I’ve been researching my Egyptian family’s food heritage, especially as related to their origins in the cities of Esna and Assyut. My Esnawiyya Teta came from a Coptic-Sudanese background, with her family roots in Sudan dating back to the early nineteenth century. I fondly recall one object that was critical to her kitchen toolbox: the mifrak. An ancient immersion blender like no other, the mifrak (lit. “a tool for rubbing”) is a wooden dowel, with regional variations in length and design, used especially to make Bamya Mafrouka or Bamya Wayka, a garlicky pulverized okra stew-soup, eaten with loads of baladi bread. The stew is known in Upper Egypt but is also considered a national dish in Sudan. The mifrak can be even used to mix up one of Egypt’s most popular dishes: molokhiyya (jute leaves), a plant that’s related to okra which produces a much-loved green stew with variations that spread from Egypt to the Levant and Cyprus.
According to Nawal Nasrallah, the renowned historian of Arab food, the mifrak was made of acacia wood and likely dates to ancient Egyptian times. In one iteration, it was used in medieval Egypt to whip up an intoxicating incense blend made of sandalwood, ambergris, musk, lemon and orange peel, rosewater, saffron among other ingredients. (Nasrallah, Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table, 415-16).
The mifrak can still be found in Egypt today but it’s much less common than twenty years ago, substituted as expected by more convenient electric tools. In truth, a cook must swivel the mifrak for quite a while to achieve a smooth stew, blending okra that’s been boiled in broth—with all of its viscous goodness—along with copious amounts of garlic. In my family, the dish was usually finished with the classic Egyptian taqliyya made of pounded coriander seeds and more garlic that have been sautéed in ghee till fragrant. My favorite memory is of watching Teta blending the soup for several minutes and then all of us grandchildren huddled in the kitchen waiting for her to add that final taqliyya, which loudly sizzled when mixed with the stew.
The mifrak might be getting obsolete and my beloved Teta has been long gone, but I’ll always cherish those kitchen sounds and aromas. Making Bamya Mafrouka today (even if without a mifrak of my own) stands as a tribute to my family’s rich heritage and to their treasured culinary traditions.
Food historian and Professor of Middle East History, Middlebury College