Egypt's chef leading a 'kitchen uprising'

By Stephen Sackur
BBC News, Cairo

image captionGhalia Mahmoud specialises in plain, cheap and traditional dishes

When an Egyptian news channel reflecting the aims of the Tahrir Square revolutionaries introduced some light relief to the schedules, it inadvertently created a new star more popular than the news coverage.

There are - I hope we can agree - too many cooking shows on the telly.

From the glamorous to the foul-mouthed, by way of the cheeky chappy and the toff, we have had all types of celebrity chefs serving up delicious scoff.

We gawp and we salivate, but then we return to our sadly untelegenic kitchens and fry another egg.

So the last thing the world needs right now is a new star of the stove.

But what can I tell you? I recently went to Cairo in search of the enduring spirit of the Tahrir Revolution and I fell in love with a television cook.

Ghalia Mahmoud is what Egyptians fondly call a "Set" - a term reserved for strong women respected for their ability to keep hearth and home together.

Set Ghalia is in her 30s, sturdy of build, with an electric smile. She raised two daughters while working long hours as a maid for one of Cairo's upper-class families.

'Tasty and cheap'

Until last January's revolution, her life consisted of little more than cooking and cleaning for her employer and caring for a demanding family back home in Warra'a, one of the city's poorest suburbs.

But then Set Ghalia's life, like Egypt's, was caught up in revolutionary currents. Soon after the downfall of President Mubarak, her employer's brother - the founder of a pro-revolutionary TV station - had an idea.

He wanted a new show - something entertaining - to leaven the diet of news and current affairs, and his mind turned to Ghalia, much loved for her delicious food and her gift of the gab.

The concept was simple. Ghalia could lead a kitchen uprising on television - no more fancy cuisine using unaffordable ingredients and complex recipes but plain fare for plain folk. Tasty and cheap.

A year on and Set Ghalia's cooking show on 25TV is an extraordinary hit.

Her ratings are so good she does a live 90-minute show in prime-time.

She is watched on satellite throughout the Middle East. She does not have a computer but she has 40,000 Facebook fans.

"I'm like 90% of Egyptian women," she told me, when I visited her cramped studio set complete with ancient stove and battered pots.

"I take the bus to work, I get my bread from the baker, my vegetables from the market and I'm happy in my skin."

image captionThe revolutionary spirit reflected in Cairo's Tahrir Square

She should be. The day I visited was the show's first birthday.

Her studio kitchen was visited by an Islamic cleric who showered her with blessings, and a troupe of Nubian singers who serenaded her while she made a selection of Egyptian desserts.

As Set Ghalia put the finishing touches to a huge round tray of basboussa - a fatally attractive concoction of semolina, sugar syrup and rosewater - her guests chorused "Ha namr Misr" (we will build Egypt).

A potent mix here of pudding and politics.

Media 'darling'

In the words of 25TV owner Mohamed Gohar, Set Ghalia allows Egyptians - and other Arabs too - to see themselves as they really are - poor, struggling to make ends meet.

Her budget runs to $4 (£2.50) a day. Her haggling skills have become a Cairo legend.

And as she cooks she talks, taking calls from all corners of the Middle East. Rima from Saudi Arabia says her children are too picky, what should she do?

Answer - give them beans and rice.

Senaa from Tunisia says her husband has gone off her food. "He loves you, Set Ghalia. He says he wants to marry you."

Set Ghalia roars with laughter.

There is an irony here, of course. 25TV was created to be the media voice of the Tahrir Square generation.

One of its news anchors lost an eye in clashes with Mubarak's security forces. Another was a doctor who gave up medicine for activism during the uprising last year.

And now these young activist journalists see the ratings for their programmes dwarfed by the popularity of a cooking show but, far from resenting Set Ghalia, they have embraced her.

In the words of station owner Gohar, "She is a part of the new Egypt."

Ghalia no longer works as a maid but she and her bus-driver husband still live in the same cramped apartment with two children and a dozen other family members to feed.

But for how much longer, I wonder?

A group of Egyptians - clearly unimpressed by the official list of candidates for next month's presidential election - issued an online plea for Set Ghalia to run for the highest office.

Set Ghalia for president?

Then Egypt's revolution really would be cooking on gas.

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