Tuesday, January 26

A Year (or Two) in Kenya: Cairo adventures: The food

I get the feeling that after six months of regular ugali, uji, githeri and rice and beans, the culinary culture of most any nation that had discovered foods not centered around limited variations on corn would have been more than acceptable to my mistreated palate. Still, I think I could have done a far sight worse than Cairo.

I have no idea what I ate. Another problem with the whole Arabic alphabet thing. Might make finding the recipes a bit difficult. I could describe the dishes, but you don't say "I enjoyed tomato, eggplant, zucchini, garlic and onion at Perkins last night." No, you say "That was a particularly tasty ratatouille." You don't say, "Pass the baked flour, salt, yeast and water mixture." You say, "That is some fine bread. Damn fine." A list of ingredients don't a dish make. I'll do the best I can, but imagination in reading this post is called for. Kind of really makes me really regret not taking any pictures at the cafés. That would at least be something for you all.

While I may very well have been ripped off by my taxi from the airport and at my first hostel, I consider my financial success on the culinary front worthy in Cairo. My first night, wandering merely in search of a place that was open downtown, I ended up in side alley, and some men with tea and shisha called me into their café. That's all they served, so I didn't exactly eat well there, but I was around long enough to look a little farther up the alley to find the stalls that did serve food. I came back to that alley every night thereafter. If you paid more than 10 Egyptian pounds, about 2 American dollars, for a whole meal, either you were really hungry or really ripped off.

Seating anywhere in particular was limited, and most eventually migrated to rows of common plastic chairs facing a TV that sometimes played Bollywood, sometimes Egyptian series and mostly the English Premier League. Sit down for more than a minute in any of those chairs, and they would bring a short glass of water. Catch them before they left, and you could ask for Pepsi or tea, if you were the mood for something ridiculously sweet where sugar particles still existed in boiling water. They bloody love the stuff. Dump a few spoons full of crushed black loose leaf and sugar into a glass about four times the size of a shot, and they were good. Morning, noon and night there were kids balancing silver trays with upwards of four full glasses threading their ways through the crowds on the streets to make deliveries.

I had pizza the first night, at least that's what they called. It was built on a pastry, rather than bread, dough, in the first place. I don't think there was any tomato sauce either, am still not sure if that was cheese, and found plenty of olives and peppers on it. But it was great, if for nothing else than having a flavor not built around salt or the harshness of kale.

I discovered macaroni the next day. Kind of lame to name the entire dish after just one of the ingredients when they mix it with generous portions of lentils and fried onions and top it with chickpeas and lemon juice. Discovered then that Egyptians are some of those that like it hot. A spicy tomato sauce is served separate to allow seasoning appropriate to the diner. Even though the mix may have only been one part to fifteen, I could never stand to mix in the whole thing. But it burned so good. Pasta was such a staple of mine in the States that being denied it since July, not counting that macaroni and cheese made with shells and tossed with pre-shredded cheddar, made it all the better. I had the macaroni at least every other day.

It took me almost five days to discover what the giant wooden boxes full of bread and carried on the heads of boys on bicycles were being used for. Kind of a disappointment. It was pita bread. The flavor wasn't a disappointment, though. The Egyptians stuffed those with everything. The first one I had was filled with potato chips. Then there were more traditional ones with hummus and falafel and baba ghanoush. Then there was the one filled with french fries. Favorite though was the one I found in Islamic Cairo on the way back from the Citadel and also the only one I ever learned the name of. I only learned that because when I asked if he had falafel, the guy kept yelling "ful" at me. Tasted kind of like a cross between refried beans and hummus. Tasted kind of good. Not like the side they kept pushing at me. Pickled carrots, pickled potatoes and pickled peppers. It was a little much on the salt.

The very last dish I discovered was at breakfast. Ordinarily I just took the tea, rolls and hard-boiled egg offered by my hostels, but holidays or some such delayed the baker my second-to-last morning in Cairo, and I was forced into the street for my breakfast. There I discovered something to push any lingering thoughts of mandazi far from my mind. Using the same base as the pizza I enjoyed on my first night, bringing the culinary adventures full circle really, the man tossed it on a wide, greased pan for a brief warming before rolling it around a generous topping of honey and confectioner's sugar. That was something special on Cairo's cool January mornings. I shall call it "Fried honey bread."

Time to add Egypt after Indonesia to the list of nations whose cuisines I had no idea about before arrival and cannot have enough of now.

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