The Quest to Find Nafas

Leyla Doss

For some, cooking comes naturally. Like brushing your teeth. For others, it requires years of patience, training and learning, and even then it might be subpar. So what marks the difference between food that has the added umpf and food that doesn’t? Nafas.

Transcript

DOSS 1  

This is Telling True Stories in Sound. I’m Leyla Doss. 

DOSS 2

I want to tell you about a concept that’s very important to me. You may have never heard the word, but the idea, I think you can easily understand. It’s nafas. 

EL-SAYED 1 

So Nafas in Arabic just means breath. 

DOSS 3 That’s my older sister, Sara. 

EL-SAYED 2

But it has, like, a different significance, in the traditions of food, of making food, of home cooking. And it’s this concept that you’re bringing the soul, you’re bringing your nafas, your breath into the food, and that each person’s breath is kind of like their signature. 

DOSS 4 

Sara has nafas. My mom has it. I don’t. Or at least I feel like I don’t. Sara says it’s both innate and taught. You can be born with it. You can also learn it. Nurture it. In any case, it requires patience, which is something I don’t usually have. The thing is, once you have nafas, cooking becomes so much easier.  

EL-SAYED 3

When it becomes second nature, it’s just becomes like, as easy as brushing your teeth. 

DOSS 4

Nafas is usually attributed to home cooks. Those who have it can follow the exact same recipe, and somehow make it taste better. It’s that added spice. It’s that signature. The passion that comes with our grandmother’s cooking. And it’s believed to be passed on from generation to generation. 

EL-SAYED 4

And so every time you’re eating from your grandmother, or your auntie or your mother or someone in the family, essentially, you’re taking a part of them as well with you. 

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DOSS 5

Many cultures have something similar… In Korea, there’s “sonmat.” In India, there’s “haatachi chav.” Both mean “hand taste.”  But in the Arabic-speaking world it’s about the soul. 

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DOSS 6

Growing up, food was always around in my Mediterranean household. I love eating food. But I didn’t like the idea of cooking. I didn’t want to be forced into a gender role. I couldn’t reconcile being a feminist and cooking. So I dimmed my soul. My nafas. And refused to cook. 

Until now. 

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DOSS 7

Because I was feeling homesick, I decided to test my nafas by making molokhia, a dish typical in Egypt and other Arab countries. 

EL-SAYED 5 

I think one of my favourite Egyptian dishes has to be Molokheya. 

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EL-SAYED 6 

There isn’t one Ramadan that you go to that you’re not invited somewhere where someone’s making “Molokhia.”

DOSS 8

It’s kind of like spinach. And here in New York, you can’t find it fresh. Only frozen. Cooked molokhia is something between a thick stew and a soup. We eat it with rice and a protein – like rabbit, chicken or shrimp. No two molokhias are the same. 

EL-SAYED 7

Man, some molokhias are just not good for me. 

DOSS 9

But for both Sara and I, the best molokhia we ever tasted is by far, our mom’s. Nothing else compares. Like I said, she has nafas. 

(SOUND: Facetime ringtone) 

DOSS 10

So to start, I asked Sara what ingredients I needed.

EL-SAYED 8

Very simple. There’s three things to it. Uh, mallow leaves that are shredded up, and then there’s a broth. And then at the end, there’s “ta’aleya” which is just you know, fried garlic and butter that’s added. 

(SOUND: opening cupboard)

(SOUND: taking out ingredients)  

DOSS 12

Then, I asked her how many ounces I needed for everything. 

EL-SAYED 10

I hate following recipes. [laughs] 

DOSS 13

A dash of this. A sprinkle of that, she says. She always cooks by eyeballing it. Very nafas.

(SOUND: taking spoon out)

(SOUND: Turn on stove)

(SOUND: pots and pans)

DOSS 14

That doesn’t work for me. I needed a recipe from the internet. With the exact measurements.  

(SOUND: Pouring broth)

DOSS 15

I started off by pouring chicken broth into a pot. I used the ready-made kind. I cheated. Not so nafas

(SOUND: Opening garlic

((SOUND: Chopping)

DOSS 16

Then, I chopped garlic into tiny pieces and heated up some butter in a pan, and added salt, pepper and dried coriander. I cooked it for a few minutes till it turned brown. 

(SOUND: Sizzling)

DOSS 1

It actually smells really good. 

(SOUND: Wooden spoon)

(SOUND: Opening freezer) 

(SOUND: Opening molokhia bag)

DOSS 2

Now I add the frozen molokhia. The star ingredient. 

(SOUND: Sizzling)

DOSS 3 

It’s sizzling. 

DOSS 19

In Egypt, my mom makes them with fresh leaves. But I’m doing this from my Brooklyn apartment. With the frozen kind.  

DOSS 4

Sorry mom. I’m sure if my mom saw this she would consider this blasphemy. But you know, here we go. 

DOSS 20

After it boiled, I brought it down to a simmer. I let it simmer for 15 minutes. This part is crucial because over-boiled molokhia will make it mushy. I was warned this is the hardest part. 

(SOUND: Sizzling)

DOSS 19

From there, I added the garlic butter spice mixture into the molokhia broth and let it simmer for a couple of minutes. Finally, I was done. 

(SOUND:  WOODEN SPOON)

DOSS 20

There it was. I made molokhia for the first time. At 30 years old. 

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DOSS 

What do you think? Laughs. 

AMER 1

Alright let me taste. 

DOSS 21

That’s my husband, Ahmed. He knows his cooking. Just as I finished, he peeked into the kitchen. 

DOSS 2

From one to 10. 10 is your grandma’s Molokheya. 

AMER 2

I give it a nine and a half. 

DOSS 3:

Really? 

AMER 3:

Yeah. This is amazing. 

DOSS 4:

Okay. Okay, so I have Nafas?

AMER 3

Seems like you do have some Nafas. [Laughs] 

DOSS 22

He didn’t sound very convinced. And he later told me it was a little salty. But that doesn’t matter because nafas is a journey. My journey. 

DOSS 23

So maybe, it isn’t something you’re born with. And maybe I’m not doomed. I just need a sprinkle of time. A dash of patience. And to not always follow the recipe. 

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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