For most of us, there are a handful of very special recipes that were a central part of our childhood and of growing up. They may not be in any way traditional, and usually aren’t particularly fancy or difficult…they may not be that ground-breaking for outsiders, or may not even look like the most appetising dishes at times…but what they are for sure is an integral part of who we and our families are, and to us, they have more power over us and our emotions than any fancy new dish ever will.
This dish I am about to share with you is probably the highest one on that list for me.
I have hesitated a lot about sharing this dish and its backstory with you guys; not because I didn’t want to…but you know when something means SO much to you that you find it incredibly hard to put into words? Well, this is like that.
Several times since I’ve started this blog, I made this dish and had every intention to photograph and share and write about it, but every single time I’d get as far as the writing part and completely freeze. I just wasn’t ready.
After spending seven incredible weeks in Egypt this summer, and being surrounded by family once again, with all the madness, emotions, and endless reminiscing that come with it, I started feeling the urgency and importance of sharing these family traditions sooner rather than later. My return to Australia happened to align with Spring, the perfect time to enjoy lamb. Lamb is such a wonderful food to share and bring people together, and the hero of my most treasured recipe, so it felt like it was time…so here goes.
Growing up, my family had a beautiful English cottage-style house on the outskirts of Cairo, in the rural area right by the Mariouteya River called Sakkara, near the Pyramids of Giza. For that reason, we referred to our house simply as ‘El Haram’; which translates literally to ‘the pyramid’, but it is what the entire area of the pyramids is called in Egypt.
My father bought the land and had this house designed and built from scratch, after he and my mother had just had my older sister and wanted to have a place where they could take her to enjoy the outdoors in a relaxed, safe and peaceful retreat from the madness of the city. We lived permanently in a big apartment in downtown Cairo, but we used to go and spend every weekend there together, out in the Egyptian countryside. It was our sanctuary, where our extended family and friends would often join us, and we’d spend quality time together away from the chaos of Cairo.
As the years went by, the house grew and evolved with us, adding more gardens, guest rooms and outdoor seating areas, and updating some of the older features like the pool, but otherwise it stayed pretty much the same throughout our entire childhood.
Every weekend for over two decades, this wonderful house managed to bring my entire family together. It was the dreamiest of places, complete with massive lush gardens, charming interiors and slanting wooden ceilings, a tennis court, a gymnasium, a HUGE trampoline, billiard and ping-pong tables, a path for us to ride our bicycles and roller blades, a sand pit, a pool and heated jacuzzi for winter, a magnificent fireplace…you get the drift. Can you even imagine what growing up in a magical place like this was like for us and our cousins? It was our utopia…a place where we could leave the real world behind and immerse ourselves in a fantasy land full of adventure, imagination and just pure good fun.
My father filled the house with incredible antiques and collectibles from our travels around the world, and made it into the most unique home with his spectacular sense of style. My mother nurtured our creative sides more than any mother I’ve ever met; she set up treasure hunts for us in the gardens, kept us busy in a delightfully pre-internet word with endless crafts like pottery, painting, glass staining and of course cooking and baking, to name a few. We had picnics and camp-outs when the weather was warm, and cooked marshmallows and chestnuts by the fireplace and had fondue nights when it was cold. We had endless parties and gatherings, sleepovers filled with all-nighters and spontaneous nighttime swims, massive cook-offs and adventures in the kitchen. My sisters and I held our birthdays there, brought our friends over for last-day-of-school parties and my cousin Dalia even had her wedding there. It was perfect.
Throughout these two plus decades, one thing stayed constant; the Friday barbecue. The menu remained unchanged, come summer or winter, rain or sunshine; it was always the same…and this is where the lamb comes in.
My father came up with this bbq lamb ribs (known as lamb cutlets here in Australia) dish, and it became his number one signature recipe, and the star of our weekly alfresco lunch. He always made the order for the lamb from his butcher a few days before the weekend while we were in Cairo, then we’d pack them up along with several baskets full of ingredients and supplies to take with us to El Haram for the weekend (which is Friday & Saturday in Egypt), and he’d spend Thursday night preparing the cutlets and the marinade so that they are ready for grilling on our massive iron custom-built coal grills the following afternoon after Friday prayer (I managed to snag one of those grills for myself when I married and moved to my own house, and I still have it in storage!).
The ribs, after grilling, were the most addictively delicious, sticky-salty-sweet-smoky combination, and NOBODY could ever resist them. The smell of them cooking alone would make us growl with hunger and gather around my father, as he and his trusty all-round helper Faress manned the barbecue, trying to steal some bits and pieces away and literally wrestling each other for them like wild animals. Everyone present would unabashedly devour as many ribs as they can, and always utensil-free, ending up with sticky, happy fingers and faces.
Anyone who knew us as a family, knew this dish and became as infatuated with it as we were. The mere mention of maybe trying something else for a change this Friday was always met with instant outrage and fervent objection from all, and so it just became simply non-negotiable, and became our signature meal. The ribs were always served alongside my mother’s famous pasta Arabiatta, as well as an impressive array of beautiful salads (like this one) and desserts, all of which I plan to share with you in the future…but I’ll start with the lamb this time around.
El Haram, sadly, as with all good things in life, eventually came to an end. After years of giving us the most incredible, magical, simply unmatchable childhoods and good times, my father decided to sell it a few years ago for personal family reasons. It broke my heart, and felt like losing a loved family member or old friend…and I don’t think I will ever fully get over that, really, but I am thankful to have all these wonderful memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life, of the house that brought us all together, and the dishes that I still cook until today when I am feeling particularly nostalgic or homesick. I can keep talking about this for hours and hours, and I’d still find more to say…but I’ll spare you guys the emotional over-sharing.
Even after we sold the house, this specific lamb dish continued to be one of the most requested meals by our cousins and friends, and my husband and I actually held a couple of re-plays of that memorable barbecue at our own home before we left Egypt to come to Australia. And now, I am teaming up with Australian Lamb on their Spring Campaign to share all this with you, and tell you how such a simple act of cooking a delicious lamb dish can bring people of all walks of life together.
Via a fantastic new platform called Feed Up, I am hosting a little get-together this weekend, and I will be cooking my father’s signature Bbq Lamb Ribs for a small bunch of new friends out on our tiny Sydney balcony. I will be documenting it all so I can finally share this ever-so-special recipe with you, as well as the amazing ability for it to cultivate togetherness, in hopes of encouraging you to do the same in your little corner of the world. So, dear readers, I ask you to please stay tuned! (EDIT: recipe is now live here)
P.S: during my recent trip to Egypt, I managed to find an old CD with some photos of El Haram just before we sold it, of which I have shared a few in this post. We have plenty of family photos of us and our friends in the house, but I have always kicked myself that I don’t have any proper pictures of the house itself. I wish I had the same passion for photography back then as I do now; it was SUCH a beautiful house and there are so many details I wish I had captured…but at least I found something, and am very grateful for that. The rest will have to exist solely in my memories and the memories of the people who were lucky enough to be a part of the magic that was El Haram.
*Disclaimer: This post is sponsored by Australian Lamb