Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Egypt Foodlogue - All the Conquerers on a Platter

In more than 2000 years since Christ, Egypt has been under foreign occupation for all but last fifty odd years. If you include Alexander’s occupation, then this period of foreign occupation started much before Christ, continued through Roman, Arab, Turkish and British occupation. Now with this as history, it isn’t surprising that there isn’t much of a ‘cuisine’ that Egypt can call exclusively its own. Most of the popular dishes in Egypt would be claimed by Turkish or Lebanese as theirs in origin. Still what makes Egyptian food, rather food in Egypt, interesting is the uniqueness of the eateries, people who sell/serve the food and those who eat it. This is the criteria I used to list some of the gastronomic experiences from my trip to Egypt.

Fuul, mashed fava beans, and Tamaiyya, fried fava beans popular elsewhere as falafel, are standard fare. While the whole world is familiar with falafel and fuul is isn’t very exciting unless you have grown up with it, Koshary is a popular street food which would make luxury traveller forget five-star dinning and help the backpacker save precious bucks. Rice, pasta, lentils, tomato sauce and crispy fried onions are all tossed together in a bowl and your only choice is how much you want to spend. The way the Koshary man scoops each ingredient from the pots in front of him and tosses them in a bowl, reminds of the bhelpuriwalas back home. And it’s a greater sense of déjà vu’ when each customer has his own instructions for the amount of spicy tomato-chilli sauce that needs to go in. It’s a filling meal which even at the most popular Koshary in Cairo, Al Omda (6 Al-Gazaer St., Mohandessin), cost you anywhere between twenty to thirty rupees.

Other than Koshary what caught my attention the most was Fiteer, called the Egyptian Pizza, but more like a layered pastry. While there are savoury versions also, the sweet ones are absolutely mouth-watering like the one proudly displayed in the snap by this Big-B fan pizza boy standing beside his ingredients – desiccated coconut, cherries, roasted nuts, castor sugar. While my wife and year-old kid were getting irritated waiting for this pizza as a van fumigating the area had just passed by, this lovely guy insisted on placing each cherry at the right place and carefully pouring honey on top along some geometrical outline. I wish I loved my job as much! If you are in Aswan, don’t miss out on fiteer at Biti Pizza (Midan el-Mahatta) just outside the station.

While people go to Al Omda for Koshary or Biti for Fiteer, they go to Fishawy (off Midan Hussein, Khan el-Khalili) just for the heck of it. As queer in character as the 14th century market, Khan el-khalili, where it is located, people say Fishway has been open 24*7 for last 200 years. Maybe some of our BPOs concerned about ‘Business Continuity’ should check this place out! Patricia Schultz, author of the fascinating 1,000 Places to See Before You Die , lists this as one of the three places you should eat at before you die. It’s a bit like a Parisian café, where you see life in all its facets over a cup of coffee. But what you wont get in Paris is salesmen, saleswomen and saleskids selling you pyramid souvenirs, leather belts, hunters et al while you sip your ahwa (coffee) or shai (tea) or smoke your sheesha (a bit like hooka in India).

Naghuib Mahfouz Café’, in the same market, is everything that Fishway is not, but still an experience not to be missed. Managed by the Oberoi group, and Egyptian Nobel laureate Naghuib Mahfouz (he is to Egypt what Tagore is to Bengal) as the theme of the décor, it is distinctly upmarket. While many western tourists visit this place as they have been advised by the Lonely Planet guide that this is the only place in Khan el-khalili with clean loos, it is serves a variety of middle-eastern dishes like the Lebanese Arayes (grilled pitta stuffed with mince, tomato, onions). I would also recommend a visitor to try the bread basked with dips of choice (featured here is babaghanough, a roast aubergine dip, but you can also get labneh, a yoghurt cheese, or houmous).

Lobster sized prawns, fresh from a lake a few miles away, grilled in front of your eyes – if this doesn’t make you salivate nothing will. With an area of 5,250 sq. km, Lake Nasser created as a result of the Aswan Dam is the world’s largest man-made lake. Located a few miles away in Aswan is Chef Khalili (Sharia as-souq), a fish restaurant which has made the most of this water body. Its sells fish and shellfish by the kilo and what makes the experience unbeatable is that you taste the freshness unadulterated by excess seasoning or cooking. It is either grilled on a stone-grill, as the chef grills a kg of jumbo prawns in picture, or a oven/grill as was the squids I had.

A dinner at The Pharaohs (138 ,El Nile St. – Giza), another Oberoi run upmarket restaurant, is also worth the money essentially because it is a barge on the Nile and you can feel the nip in breeze from the river as the barge sways a bit. You can also dine in one of their cruise restaurants which anchor along the same barge.

I could not try the Nubean cuisine in upper Egypt, something I certainly regret. Having lost land to Lake Nasser and identity to Egypt’s complete identification with the Arab world, Nubeans do not have many restaurants which patronise their cuisine. I had a chance to enjoy their rustic yet soulful music during a felucca (type of yachts on the Nile) sail, was imagining how earthy yet tasteful must their food be.

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