a splash in the Egyptian cooking scene.
Brought to us by Yasmine and Shewekar Gharably and photographed by Yehia El-Alaily, the recipes in this book include a Vine-Leaves Pie, a Vegan Moussaka, and a dessert of Date and Tahini Cups! Such bold recipes are the product of two and a half years worth of work.
This isn’t Yasmine and Shewekar Gharably or Yehia El-Alaily’s first dip into the cooking world. Yasmine used to work in the food industry as a consultant and has been in the food blogging world since 2016 through the website she co-founded Cairocooking.com, where she and her partner developed over 400 recipes. Shewekar is an interior designer with a passion for all things healthy. Along with also being a certified health coach and a culinary nutrition expert, Shewekar is the brains behind the social media hashtag #HealthyRocks.
Yehia El-Alaily on the other hand is a photographer of many talents. Though his portfolio covers interiors, nature, and architecture, photographing food is just something else for him. He’s been working in the hospitality and food industry for over 15 years and has worked with many local and international brands. These include The Four Seasons Hotels, Hilton Worldwide, Nestle, and Henkel.
We sat down with Yasmine and Yehia to know all about how Bilhana came about.
How did your love of cooking start? Where does it come from?
Yasmine: As a child, I used to bake, but my love of cooking started with my first job at Unilever. When we’d do home visits to consumers, I’d see how the women would come up with amazing recipes to feed their families, making the most out of the least ingredients because they used them to the maximum.
I was inspired by how creative they are in coming up with recipes for their kids and serving love and food at the table. I got a lot of tips from these women!
When did you feel like it was the right time to put your passion for cooking into a book?
Yasmine: There’s a gap in the market for good Middle-Eastern cookbooks. There are so many but they’re written by authors who are abroad, not from within.
I wanted to create a book with international standards coming from within Egypt, our culture, and our heritage.
Also, I wanted to make it clean and relevant to current cooking styles. I didn’t want it to be full of recipes that take a lot of time or have to be left overnight. People don’t have time for that anymore. So, it’s quick to make, modern, clean, and derived from our heritage.
Yehia: The book is Egyptian through and through. Even the plates we used are locally produced in Egypt, from Fayoum and other spots.
What unites middle-eastern cooking? How would you describe it?
Yasmine: It’s rich and wholesome for sure. There’s a cultural take that makes it special. We’re big on families and gatherings. Think of Iftar Ramadan for example. You rarely see in countries outside of the Middle East things like “Kabsa” or “Mandy” or “Maqlouba” because they don’t serve food to so many people.
“Food for us is about families and people, it’s not on the go.”
Is there a particular reason why Bilhana is in English?
Yasmine: Having it in English means that it’s accessible to so many more countries, including non-Arabic-speaking Middle Eastern countries.
“We wanted to take the book from Egypt to the world.”
Ideally, though I would like to translate it into Arabic, there’s been a demand for that in Egypt.
In the cooking world, presentation is key. How important would you say it is for food to look good as well as taste good? and how did you ensure that in Bilhana?
Yehia: If you don’t like how something looks, then you definitely won’t eat it. People always think food photography is easy but it’s actually one of the most difficult.
You have to make things look very appealing and the dish has to look organized. Simplicity is key in this field.
“In this whole book nothing was thrown out, everything was consumed. All of it is real food. Nothing was tampered with.”
Yasmine: It was very important for us to use ingredients that look fresh from the start. If I’m cooking something that has eggplants, pomegranate, and parsley, I’ll make sure the parsley and the pomegranate are on top so the colors look vibrant.
We were very careful not to make the food look stylized like food commercials.
“We wanted to cook something that’s attainable, and that looks good in the picture and in real life when the reader makes it.”
Some would say health and tastiness don’t mix. How did you preserve both elements in Bilhana?
Yasmine: One of the key messages of the book is that healthy does taste good. You know, Yehia doesn’t eat healthily, he eats junk! So, the fact that he enjoyed the food after the shoots for me, was proof of that.
When you have all the taste elements present, food can never taste bad. You need to always make sure there’s something crunchy, something sour, something salty, and something citrusy.
“Healthy doesn’t mean boiled food. You just don’t overconsume the ingredients and take all the nutrients out of it. You also don’t kill it with fat and processed items.”
Were there any recipes that you worried about how people would react to?
Yasmine: The Vine Leaves pie was definitely the most controversial. Firstly, because we stuffed it with Quinoa, not rice. And secondly, because it’s a pie and not “sawabe3” (rolls). It’s such an authentic dish in our culture, people don’t want to mess with it.
But, we’ve actually gotten really good feedback on it! The top layer of vine leaves turns out crispy and from inside, there’s a layer of herbs and you have these nuts on top. So, it’s very different from the usual wara2 3enab and it’s not as hard to make.
The other thing I was worried about was that most of the desserts are sugar-free. They’re mostly sweetened with Raw Honey, molasses, or date syrup. It’s also dairy-free. So we were worried people wouldn’t accept them as a dessert.
But generally, there’s been a demand for refined sugar-free desserts. I think people appreciate having the option.
How has Bilhana been received so far?
Yasmine: I think the book’s message comes across. It’s our heritage recipes done in a modern clean way. There’s a demand for this in general.
Also, everything was written from the heart, so it got to people. For example, when you write tips like don’t over-cook the garlic for more than 7 minutes so it doesn’t go bitter, people appreciate it. Because they can relate to and learn from it.
“I was sitting in the kitchen writing the notes in the pantry and intro section so I can remember to put them in the book.”
For the future, Yasmine, Shewekar, and Yehia hope to publish an Arabic version of Bilhana. They also haven’t ruled out the possibility of another book! We can’t wait to see what else they have in store for us. Find out where to buy Bilhana here.