Any tension between my mother and me was heightened when I decided to turn vegan. In an Egyptian family, this change brought about myriad logistical obstacles to feeding and pleasing everyone, but it also seemed to offend the very culture and tradition in which my mother was raised. It didn't help that, in the following months, both my father and sister followed me to the dark side, fueling my mother's accusations that we were becoming cult-like extremists, breaking the family apart. As passionate as I was about the benefits of a plant-based diet, I understood what she meant. While we tried our best to maintain a sense of family unison around food, it was no longer the same.
My mother and I always maintained a passionately turbulent relationship. We’re basically polar opposites (although my tendency to be so firmly stubborn might indicate otherwise). Whether it be religious values, political debates or our starkly different personalities, there seems to be an unspoken tension sharpening our readiness to accuse and snap at one another at the drop of a pin. We would sit at the dining table, provoking a response from the other. She’d say, “I feel bad—you’ve forgotten the taste of real food,” which prompted me to say, “Do you even care about the animal you’re eating? It’s an ANIMAL. A goddamn ANIMAL.” My sister and father, the awkwardly silent figures at the table, would try desperately to think of off-topic conversations to steer away from the rising tension. They were more “silent vegans”—ardent and vocal until it caused an argument, which is when they would maturely step aside and cool off. But I smelled upcoming debate from a mile away, packed my statistics, documentary references, vegan snack bars, and went full force ahead.
My parents grew up in the dusty, lively and breathtakingly beautiful city of Cairo. I was born there, and although I moved before the age of one, it still feels like home. Many moments in my teenage and young adult years served as harsh reminders that I am from, and always will be apart of, a Coptic Orthodox family. It’s not hard to imagine the response of such a family upon arrival in a progressive country such as Australia—you simply tighten the reigns, create a bubble of traditional Egyptian culture, and drill your values into the minds of your children until they can’t even make a decision about which coffee to get without being struck with cultural conflict. I was lucky that my father made cultural transitions far easier for my sister and me. My mother made her progress, but still struggled, especially when it came to the taboo world of…you know…fine, I’ll say it: BOYS. Looking back on her approaches to dating, clubbing, even walking outside with flip-flops (because wearing them in public is completely unacceptable), I should have seen her disillusionment with veganism from a mile away.
Although it bares ground for roller-coasters of drama and emotion, I do have the Middle Eastern culture to thank for an extraordinary array of plant-based meals, whether crisp mouthfuls of freshly fried falafel wrapped in warm doughy bread or overflowing bowls of koshari, an eclectic yet somehow perfect mix of lentils, rice, pasta, chickpeas, crispy onions, tomato sauce, vinegar and chili sauce. And where Middle Eastern tradition and veganism meet in perfect harmony is dessert. Despite its vegan status, my mother and I find rare agreement that baklava is the closest thing on earth to heaven.
If I hear of someone who has never tried baklava, a feeling of remorse washes over me, shortly followed by a promise to be at his or her door in the next few days with a huge tray of it. The name evokes a sense of indulgence to me. Somewhere in the layers of filo pastry, some crispy and some moistened with thick syrup and a chewy nut mixture, true happiness can be found.
Bonding over food will always be a special part of the relationship between my mom and me. I still feel the same sense of warmth and love each time we’re indulging in the pride of our heritage. Food seems to be a magical spell that can cut through years of family tensions, bringing peace and unity.
Isadora Soliman is a singer/songwriter based in Sydney, Australia; she can be found @isadoramusic.
(It seems to be a source of great pride that Egyptian mothers never use measurements in the kitchen, so adjust the following to taste.)
1 1/2 c. sugar
1 c. roasted, unsalted nuts (I use pistachios and almonds)
Optional: shredded coconut, raisins, cinnamon
1 lb. package filo pastry
2/3 c. non-dairy butter, at room temperature (such as Nuttelex) *
optional: olive oil for brushing tray
In a saucepan, combine 1 1/2 c. water with the sugar, and bring to a boil.
Add a squeeze of lemon juice, and leave on the stove to slightly thicken.
Remove from heat and leave to cool.
Finely crush nuts in a food processor, with mortar and pestle, or by placing in a kitchen towel and hitting them with a rolling pin.
Place crushed nuts in a bowl and add optional shredded coconut, sultanas, or cinnamon, sprinkling with a little additional sugar.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Brush some of the non-dairy butter or olive oil all over a deep tray.
Place one sheet of filo pastry on the bottom of the tray, brush with the butter, place another sheet on top, brush with butter, add another sheet, brush. You should have 3 to 4 layers of pastry with a thin layer of softened butter in between.
Sprinkle a third of the nut mixture evenly over the pastry.
Repeat this process twice more.
Cut into square or diamonds.
Bake for approximately 15 minutes, or until golden brown.
While the pastry is still hot, pour the cooled syrup evenly over the tray.
Baklava can remain stored for up to a week wrapped and in a cool shaded area.
*Baklava is often made with ghee, the clarified butter used in many Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines, but I have found that substituting vegan butter and olive oil doesn’t change the results at all.