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TYOS: Food, Self and Identity with Mahmoud Adda Djeffal

The French gastronome and epicurean Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin famously said: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are”. Indeed, eating but also the act of cooking and celebrating food as a whole is indicative of an individual’s personality and culture. 

Today, we find out who PhD candidate in Applied Linguistics Mahmoud Adda Djeffal is with our ‘‘Food, Self and identity’ Questionnaire. He shares his love for Algerian food and respect for the inventor of the food processor.

Interview by Florence Le Baron-Earle for the Limerick Voice

  • What is your name and occupation? Mahmoud Adda Djeffal. I am a PhD candidate in Applied Linguistics at the University of Limerick. I am also the Academic Class Representative for the International Structured PhD Programme. 
  • Describe yourself in a couple of words or sentences. People say that I am friendly. I agree with that! I am also approachable. I like writing, cooking, and going on long walks. I could go on…
  • Where do you come from? I am from Algeria. More specifically, I come from a beautiful city in the West of the country: Sidi Bel Abbès. It is near Oran.  
  • What food or dishes represent where you grew up? There is huge diversity in the Algerian cuisine but we have some shared dishes like couscous, tajines both sweet and savoury. We have kesra which is a type of bread, and mahjouba a flat bread with onion and tomato stuffing. We have hrira which is a soup made with wheat and meat. We have makroud which is a sweet thing made with semolina, honey and dates. In my area, hrira and couscous are the main dishes. Hrira is based on vegetables – tomatoes, onions and carrot. You mix everything. Add some meat and crushed wheat. It is usually done during the month of fasting. It is a rich, nourishing meal to give you strength and energy. 
  • Is there a scent, spice, or dish that brings you back to your childhood? As part of my religion, we have what we call Ramadan which is a month of  fasting. I have memories as a young boy, coming back from school and be welcomed by the smell of freshly chopped coriander. My mum used it to prepare the hrirasoup. It would make me so happy, because I would know that the first meal of the day was very near. The idea of us gathering together around one table, talking and enjoying good food was near as well. 
  • Has anyone influenced you in your cooking? If yes, who? My mother. She is my first inspiration in cooking. Although, she would sometimes get angry when I shared the kitchen with her! But she was very patient with me. She was very useful when I messed a recipe up. I would watch her cook; it was so therapeutic. She is known for her good cooking skills in my entire family. When I was older, I used to prepare food for her to find when she returned from her teaching job.
  • What is the most exotic food you have ever tried? In November which marks the celebration of Diwali – an Indian festival – my housemate who is Indian introduced us to Indian cuisine. The food tasted amazing! He made carrot halwa. Basically, it is made with a carrot and is sweet. It also has spices. When I had my first bite it was an explosion of different tastes. It made me have a new appreciation for carrots! It tasted so sweet but there was some cinnamon and cardamon as well. It was so good!
  • What do you consider your greatest cooking achievement? In May, I made sweets for the Eid celebrations. It is a big deal back home. One: Make them. And two: Be successful in making them! I am very proud of this accomplishment. I actually made five types of sweets. 
  • Do you have a cooking disaster anecdote to share? I was making bread and had music blasting in my ears. I don’t know if there is a relationship with the sense of smell and hearing, but I couldn’t smell anything. I was working on the laptop in the kitchen – finishing a PhD chapter – and suddenly, I saw yellow smoke coming out of the oven. In a matter of minutes, the entire kitchen became smoky. I have never attempted to make bread since then.
  • What do we always find in your fridge? Smoked salmon, sweet chili sauce, soft cheese and lettuce. Very handy to make a quick sandwich.
  • What is the cooking utensil or gadget you cannot live without? I would like to pay homage to Pierre Verdon – the inventor of Magi-Mix! I can’t live without a food processor. It is very helpful and you don’t have to cry every time to cut an onion. I have a three-in-one; it is a whisk, a food processor and a blender.
  • Do you have a ritual in preparing and/or serving food? While cooking I like to listen to old Arabic music. It reminds me of my father. Whenever I listen to old Egyptian music – like Oum Kalsoum who he really liked. It brings me back home. The music is very calm. A song can go on for 40 minutes. 
  • What is your favourite herb? Coriander for sure but also thyme. It goes well with anything: red meat, grilled or barbecued meat, chicken, even on goat cheese as a snack, baked potatoes… Anything.
  • Do you have a go-to food or dish when you need comfort, e.g. when sick or feeling low? I had a cold 2 months ago, not Covid thankfully! What got me through it was a warm and spicy vegetables soup with extra chili powder. It does wonders.
  • Do you prefer supermarkets or farmer’s markets? Back home, we were raised on the idea of getting fresh vegetables and fruits from farmers’ markets. We would have them every Thursday. Here, I go to supermarkets because fresh vegetables are available every day.
  • Do you prefer eating in or out? My mother used to say: “The person who cooks always loses their appetite.” I found this to be true when I started cooking for many people. So, definitely eating out. I like trying new things.
  • What is the best way to cook an egg? Hard-boiled egg with some salt. I put the egg in an pot of boiling water for 7 minutes. My trick to peel it is to put the egg in a mug while still hot, and shake the mug for a while. It shatters the shell and then it comes off in one piece. 
  • Do you have a food pet peeve? I have two. Firstly: people chewing food loudly. I can’t stand it! Also, under-spiced food. Any bland food that tastes like a piece of cardboard.
  • What time do you usually eat the main meal of your day? 12-ish or 3-4pm if I had a late breakfast. 
  • What did you have as a main meal yesterday? I anticipated this interview and tried to do something special! I made a roasted chicken with baked potatoes. I cooked the chicken in a hot bouillon first, and then finished it off in the oven. The potatoes were wrapped in tin foil and baked for about 30-40 minutes. I enjoyed them with some sprinkled cheese.

Finally, please, share with us one of your favourite recipes.

I have chosen baklava which is a Persian delicacy brought to Algeria by the Ottomans. 

Baklava

The main ingredients are filo pastry and a selection of nuts: almonds, nuts, and pistachios.

Ingredients 

For 1 or 2 trays of baklava (depending on the size of your oven tray)

Sheets of filo pastry (25×25)

One handful of almonds

One handful of nuts

One handful of pistachios

Butter

For the syrup:

Water

Sugar

Lemon

Rose water

Method:

Prepare the nut mixture first. Crush all the ingredients. Put them in a food processor with a pinch of cinnamon. 

Prepare the syrup. Boil the water and sugar for 15 minutes. Add a bit of lemon juice and rose water.

Spread one sheet of filo pastry.

Add melted butter on top.

Repeat until you have 5 layers of filo pastry.

Add the mixture of nuts on top.

Add a layer of filo pastry.

Add melted butter on top.

Repeat until you have 4 layers of filo pastry.

So, you should have 5 layers underneath and 4 layers on top of the nut mixture.

Put in the oven at low-to-medium heat (150C) for 30 minutes maximum.

Add syrup on top. For instance, 2 parts of water and 1 part of sugar, a bit of lemon juice and rose water.

Let it to cool overnight. Serve it cold the next day by cutting it in small squares or rectangles.The Food, Self and Identity series is an initiative of the Tell Your Own Story Project

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