Thursday May 2, 2019 By: Alexandra Kinias
The life of Ghalia Mahmoud (Set Ghalia) transformed overnight when her fairy godmother sprinkled her with sparkly dust of luck. The sensational Egyptian chef works on a tight schedule juggling the responsibilities of her newly opened restaurant. When not managing it, she is at her kitchen studio filming news episodes for her cooking show which airs on her YouTube channel. Set Ghalia became a celebrity less than a decade ago. Her rapid rise to stardom happened within less than a month after her daily cooking show aired on a privately-owned TV channel.
Her live show started at the beginning of August 2011, which coincided with the first day of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, also the peak of television viewing season in Egypt. The show became an instant hit, viewed by millions of people. Daily cooking shows in Ramadan compete for viewers and commercials, but hers was unlike anything presented before. Her meals were simple, affordable and cost under $4.00 per day. She was not your typical host either. A month earlier, the television superstar celebrity worked as a domestic helper for an upper-class family in Cairo.
Set Ghalia, wife of a mini-van driver and mother of two, lived in the poor neighborhood of Warraq, Cairo. The couple’s combined monthly income of $200.00, also took care of other members of their extended families. Cooking low budget meals sharpened her survival skills. Her luck transformed when the brother of the lady she worked for came to dinner at his sister’s. He enjoyed both Set Ghali’s cooking and character and offered her a job to host a cooking show on his television channel.
Unlike other television chefs, Set Ghalia was a common underprivileged woman with limited education. She had dropped out of school at a young age to support her family. With her husband’s unsteady job, she was among millions of women with similar statuses who struggled for their daily basic needs as the sole bread winners of their families.
From her studio kitchen, reconstructed like her own, small and simple, Set Ghalia communicated daily with her viewers in her down to earth language, with no frills or fancy words. She wore no makeup and covered hair covered with a scarf. And with her friendly demeanor, she reminded most viewers of a dear friend. Indeed, they are dear to her. She also greeted them like lifetime friends when they called the program to ask for culinary advice.
Living a lifetime with limited resources, she reminded her viewers that the secret of preparing a delicious meal lied in the method of cooking it and not necessarily in the ingredients used. “What matters in Egyptian cuisine, is nafas (breath), or the spirit one puts into the cooking. If you’re good on the inside, the food will be tasty,” she said in an interview with the Guardian.
She mastered her cooking skills from many years practicing and preparing simple recipes with affordable ingredients bought from her neighborhood vendors. Resourceful with her recipes, she showed her viewers ten different ways to cook eggplants or potatoes or beans. Through her life, she learned to cook for her extended family on a tight budget. On the show, like in real life she only cooked meat, poultry, or fish on Fridays, her payday from her previous jobs, and used small quantities – as much as the budget allowed. She spared no effort to show her viewers how she prepared one chicken to feed a family of eight.
Her simple background hit a chord with the viewers. She belonged to them. She didn’t even own measuring cupsand cooked in tin pots with no handles on propane burners lit with a match, in a kitchen without electrical machines other than an old blender.
Set Ghalia also interjected messages to her viewers. She asked men to help their wives with the house chores, advised women on how to raise their children, care for their neighbors and fight the price increase by cooking cheap food. On her Facebook page, which the producer created for her, the viewers voted for the show to continue after Ramadan. It did until the channel closed down. But Set Ghalia didn’t quit. She launched her cooking channel on YouTube and continued to do what she knew best. Almost a decade later, since the day the fairy godmother waved her magic wand at her, Set Ghalia’s success soared. Her Facebook pages reached 440,000 likes and her YouTube channel has 146,000 subscribers. She aspires her restaurant would become one in a chain of many to open in multiple locations.
Elated with her new responsibilities, Ghalia is also grateful for her accomplishments. She has broken the mold. Her success represents a slice of hope for millions of other women with similar stories like hers. It has revived her hopes for a better future for her two daughters.
Photos credit El Set Ghalia
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