Cooking up a revolution

Armed with a mismatched set of cheap aluminium pots, a propane gas stove and a warm smile, a 33-year-old housemaid from Cairo has become the unlikely sensation of post-revolutionary Egypt—an inspirational symbol of a new era.

Ghalia Mahmoud has become a celebrity chef in just a few weeks after the boss of a new Egyptian TV channel hired her to do a cookery spot during the month of Ramadan, which began in August.

TV viewing usually soars during Ramadan and Mahmoud shot to fame. In her traditional dress, and in a studio mocked up to look like the kitchen of an average working-class Egyptian, Mahmoud’s brand of budget-conscious cuisine has won her a growing following in a country gripped by economic uncertainty.

She announced at the end of one show that she was giving some Eid treats she had made to her Christian neighbours—a small message of tolerance that chimed with the national mood as people look forward to a “new Egypt”.

“The old government only treated the crème de la crème with respect, and the rest of us were invisible,” said Mahmoud last week. “I hope that for my two girls the country will be different.

Local heroine
“I’m really happy that people like me,” she added.
“I love them too. On the streets they wave and ask, ‘Are you really the Ghalia?’” Her daily trip to the local vegetable market, in the poor neighbourhood of El-Warak to buy food for her family of 15, now takes twice as long as she is besieged by well-wishers.

It was TV executive Muhammad Gohar who decided to put Mahmoud, his sister’s maid, on to his new network, Channel 25—named in honour of January 25, when the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak began.

First he gave her the test of creating a meal that would feed a family of eight for £3. For Mahmoud, one of nine siblings in a fatherless family, it was something she had been doing all her life. The underclass in Egypt, who have been living on about £150 each a month, has now taken her to their hearts, calling her the “cook of the 25 January revolution”.

“This is the new Egypt, a new era, a new television, a new people-to-people talk, instead of authoritarian-to-people,” said Gohar. “A lot of poor people see themselves in her.”

“You women are smart”
The producer of the show, Habiba Hesham, said during the programme she could hardly keep up with the incoming phone calls from viewers. “She has an energy and a sense of humour that suits the people,” said Hesham. People phone in to ask questions or just to say hello. With her broad smile, Mahmoud tells her audience: “You women are smart and you can cook anything if you try.”

Along with her pots with missing handles, her measuring cups are made of plastic and the only electrical device is a well-used blender. On her round tin table are vegetables bought from Cairo’s street vendors—courgettes, tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, onions—and she follows simple, authentic recipes, such as mashed fava beans, stuffed vine leaves and cabbage, with cucumber and cheese on the side. As for meat, the expense means it is only cooked for one meal a week, on Fridays, the Muslim sabbath.

But Mahmoud also talks of recipes she will be producing for Egyptian Christians during Lent: “In poor Egyptian neighbourhoods, there is no Muslim-Christian divide. That divide was of Mubarak’s making,” she told her audience. She is breaking the divides between rich and poor too—in one show she took a call from a wealthy group of giggling girls out in their Mercedes who wanted to make her “delicious lentil soup”.

Mahmoud gets calls from children who tell her: “Auntie Ghalia, we love you.” Along with her new Facebook page there is another site declaring: “Ghalia Mahmoud for president!!” In the new Egypt, anything could be possible.—

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