On early Saturday mornings, Amina Elshafei and her younger sister Eman would wake up to the clanging of pots and pans – an indication that their parents were in the kitchen, pickling, stuffing and baking mounds of fresh produce bought during their weekly trip to one of Sydney’s many farmers markets.
Elshafei’s mother was born in Seoul, while her father is Alexandrian. The family’s mixed heritage usually meant that by lunchtime, the four would sit down to a meal of equally mixed dishes, from kousa and batinjan mah’shee to homemade kimchi. The scent of fermented seasonal vegetables and spiced ruz would waft its way throughout the house.
‘I grew up with my parents always cooking together, side by side,’ says Elshafei. ‘But they were both full time workers, so depending on who was home, we’d get to eat their specialties.’
A self-taught home cook and full time pediatric nurse at Sydney Children’s Hospital Network, Elshafei tried out for the television show MasterChef Australia on a whim in 2012 at the encouragement of her sister, and to her surprise, made the cut.
She quickly became a favourite among fans with her chirpy personality, impressive Egyptian and Korean dishes and witty one-liners. Though she didn’t win the televised competition, the show gave Elshafei exposure, opening up a number of doors – like the opportunity to publish a recipe book. In ‘Amina’s Home Cooking’, which was released earlier this year, the cook- turned-author shares her culinary passion with a wider audience.
‘I don’t like being called a chef, because I haven’t gone through the appropriate avenues. I don’t want to take that title away from people who’ve gone through the process of getting a culinary education,’ Elshafei says, commenting on her lack of formal training.
‘I’m a home cook. Being on the show, I was able to tell people, “Hey, this is Korean food. This is Middle Eastern food. It’s great, and you can do it in your kitchen.”’
The foundation of Elshafei’s cooking can be traced back to Saudi Arabia, where her parents met and fell in love. Her mother was a nurse (‘Saudi was a hotspot for foreign nurses back then’) and her dad was an accountant. The two met through mutual friends at the hospital that they both worked at. ‘It wasn’t quite Grey’s Anatomy,’ says Elshafei. ‘Expats knew expats.’
The family moved to Sydney in the late 1980s, after Elshafei’s mother Injoung found a nursing opportunity in Australia, which was recruiting foreign medical professionals, as Saudi had done. As the sisters grew up, they held onto their roots in different ways: Eman, keener on languages, absorbed both Arabic and Korean, while for Amina, food provided a reliable connection.
But Elshafei acknowledges that her and her sister’s affinity for their parents’ cultures isn’t a given. She points out that it’s not rare for first- generation children to not know their mother tongues, or to even identify with their parents’ respective cultures later in life.
‘Being the first immigrants of their family, my parents found it difficult without that immediate familial support, I think,’ she says. ‘It was very important to hold onto their cultural systems and values, and a lot of that was reflected in the food that we ate.’
Elshafei also notes the similarities between Middle Eastern and Korean values – especially when it comes to raising children. Her parents’ backgrounds complemented and reinforced one another, and spoke through meals on the table.
‘Those dishes we had growing up,’ she says, ‘told stories.’ Preferring not to mix the two cuisines, Elshafei’s dishes tend to stick to their origins, such as an Alexandrian style snapper with fresh tahini, or a rainbow bowl of bibimbap served with a fried egg on top.
But there are some culinary commonalities that Elshafei loves to cook and talk about. Ask her about her favourite ingredient, for instance, and Elshafei will speak about garlic as though it’s a family member she can’t wait to see. The same goes for pickling and fermenting vegetables – another common craft in both cultures.
‘Garlic is so wonderful. That Lebanese garlic spread – man, I could eat that by the spoonful,’ she laughs. ‘Garlic is elementary for both Korean and Middle Eastern cuisine. It’s just beautiful, with that aroma that carries on through the house. You know it’s going to be a fabulous meal when you smell garlic.’
As for pickling, Korean cuisine, Elshafei says, tends to include it more. It’s a guaranteed part of the day’s three main meals, and there are over 200 forms of fermented dishes to learn – each one catering to the vegetable at hand.
In Egypt, pickling is based on the use of salt rather than brine, with lemons the common component (as opposed to turnips and olives, like in Levantine countries). ‘Koreans take it a little far – they even pickle garlic as part of kimchi,’ Elshafei explains.
‘Korean fermentation techniques are so diverse – I still have a lot to learn. I only know a select few.’ For now, Elshafei continues to work fulltime as a nurse while pursuing her various kitchen endeavours on the side. On ‘Amina’s Alchemy’, her website, she posts recipes and chronicles her culinary travels, with Malaysia the most recent addition to the list.
‘Coming from a very culturally and ethnically diverse family, cooking as a career was a big no-no. My parents were very much against the whole idea,’ she reflects. ‘But today, my home cooking skills have helped others learn. I’m really happy with the way things have turned out.’
This article appears in Brownbook’s July/August 2015 issue.
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