What’s in a Pot of Mahshi?

This dish is an all-time favorite for Egyptians. These rice-stuffed vegetables cooked in broth tell a long and winding story of Egyptian food history. So, what’s in a pot of Mahshi?

By Google Arts & Culture

Created by ZEST

Nile Delta and the Suez Canal in Egypt taken by Expedition Two crew (2001-06-21)NASA

In order to understand what mahshi means to Egyptians, it is important to find its roots in Egyptian culture. The ancient Egyptian name for Egypt (Kemet) means Black Land. The Nile deposited a dark, rich, and fertile soil in Egypt for centuries. It was so bountiful and unique from neighboring lands that the country was known for it. Coupled with seemingly unending sunshine, Egypt was simultaneously the salad bowl and breadbasket of the region.

Surveying the fields for Nebamun, fragment of a scene from the tomb-chapel of Nebamun (-1350/-1350)British Museum

Indigenous crops such as lettuce, garlic, onion, radish, turnip, broad beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils, cowpeas, molokhia, rocket, and cabbage, along with many others, have been cultivated in Egypt since at least the Pharaonic period. The diet of Egyptians, over centuries, has been mostly vegetable, grain, and legume based, with less frequent consumption of meats and dairy products.

SarmaHeydar Aliyev Center

The word “mahshi” in Arabic literally means “stuffed.” When this word is used on its own, it generally refers to an assortment of vegetables that have been stuffed with seasoned Egyptian short-grain rice and cooked in broth. In Cairo, mahshi is most popularly made with green bell peppers, grape vine leaves, zucchini, cabbage, and eggplant. In rural Egypt, mahshi is extended to almost any vegetable or leaf that can be stuffed: lettuce leaves, radish leaves, potatoes, tomatoes, and onions; the list goes on. It is eaten as the main starch component in a meal accompanying other vegetable and meat-based dishes.

Freshly picked vegetables (2019-08-25) by NawayaNawaya

Chef Mostafa Elrefaei, co-owner of Egyptian street food restaurant Zooba and food heritage researcher, explains that mahshi as we know it today is a very modern food. It is a recipe that is heavily reliant on tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, ingredients that only took root in Egyptian soil and culture after the Islamic conquest by the Arabs. These were relatively recent additions to Egyptian agriculture, becoming widespread during the 18th century, and have grown to be some of the most cultivated crops in Egypt today.

Red bell pepper (2019)The Centenary Project

It is widely known that the Ottomans introduced stuffed vegetables to the Egyptians with the start of their colonization in the 16th century. The Ottomans called this dish “Dolma,” a name still used to this day to refer specifically to stuffed green peppers, eggplants, and zucchinis. The name “dolma” does not extend to stuffed leaves. This could be due to the fact that cabbages, grape leaves, lettuce, and any other leafy vegetables that could be stuffed are indigenous to Egypt whereas peppers, eggplants, and zucchinis are foreign vegetables.

White eggplants turn yellow before seeding (2020-08-27) by NawayaNawaya

Most fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes, brought to Egypt with the movement of people through colonization and trade, have been added to the long list of foods farmed in Egypt. Much of the vegetation we consider to be the cornerstones of modern-day Egyptian cuisine are relatively recent additions to our diet.

Types of dolmaHeydar Aliyev Center

What Goes into Making a Pot of Mahshi?

Mahshi can be eaten hot or cold, accompanied by other dishes or all alone, with a squirt of lemon or a dollop of cooling yogurt salad. Mahshi comes in many forms, which is why it is a hugely popular dish today: it caters to all tastes.
 
Mahshi is a labor-intensive dish to create. The time and effort required positions it as a family favorite, a comfort food, and a dish that shows you are loved. Because of its long cooking process, only well-seasoned cooks can master it, namely, mothers and grandmothers. As with most Egyptian food, it is best eaten homemade than in a restaurant.

UNESCO - “The tradition of cooking and sharing dolma as a sign of cultural identity”Heydar Aliyev Center

There are as many recipes for making mahshi as there are Egyptian families. These recipes are passed down through generations, each recipe with its own secret ingredient depending on preferred flavors.
 
The process starts with deciding whether to make a pot of assorted vegetables or just one vegetable. As a hard and fast rule, both warak enab (stuffed vine leaves) and koromb (stuffed cabbage) are cooked alone, never mixed with other vegetables in the same pot, whereas zucchini, eggplant, and green bell peppers are free to be mixed as the cook desires. This segregation comes from the cooking times of robust vegetables versus the more delicate stuffed leaves.

Mahshi Step 1

Preparing the Vegetables

Most Egyptian markets (whether local grocers or large upscale supermarkets) sell vegetable varieties used almost exclusively for mahshi. Generally, the local “balady” variety is preferred over others due to its small size and flavorful flesh. When picking vegetables for mahshi, they must all be of similar size to ensure even cooking, ideally around the length of an index finger.

Mahshi Step 2

The preparation of eggplants, green peppers, and zucchini for stuffing is very similar. After washing them, their cores are removed. For green peppers, the internal stem is removed easily by hand. As for the eggplants and zucchinis, they are cored with a “makwara” or a hand-held vegetable corer, which is designed specifically for the purpose of making mahshi and is an essential item in every Egyptian kitchen. Busy modern cooks who do not have the time or skill required can skip this step and buy pre-cored vegetables in large Egyptian supermarkets.

Dolma in AzerbaijanHeydar Aliyev Center

The preparation of grape vine leaves and cabbage leaves is different. Fresh grape vine leaves can be bought in local markets during its season. They are destemmed and boiled in water till semi-cooked. Jarred grape vine leaves are available at supermarkets all-year round and are soaked in water to remove their bitter taste. Cabbage leaves are similarly boiled in water (with a dash of cumin powder) to prevent bloating, generally the result of eating mahshi koromb. When semi-cooked, the leaves are left to cool and the thick center vein is removed and then cut down to a suitable size.

Preparing the Hashwah

The basic seasoned rice mixture in all variations of mahshi is the same. What is used to stuff zucchinis is used to stuff grape vine leaves and so on. This is where one finds a lot of variation in recipes; however, the core of the recipe is generally the same. The “hashwah” or stuffing is a combination of Egyptian short-grain rice (washed, of course), finely diced onion, finely diced tomato, chopped “khodra” (the leafy green trio of dill, parsley, and coriander), salt, pepper, chili powder, and olive oil. Common variations to this recipe include the addition of dried mint leaves, dibs roman (pomegranate molasses), lime juice, and cumin powder. To some Egyptians, ground beef is an essential ingredient in the hashwah. Due to the high price of beef in Egypt, this variety of mahshi is not nearly as popular as the meatless version.

Baladi rice fields (2020-09-18) by NawayaNawaya

Rice was brought to Egypt with the Islamic conquest; there is evidence to suggest that it was grown in small quantities in the regions of Al Fayoum and Upper Egypt since at least the 10th century.

However, it only really gained in popularity during the 16th century under Ottoman rule, resulting in its abundance in local markets, as well as affordability. Rice was a food staple in Ottoman cuisine and thus was farmed extensively in Egypt and shipped to hungrier parts of the empire.

Mahshi Step 3

The Stuffing and Cooking Process

Once the cored vegetables have been spooned with the rice mixture, making sure to leave enough headroom at the top for the rice to expand, they are lined up vertically against the sides of the pot in concentric rings.  The entire pot must be tightly packed to stop any mahshi from tipping over and spilling its rice.
 
In preparation of cooking, the pot used must be lined with sliced onions, potatoes, and tomatoes. This is done to prevent the mahshi from sticking to the bottom of the pot or burning and to add more flavor as well. These vegetables are not usually served with the mahshi as they aren’t technically part of the dish but rather function as a tasty treat for anybody lucky enough to eat them up before being tossed out.

Mahshi Step 4

To stuff the cabbage leaves, they are spread out flat on a plate, and then a spoonful of rice is placed in its center. The rice should be pressed into a sausage shape and rolled up in the cabbage leaf. It is not necessary to tuck in the open ends of this mahshi koromb, only gripping it firmly so it doesn’t unravel. These cabbage rolls should be cooked in a wide rim pot as they are usually served by flipping the pot upside down onto a large plate, creating the proverbial mahshi mountain. The tighter they are packed in neat rows following the pot sides, the better chance it has of keeping its structural integrity once flipped.
 
Grape vine leaves are stuffed in a similar way, but their edges are tucked in while rolling, creating a well-sealed parcel. Mahshi warak enab is cooked and served in the same way as the koromb: inverted onto a plate.

Mahshi is cooked in a heavily seasoned broth. Common ingredients added to the broth are salt, pepper, chili powder, lime juice, dibs roman (pomegranate molasses), and tomato puree. This spiced broth is poured over the stuffed grape vine and cabbage leaves but must be carefully ladled into and around each of the cored vegetables.
A small plate is used to weigh down the stuffed leaves (but not the assorted vegetables) in the first few minutes of cooking to help condense the stuffed leaves into the shape of the pot.
 
Once the broth is fully absorbed and the rice well cooked, the mahshi is ready to be served. Whether hosting guests or cooking for family, mahshi is always presented hot. Assorted vegetables are served piled high in a platter, whereas the stuffed leaves are flipped out onto a serving plate. Mahshi warak enab is always accompanied by salatet zabady, a dipping sauce made of yoghurt, finely diced cucumber, dried mint, garlic, and salt.
 
Any leftover rice mixture is cooked in a pot in the same way plain rice is cooked. It is a fought-over treat at any Egyptian dinner table, favored due to its hearty seasoning.

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