Teach me to cook Shandong
In August 2021, I was in my 10 square-meter Parisian studio and the city was nearly deserted. It had been over a year since I had moved to France. I loved every second of it. One of the greatest aspects of living on my own was making dishes I liked on a relaxing day. I was amazed by the great variety of cuisine in Paris to draw on. With Asian restaurants on every corner, I started looking for one of my favorite Chinese dishes in Egypt: Shandong.
Shandong is a starter that consists of fried shreds of zucchini covered in hot sauce. The Coptic Orthodox fast more than 200 days a year. This means that my menu is mostly vegetarian. While fasting, my family aimed to diversify the menu a little and we’d order once or twice from Peking, the main Chinese restaurant chain in Egypt. We’d argue over noodles or rice, but everyone agreed on two starters: spring rolls and Shandong. The latter was everyone’s favourite. I started to look for Shandong in Chinese restaurants in Paris and couldn’t find any. I asked a friend who had been living in France for five years and who enjoys cooking, and she said: “I never heard of that, I bet it’s something that Egyptians made up”.
I googled the recipe and again found nothing. I went to YouTube and found weird suggestions that had nothing to do with the Shandong I had in Egypt: there was a Shandong roast chicken recipe as well as stir fried eggplant.
At one point, I began to doubt the dish and my memory of it. Sometime later, I started my search again and came across Nevine El Shabrawy’s A Cook in Cairo blog. In March 2012, El Shabrawy posted a piece entitled “The Shandong Mystery,” where she shared the recipe to Peking’s Zucchini Shandong. On August 17th 2021, I shared this picture on the family’s WhatsApp group:
It was my first attempt at cooking Shandong, all thanks to Nevine El Shabrawy’s recipe. But I only managed to slice, and not shred, the Zucchini into round pieces. Little did I know that four months later, my life was about to change and Shandong, as it turns out, would be a big part of it.
Triple F: Film, Food and Family
In December 2021, I suddenly changed my life plans and decided to move back to Cairo to work on my first documentary film. I was accepted in a workshop to help me develop this film and I knew this was my time to see it through. What started at first as a search for a family archive and personal histories soon turned into this grand discovery of many untold and marginalized stories about Cairo and modern Egypt.
My grandfather Ibrahim-Refaat Shaker met my grandmother Raouth Zakhary in Assiut, where they were both born and raised. Her brother Nageh Zakhary was grandpa’s best friend and following the wedding they all moved to Cairo. After two decades in Hadayek el Obba, my grandpa moved the family to Shubra to be closer to his business: Cinema Massara. My grandpa and his brother-in-law Nageh used to run cinema Massara, a working-class cinema that was in operation from the mid-1950s to the late 1980s.
After both my grandpa and grandma passed away, my mom and her siblings decided to empty the Shubra apartment and give it back to the landlord. Emptying the closets was an easy task because my grandpa had meticulously labelled every single folder. I found a box with photos and began looking through it with enthusiasm. I didn’t recognize many of the faces. I don’t really know our extended family. However, three faces I saw left me in consternation.
In a photo taken following a meal, where grandpa and his brother-in-law seem to be relaxing with friends and drinking Cognac (another family favorite today), I saw three Asian men among the group. I turned to my mom and asked: “Who are these men?” Her answer: “Oh yes, the owners of the cinema were Chinese!”
My parents’ generation have this deep fascination with the 1940s and 1950s, for them a time when Egypt was, as they call it, “cosmopolitan”. There endures a nostalgia for the days when Greeks, Italians, and other Europeans roamed the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and Port-Said. My mom was born and raised in Shubra and growing up we’d hear stories about the Greek barber or the Italian hairdresser. Yet, throughout the years, there was never any mention of the many other migrant communities in Egypt.
The owners of Cinema Massara were three Chinese men: Yan Hong Yah, his brother and a close friend of theirs. I decided to dig deeper and held a Zoom meeting with my uncle, who had moved to Canada following the 25 January 2011 revolution. According to mom, uncle Raafat held all the information about the cinema. He knew enough about the owners and directed me to Hany Yan, the son of Yan Hong Yah and the present owner of Peking restaurants in Egypt. Hany Yan agreed to meet with me.
Mr. Hany Yan was born and raised in Egypt yet only acquired Egyptian nationality recently. After 60 years, he made the decision to renounce his citizenship in China, which does not recognize dual citizenship, in favor of the Egyptian.
Hany Yan’s father, Yan Hong Yah arrived in Egypt in 1938 on a steamboat that debarked at Port Tawfik in Suez city. and decided to settle there. His departure from China came in the context of the second Sino-Japanese war that goes back to 1931-32 when Manchuria was invaded. However, the Japanese invasion intensified in July 1937 with more Chinese territory being invaded. The Nanjing massacre of 13 December 1937 claimed the lives of 100,000 to 300,000 people. He married an Egyptian woman of Levantine origins. In our interview, Hany Yan reminisced about growing up in Cairo and being raised by an intercultural couple. He confided that, “Egypt was a beautiful country that hosted people from all over the world”. It was hard for me to picture Egypt, my Egypt as a refuge for other people. After 2013, many friends from my circle have decided to leave the country – including me. I was happy to learn Cairo was at a certain point a shelter to Hany Yan’s family.
Mr. Hany Yan grew up in downtown Cairo. His father was involved in many businesses, including antiques trading, a cinema in Shubra, and Peking, the first ever Chinese restaurant in Egypt. Peking was frequented mainly by Americans.
After high school, Hany Yan entered Medical school for a few years. As he described it in our conversation, he became involved in communist political activity and faced backlash from Islamist groups. He dropped out, and instead enrolled in the High Cinema Institute to study directing. He graduated in 1982, top of his class. In the meantime, Peking restaurant was suffering huge losses and the owners were heavily in debt. Hany Yan’s family turned to him for help.
And just like that, without any prior knowledge in restaurant management, a young Hany Yan took over Peking and went on to make it the most successful Chinese restaurant chain in Egypt, with 7 branches in Cairo alone. He has since also played a pivotal role in Egyptian-Chinese relations, founding and heading the Egyptian Chinese Organisation for International Cooperation to promote commercial relations between the two countries.
I asked Hany Yan about Shandong. He explained simply that his father comes from Shandong, a coastal province in East China. Several of Peking’s recipes are of his making and influenced by Shandong cuisine. Perhaps, after all, my friend was right and Shandong fried zucchini is an Egyptian, or rather, a Chinese-Egyptian creation.
According to the UNHR, in 2022 Egypt has hosted “more than 270,000 registered asylum-seekers and refugees from 65 countries”. I am proud that despite the economic crisis facing Egypt since 2011, we still accept migrants and refugees from around the world. Although newcomers face many challenges, migrants continue to affect the foodscapes of Cairo, from amazing crepes stands in Tahrir street in Dokki to Sausage and cheese man’oucheh, from Anas of Damscus in Nasr City to Kunafa nabulsi from ‘al fa7m (On Coal). Just like Hany Yan’s family escaped to Egypt, I only hope that today’s refugees and migrants escaping war and violence may make it safely to our shores and continue to create dishes as delicious as the Shandong that connects me to home.
Khairy Beshara, the famous Egyptian director, is one of Mr. Hany Yan’s closest friends and will be publishing book recounting the story of the Yan family. The novel is entitled, Chinese Pride: The Story of Kong Yong.
This research was undertaken for my film, which is currently in post-production in the framework of the Creative Documentary workshop organized by the Between Women Filmmakers Caravan.
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Stephanie Amin is a Summer Intern with Egypt Migrations and an Egyptian researcher and aspiring filmmaker. She holds a master’s degree in political sociology from Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. Her research interests focus on gender and its intersection with religion and class in contemporary Egypt.