A healthy number of delicious dishes carry the name of their creator, including Caesar salad, for Italian-born restaurateur Caesar Cardini, chateaubriand, after French chef François-René de Chateaubriand and eggs Benedict, widely credited to Lemuel Benedict, a New York stockbroker who, legend has it, smothered a whack of poached eggs with crispy bacon and hollandaise sauce one morning in 1894, in an effort to thwart a nasty hangover.
The reason we bring this up is because of a fresh entry on the local food front called hawawshi, named after Ahmed al-Hawawsh, the Cairo butcher who, 51 years ago, came up with what’s since been commonly described as an Egyptian hamburger. Consisting of minced meat paired with spiced onions, pepper and parsley, and served on homemade dough, hawawshi has rapidly emerged as one of the stars of the menu at newly-opened House of Taste, 1833 Grant Ave.
"We know there are many restaurants in Winnipeg and that it’s a very competitive industry. But we thought maybe if we offered something different, something diners hadn’t tried before, then we might be successful," says Mamdouh Hanna, who believes the 10-seat, largely take-out locale he runs with his wife Mariam is the first Winnipeg restaurant to feature authentic, Egyptian cuisine, all of which is prepared exclusively with 100 per cent Halal ingredients.
"It’s still early days, we only opened in mid-December, but so far, so good. Many people come in telling us they’re not familiar with hawawshi or koshary (a vegan platter consisting of pasta, rice and lentils topped with tomato sauce, onions and garlic) but that they are more than willing to give each a try. We love hearing that, we really do."
Mamdouh and Mariam were both born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt’s third-largest city. After getting married, Mamdouh helped run a transportation company founded by his late father, while Mariam stayed home with their twin daughters, now 19, and son, who just turned 14. They built a successful life for themselves but following the events surrounding the deadly, 2011 Egyptian revolution, which saw more than 800 protesters killed and thousands more injured, they began making plans to leave their homeland for a safer environment.
The couple initially considered relocating to the United States; Mamdouh had traveled there for business a number of times and had always enjoyed himself. But because Mariam had a brother living in Winnipeg who’d told them repeatedly that Canada was a better choice, they opted instead for Manitoba’s capital.
They arrived here in September 2015 after going through the proper channels. They had their first encounter with Jack Frost a week or so later, thanks to a freak, fall snowstorm.
Mariam laughs, noting her brother tried to prepare them, by letting them know how frigid Winnipeg winters can be. But until you experience sub-zero temperatures yourself, you don’t really know "how cold, cold is," she says.
(Mamdouh smiles, mentioning he was on the phone with family in Egypt last week, who told him the mercury there had dipped to freezing, and that schools were closing owing to a light sprinkling of snow, the region’s first in more than a decade. "I think that was the day the high (temperature) in Winnipeg was minus 30 (Celsius) or something, so although I felt bad for them, I didn’t feel too bad," he says.)
Mariam noted her brother tried to prepare them, by letting them know how frigid Winnipeg winters can be.
It didn’t take long for the couple to find work in Winnipeg; Mamdouh went into property management and Mariam, a self-taught cook, worked part-time at a restaurant.
Through their church, they met others from Winnipeg’s Egyptian community. Upon learning she was a whiz in the kitchen, many of their new acquaintances asked if she could make them such-and-such a dish "from home."
She was only too happy to comply, which directly led to her quitting her job and establishing her own catering biz, dubbed House of Taste, in December 2017.
In the summer of 2019, Mariam was enlisted to lend her expertise to Folklorama’s inaugural Egyptian pavilion, staged at the University of Manitoba’s University Centre. She was primarily responsible for sweets such as konafa (shredded dough topped with mango) and a rice pudding dessert that combines nuts and caramel.
Reviews were so overwhelmingly positive that she and Mamdouh began hunting around for a larger commercial kitchen, hoping they could take her fare to the next level.
The idea to transition from preparing Tilapia fish, fried squid and grey mullet for Islamic celebrations such as Eid al-Adha — or even fully-dressed turkey dinners for traditional, Christmas gatherings — to opening a restaurant of their own began to gel in March 2021, the second Mamdouh spotted a for rent-sign in the window of a shuttered ice cream parlor on Grant Avenue.
He and Mariam headed down to take a look at the strip-mall property, wedged between a tanning salon and a Subway outlet. They liked what they saw and spent from from July to late November renovating the space, as well as adding a few personal touches, including a Himalayan salt crystal pyramid lamp, a framed piece of cloth boasting the Egyptian alphabet and a colourful acrylic painting depicting an idyllic scene along the Nile River, the latter a gift from a friend of theirs.
House of Taste officially opened for business Dec. 18, and has since attracted both lifelong Winnipeggers in the mood for something different, and ex-pat Egyptians, hunting for a taste of home.
"I feel their restaurant will bring a lot to our community in Winnipeg as they serve true, homemade-style Egyptian food, at its best," says Dr. Hala Salama, a Winnipeg dentist who immigrated to Canada from Egypt in 2001.
Salama, who became friendly with the Hannas in 2019 when she was the Egyptian pavilion’s coordinator, says she is excited there is a place in town she can head to, for delicacies she grew up eating, such as Egyptian-style shawarma, kofta and properly spiced chicken kebabs.
“This (House of Taste) will be the very first Egyptian cuisine in Winnipeg; I’ve already tried their food several times, and it is always a pleasure to be there." – Dr. Hala Salama
"This will be the very first Egyptian cuisine in Winnipeg; I’ve already tried their food several times, and it is always a pleasure to be there," she says.
Mamdouh and Mariam plan to add to their menu in the weeks and months ahead; what’s currently available is a small sample size of what Egyptian-style food is all about, they point out.
For example, former catering customers who sampled their fesikh fish, traditionally served during the spring Sham el-Nessim festival, praised it as "delicious" and "best food in the town," on the couple’s Facebook page.
"We couldn’t be happier we chose Winnipeg as our home, and that we’re now able to give something back, in the form of our food," Mamdouh says, noting he’s since visited a few other urban centres in Canada, and is convinced none compare to here.
"Winnipeg is a big city, yes, but, to me, it feels more like a community, where you can get almost everywhere in 15 or 20 minutes, and where everybody seems to know everybody, or at least somebody they know. We can’t say enough good things. We’re so pleased to be Winnipeggers, too."
For more information and restaurant hours, visit the House of Taste Facebook page.
David Sanderson writes about Winnipeg-centric restaurants and businesses.
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.