Tuesday, December 05, 2006
It’s raining! We’ve thrown open the windows. The air is cool and even slightly fresh. Down below, the street is covered with water – there are no gutters, which tells you how much it rains here. It’s the second time it's rained since we’ve been here – and the first time was for a span of ten minutes. J just pointed out that we are able to see a building in the distance that has never been clear.
Last week the bawaab brought us the census survey. It felt strange and rather exciting to fill in the “foreigner” bubble. It felt doubly strange to give the survey, complete with an estimation of our annual salaries, back to the bawaab rather than an official census taker. As we ready for a visit home, we’ve been thinking a lot about the aspects of Egypt that intrigue, baffle, irritate, and amuse us. Today I’ll focus on the good. The food. Ah, how I love food.
Let’s start with the vendor of sweet potatoes, typically a man in a gallibeya pushing a cart down the street. There is a smoking barrel of an oven on this cart that looks like a chimney. In this oven, sweet potatoes steam and smoke. As the vendor rolls the cart down the street, occasionally setting up on corners, people buy a potato or two for a pound. He wraps it in newspaper and hands it to the customer, who eats it as is. Sometimes the vendor stops and peels blemishes from the raw potatoes before putting them into the fire. A wintertime treat – cheap, easy, delicious, calorie-rich, warm.
Then there is koshari, another carb delight – a big bowl of macaroni, rice, vermicelli noodles, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions, and a bit of tomato sauce. There are numerous koshari restaurants around, but the one we like gives you a little plastic bag of vinegar sauce and a container of hot sauce, and this really makes the meal. There is a man in charge of tying up the bags of vinegar, and he does so between pulls on his cigarette. Six pounds for two enormous bowls.
As for the fruits and vegetables, they are almost always delicious. Cucumbers are small, crisp, and available year round, as are tomatoes, which vary in taste but are much better than the nonentities we buy in the winter in the Midwest. I buy yellow peppers, which are so expensive at home, for a few pounds. Onions and garlic are sweet and fragrant. The cantaloupe here has the rind of the cantaloupes at home, but is green like a honeydew on the inside. I could go on and on. I remember the first few disorienting days I was here – when we passed a green grocer, flies were swarming the grapes, the money was confusing, and the shop was situated next to a pile of trash sweating in the heat. It seemed at the time that I might never eat anything nutritious again. How wrong I was. In fact, we’ve come to find that even the canned or frozen foods often have no preservatives, or “without conservatives,” as the mozzarella cheese package says in the photo above. This is not to say that we are totally naïve. Pesticides are used; food sitting out all day in the street cannot help but absorb the immense pollution, etc. I wash everything with soap and water. Some people go so far as to put it in diluted bleach. All of this does not diminish the fact that the fruits and vegetables are delightful.
Our first real experience with an Egyptian meal was at our friend Ahmed’s home. Each time a space would open up on our plates, Ahmed’s mother would hurry over and spoon more on. “You’re not eating enough!” she said. It is common for Egyptians to do this to you, and I have been warned that you must strike a delicate balance – you must eat enough, but you must not eat too much. If you do not eat enough, they will think you are rude. If you eat too much, you are a pig.
I had explained weeks before this dinner (so as to lessen my offense) that I am a vegetarian. Vegetarianism often baffles Egyptians. It did not make sense to Ahmed’s family, and they questioned me about it off and on through the night. In fact, Ahmed seemed a bit disappointed in me when I thought I was being polite in telling him in advance. I brought out my "I grew up on a farm and we would eat off one cow and one pig for a whole year" story, which seemed to improve my standing. Now that I think about it, though, I did mention eating pork to a group of Muslims. Nonetheless, vegetarian dishes appeared – steamed vegetables, bean salad, potato salad, coleslaw, pastries stuffed with spinach and flavored with lemon, a casserole dish of Chinese noodles and vegetables, rice with vermicelli noodles, and several others. Delicious! The amount of food was dizzying. Dessert consisted of a homemade cheesecake, a fancy store-bought chocolate cake, and a chocolate mousse with walnuts.
Later, Ahmed’s mother and father brought me into the kitchen to show me their fuul pot and explain how to make fuul. The fuul pot (at least the smaller family-sized version) resembles a carafe, and it steams and simmers all day. A regular fuul pot is enormous with a thin neck, almost like a symmetrical gourd. I cannot remember the exact recipe for fuul, but it involves hours of cooking after hours of soaking. It was the way they told me about it that was so beautiful. Ahmed’s mother pulled out a handful of beans to show me as she explained how long to soak them, when to change the water, etc. She moved these beans from hand to hand as she spoke, and she made me grab a handful of the beans as she explained their properties. Ahmed’s father picked up some lentils and broke one of them with his teeth to show me the inside (a small bit of lentils can help the flavor of fuul). Then he lit the gas stove and demonstrated the exact level the flame should be at. They did not simply tell me how to do it – they acted it out. The fact that I can’t remember the recipe only reflects badly on me. Fuul, though, is another typical Egyptian dish made of slowly cooked fava beans. The flavor is mild but hearty, and can be paired with lots of other foods but is mainly eaten with bread.
The meat in Egypt? J can tell you all about it.
I have always had a simple taste in food, so it should not be surprising that I love the staples of this country. Actually, I've heard and read many complaints about Egyptian food, all lodged by foreigners. The odd complaints of resident Americans, as a matter of fact, is another Egypt thing on my brain. Anyway, rest assured that the mozzarella was lying -- there are, in fact, some conservatives in Egypt.
In writing this, I have realized it is time to get some groceries. Here is a sad little picture of some of the food in our apartment. You will see a can of strained fuul on the left and spicy peeled medammas (another kind of fuul) on the right. Of course the canned stuff is not worth mentioning after having the real thing. Enjoy!