When Shahir Massoud was growing up in Toronto, summer gatherings inevitably included potato salads, made by his mother and the other women in the family and community. The traditional Egyptian dishes included the classic lentils and a lemony dressing.
As a child, he loved the combination. But now, as a 37-year-old trained restaurant chef, he looks back and thinks: Couldn’t it have been better? The potatoes were nondescript, and the green lentils were “cooked to oblivion.” The latter was the biggest problem, as he remembers, because it made for a lack of textural variation, which is so important to the way he cooks now.
In his first cookbook, “Eat, Habibi, Eat!,” Massoud revisits the foods of his childhood, especially the celebration dishes made by his mother, who owned a pharmacy and would undoubtedly refer to him as “habibi,” or “my darling” in Arabic.
“I thought, ‘Why don’t I take all these influences and my restaurant training and put some spins on those dishes, but still honor the traditions?’” he said in a phone interview from Toronto, where he lives with his wife and two young children. “They still had to taste like the version they were inspired by, but they could be more interesting.”
When it comes to that potato salad, for instance, Massoud switches to black lentils and buttery fingerlings, cooking them carefully to keep their textures intact. He dresses the potatoes while they’re warm so the dressing soaks in, adding flavor to every bite, and he adds dollops of another traditional Egyptian ingredient: labneh — salted and strained yogurt. (But not just any labneh. For his, he first makes a garlic confit, whisking some of the sweet cloves into the yogurt after it has thickened.)
“It honors that original potato salad,” he said, “but transforms it into something more exciting.”
I served Massoud’s recipe at a casual potluck get-together of work colleagues, all of us excited to see one another after way too many Zoom meetings.
I was the only one who brought something savory, and even though I had tasted the salad and knew how delicious it was, for a brief moment I wondered whether it could compete on a table of shortbread, cookies, Thai iced tea and a galette. It was all I could do to not shout, “Eat, friends, eat!”
I needn’t have worried.