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Eating Egypt

Reader question: “Was that strange combination Egyptian meal you described real?”

The reader was referring to koshari, the national dish of Egypt (also known as kushari), which Fatima treats Kate and Jackson to in the third GhostWriters book, Temple of Ghosts.

Koshari, an unlikely combination of macaroni, lentils, rice, and tomato sauce topped with crispy onions, is not much to look at, but is surprisingly delicious.

Jennifer tries koshari, Egypt's national dish, for the first time.

Jennifer tries koshari, Egypt’s national dish, for the first time. Photo credit: Alan Widmer

Many of my readers are surprised to learn I’ve traveled the world to write the GhostWriters series. For City of Ghosts, I toured China and spent time in an abandoned Chinese ghost city. For The Girl Who Talks to Ghosts, I finagled my way to Poveglia, the world’s most haunted (and forbidden) island. For Temple of Ghosts, I explored the tombs and ancient temples of Egypt, and for the upcoming fourth book in the series, I visited the most haunted forest in the world. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.

One of the greatest pleasures when traveling is sampling another culture’s cuisine. (Okay, I may have done more than sample.) Authentic Chinese food is both phenomenal and frustratingly unavailable anywhere else in the world; pizza in Italy will leave you forever unsatisfied with our pathetic imitations–and how on earth do they get their lemons and tomatoes to taste like that? After drinking mint tea in Egypt, you will wonder why everyone doesn’t go for the pick-your-own-mint approach, bringing an adorable potted plant to your table.

Italian pizza

Italian pizza…and this wasn’t even the REALLY good stuff.

While my memories of Egypt of course include the Great Pyramids, the Valley of the Kings and poor Tut’s tomb, they taste of the sweet, bright purple hibiscus juice–which was like grape juice, only better–savoury, sesame-flavoured tahini dip with fresh, melt-in-your-mouth pita bread, and the best sandwich I ever had in my life: gleaming strips of meat sliced from a vertical rotisserie and tucked into pita bread with a delectable sauce.

Temple of Ghosts by J.H. MoncrieffThere’s a lot you can learn about different cultures and cuisines from the web, but for me, nothing replaces being there. As I started to write Temple of Ghosts here at home, the things I didn’t know and couldn’t find on the net frustrated me. What does the sand in Egypt feel like? (Answer: it has a coarse texture, not soft–at least in the areas I visited, and it’s a medium brown, not white.) What does the air smell like? (Answer: depends where you are.) There was only one thing to do–book a trip to Egypt. Thank goodness for Airmiles.

If I hadn’t traveled to these places myself, I wouldn’t know that Bali smells like frangipani and incense, and sounds like bamboo chimes. I wouldn’t know how delicious jian bing tastes for breakfast, made by a frightened woman with a cart who is always glancing over her shoulder as she cooks, watching for the police. I wouldn’t have tried tart, sour tamarind straight from the tree or felt the simmering tension of Curaçao. I certainly wouldn’t have predicted the deep sadness I’d feel as I looked down at Tut’s tiny, wizened body, or viewed the mummified remains of Pompei’s unfortunates. And I wouldn’t have made friends from all over the world.

Not everyone can travel where they’d like, and I’ve done my best to turn my books into an escape for my readers. If you’re not in a position to sit shoulder-to-shoulder on a metal bench, eating koshari for the first time with a dozen new friends, the least I can do is bring the koshari to you.

For the recipe, click here.

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24 Comments

  1. Loved this post J.H. thank you! there are haunted places all around South Africa – let me know when you plan to come!

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Susan. South Africa has been on my bucket list for a long, long time. The only thing holding me back is money. Once I figure that part out, I’m on my way!

      Reply
  2. You are fortunate that you’ve been able to travel to so many places. I think everyone should venture outside their country at least once to experience something new. I still remember genuine Japanese food – nothing here compares.

    Reply
    • JH

      Agreed, Alex. Traveling is so important for everyone, but especially for writers. I sacrificed a lot of other things so I could do this (I still don’t have a vehicle, for instance).

      Japanese food is amazing. I haven’t visited Japan, but we have some incredible Japanese restaurants here at home. Probably not the same, though.

      Reply
  3. Thanks for sharing! When I back off on low-carbs I will totally try the recipe. As for Italy — the best fig I ever had in my whole life (and may ever have) came straight from the tree at a local’s home in Tuscany. OMG I still dream of it — and it was the size of your hand!

    Reply
    • JH

      Wow, that sounds wonderful. Sadly, I think figs were one thing I didn’t have. Those zucchini blossoms, though…

      Reply
  4. Really enjoyed this post! And I’m wth you regarding Italy. It’s been years since I’ve been there, but I still remember the food. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      It’s the very definition of unforgettable.

      Reply
  5. Haha, thanks for including the photo, J.H.! What great memories of koshari. Alan and I have since tried making it ourselves, but the experience was missing the colored fountains and danceable music, and of course, all of you!

    Reply
    • JH

      Aw, thanks for letting me use it, Jennifer. I miss you two. xo

      Reply
  6. I think that would be one of my favorite things about traveling. We love the Netflix show “Somebody Feed Phil” because he travels and immerses himself in the cuisine of wherever he is visiting! =) Your stories definitely do make me feel like I have an adventure all from the safety of my couch! Maybe I will get the opportunity to travel a bit someday but until then I am content to live through your books.

    Reply
    • JH

      Aw, thanks Nikki. Your support and enthusiasm for my work gets me through the difficult days.

      Reply
  7. Eating local food is definitely one of the best parts of travel. I visited Egypt ages ago but don’t think I had koshari when I was there. Definitely will have to check out the recipe.

    Reply
    • JH

      It tastes a lot better than it looks.

      Reply
  8. I should’ve done a lot more traveling when I was single. I’ve been to Russia and the Dominican Republic, but there are so many more places I’d love to explore. Thanks for your books so I can at least visit those places in my mind!

    Reply
    • JH

      Russia is one place I haven’t been to yet, despite writing Return to Dyatlov Pass.

      Enjoyed the Dominican, though. Did you get the chance to visit Catalina? Prettiest little island.

      Reply
  9. You did a wonderful job of bringing us along on the journey. So looking forward to the next one. I might need to read it with all the lights on, though!

    Reply
    • JH

      Ha ha, thanks Mary. I’m so happy you’ve enjoyed my books.

      Reply
  10. Great post. I know exactly what you mean about eating pizza in Italy. When I used to travel to the Monza racetrack to cover the Formula One race I always visited a little backstreet pizza restaurant. Never had pizza that good before or since.

    Reply
    • JH

      The food in Italy is incomparable. The gnocchi, the prosciutto, the Tuscan bean soup…sigh.

      Reply
    • JH

      Lots of sacrifice.

      Reply
  11. I really enjoyed these behind-the-scenes memories, JH. You are so right: there’s nothing better than experiencing all these countries, their traditions, people, and food first-hand. It’s what draws me in life. All the senses are present! Unfortunately, unlike most of your readers, that means I don’t have much time for these worlds on the pages. Hurrah for air miles, indeed. Although, one day, I’d really like to use them to fly to a place of my choice instead of to visit family on the East Coast or Belgium! I guess we will just have to drive everywhere in Zesty. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks, Liesbet. We are kindred spirits in so many ways. I’d say you have your fair share of adventures. 🙂

      Reply

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