Fattah: The Coptic Feast

Fattah is an Egyptian traditional dish.  It is a meat-rice- bread dish that dates back to ancient Egyptian times.  That said, it has slightly been altered and refined over 7000 years.  Each Egyptian family has its own secret ingredient for this festive dish.

Unlike the majority of the world’s christians, my family who happen to be Coptic Orthodox celebrates Christmas Eve on January 6th.

Historically, second to the church of Jerusalem, the Coptic Orthodox church is the oldest church .  It was founded by St. Marcos in the first century.  Today’s Copts are the natives of Egypt and the decedents of ancient Egyptians.  Nowadays, Copts represent a 10% christian minority in Egypt.

43 days prior to Coptic Christmas,  Christian Egyptians observe the nativity fasting.  They basically follow a quasi vegetarian diet that allows fish and sea food, but prohibits all dairy products, and meat. Understandably,  Copts celebrate Christmas Eve eating mainly meat dishes.

At my parents house, poultry don’t get a spot on Christmas Eve dinner. The dinning table is usually teeming with a plethora of red meat dishes.  To break the fasting, an orzo-beef bone soup is first served boiling hot.  Then a richly varied assortment of soft and hard cheese rotate among the dinners, along with traditional eggs called (beid moza3lel). These eggs are boiled first and then fried in ghee for a crispy skin.

Needless to say, such an elaborate menu, sets coptic women, who are usually the cooks and the hosts, for a week-long marathon of food shopping and cooking .  One that leaves them depleted weeks after Christmas.  One of my early resolutions as a young girl was to quit such onerous dinner rituals once I become the host of a Christmas dinner myself!

Ironically, when I got married and immigrated to the US, I found myself celebrating and hosting Christmas on both the 24th and the 7th.  Eventually, I create every year a different menu set for each. For the 24th at night, I serve a fancy western dish like Duck a l’orange or beef tenderloin with festive sides.  Yet, for the 6th,  to which I fancy inviting friends over, I symbolically pick one or two of my family’s signature dishes to honor the tradition.

This year, I took the risk of making, for the first time,  the dish that carries my mom’s signature: Fattah. It is the center piece of my parents’ Christmas Eve table.

Although they bare the same name, traditional Egyptian Fattah ( Rice-meat-bread dish) is fundamentally different form the levantine one. The Egyptian Fatta dates back to ancient Egyptian times and has slightly evolved over the years.  Fatta is layered with toasted pita bread, that is topped with white rice.  The rice is cooked in rich beef broth, and then adorned with bone-in lamb shanks or chunks of beef.  Either the beef or the lamb are poached first to make the broth and then browned in sizzling ghee.  The most interesting ingredient is the Dakka, which is a garlic-vinegar spiked red sauce, which is drizzled on the top of the dish.  That sauce is the soul of Fatta and what gives its unmistakable aroma and taste.  It delivers a distinguished garlicky kick, and a pleasant acidic bite that give the entire dish a distinct edge.

I slightly tweaked the recipe to reduce the calories and to develop more layers of flavor.  Instead of frying them plain in butter, I spiced up the lightly oil-coated triangles of bread and toasted them in a preheated oven.  For a playful texture and edible hued rice, I added vermicelli.  Instead of meat chunks, (which are hard for my kids to chew) I defied the tradition, and replaced them with tender, moderately spicy and flavor-packed meatballs.  As for the DAKKA (the garlic-vinager spiked red pepper-tomato sauce) I salvaged it from any pedantic alterations of mine.  Unarguably that sauce is the real genius formula that takes that dish to the next level.

The Fattah reveals its full glory when it reaches its final assembly stage.  The colors and textures makes an edible center piece.  It might look a laborious dish.  That said, it is so easy to make and could easily be broken down on two days.

It meant the world to me, to watch my mom on Skype, this Christmas eve, serving  her Fattah to our family the same way she did for four decades.  Mom had a tough year, bravely battling breast cancer!  This post is to you, mom and to your health! Thank you for being such a selfless mom, cook and host.


Fatthah: Bread-Rice-Meat Dish

Serves 6 people

INGREDIENTS

Toasted Bread 

  • 2 pita bread, cut in bites pieces
  • 2 tablespoons of olive or canola oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon sumak
  • 1/2 cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 ground cumin
  • Salt and pepper

Beef-Bone Broth 

  • 1/2 kg beef bones
  • 1 big yellow onion, whole
  • 3 cloves garlic, whole
  • 1 carrot, whole
  • 5  black peppercorn, whole
  • 5 all spice berries, whole
  • Handful of parsley stalks
  • 4 bay leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • salt
  • 4 cups water, or enough water to cover the veggies and the bones

Vermicelli Rice 

  • 1  1/2 cups white long grain rice, rinsed
  • 1/2 cup vermicelli
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil or canola oil
  • 1  1/2 cups beef broth
  • 1  1/2 cups water
  • Salt and pepper

The Meatballs 

  • 1 kg  ground lean meat
  • 1 onion, finely chopped.
  • 2 gloves of garlic, minced
  • 2 eggs
  • Ras Hanout spice mix or any meat spice mix you like
  • 1 tablespoon of olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

The Dakka (vinager-Garlic-tomato sauce)

  • 5 tomatoes, coarsely chopped
  • 1 or 2 red bell pepper, coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 3 gloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon oil

 Garnish 

  • Toasted nuts as pine nuts or silvered almonds
  • Fresh mint leaves or parsley

DIRECTIONS 

  1. Toast the bread. Lightly coat the bread with olive oil, sumak, cumin, cayenne pepper, salt and pepper and toast in a 350° preheat oven.
  2. Make the beef bone broth. In a heavy bottom pan, add the beef bones, onion, carrot, garlic, parsley stalks, peppercorns, bay leaves, nutmeg, all spice and water.  Water should cover the meat and veggies.  Let it simmer, on a low heat, for at least one hour, or until  the veggies are melting, the broth is fragrant and has a rich brown color.  Strain the broth, using a fine mesh sieve, discard the spices and veggies and store the broth in a clean pitcher to use in the following steps.
  3. Make the rice. In a medium pan, over medium heat melt together one tablespoon of butter and one tablespoon of oil until they sizzle.  Add the vermicelli and stir for one or two minutes until their color turn to a light golden brown. Don’t walk away they burn fast.  Add the rice, stir again for a couple of minutes.  Add 1  1/2 cups of broth and 1 1/2 cups of water.  Let the rice simmer, with the lid on for 15 minutes. Remove the lid, let it simmer for another 5 minutes.  Fluff the rice, cover it with a towel until you are ready to assemble the dish.
  4. Make the meat balls. Mix together, the ground meat, onion, garlic, spices, eggs. Preferably,  Let the meat mix rest in the fridge for one hour, for the flavors to blend together.  However, this step could be skipped. Shape the meat the size you want.  In a 375° preheated oven, bake the meat balls for 20 to 30 minutes until they are fully cooked. Cover in foil and keep them warm.
  5. Make the Dakka.  In a blender, add the chopped tomatoes, red bell pepper and water. Blend the tomato-pepper mix becomes a smooth juice.  Over medium heat,  Melt the butter, add the garlic and stir vigorously until its color turns into a light golden hue.  Add the vinegar immediately.  Remove one tablespoon of this vinegar-garlic mixture and add it to one cup of the bone broth prepared earlier.  Add the tomato-pepper juice to the rest of Dakka (vinegar and garlic mix)  left in the pan.  Let the sauce simmer on a low heat for 5 to 7 minutes or until its thickens and has a rich deep red color.
  6. Assemble the dish. First layer the toasted bread, toss it with some of the Dakka-broth mixture. Pile the rice high, toss it with some more Dakka-beef broth. Arrange the meat balls on top. Drizzle the vinegar – garlic -tomato sauce over the rice and meat.  Sprinkle some toasted nuts and garnish with some fresh mint or parsley leaves. Serve it warm immediately

NOTES

  • Break down this deceivingly laborious dish. The day before, toast the bread and keep it in an air tight container.  Prepare the beef broth, the tomato-bell pepper juice and shape the meat balls and keep both in the fridge.  The second day, make the rice, bake the meatballs.  Heat the broth while the meatballs are in the oven and the rice is cooking. Make the Dakka (vinegar-garlic mix).  Assemble the dish while all the ingredients are hot and serve immediately.

Posted by

Former diplomat | Travel & Food Writer | Stauch advocate of Culinary Diplomacy. Find more here: https://cheznermine.com/about/

2 thoughts on “Fattah: The Coptic Feast

  1. Lovely tribute to your families traditions.And you made the recipe fit your life by making meatballs instead of meat chunks to suit your children.Prayers for your mom’s health and recovery!Beautiful Chez!

    Liked by 1 person

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