Sunday, 13 February 2011

Food Travel: Egypt

So the long awaited (is it - are you reading?) Egypt blog is here! Plenty of food experiences from Egypt to tell you about - so sit back and enjoy! There are of course more stories from my travels than just those about food, but this is a food blog, so that's all that'll be here. Maybe I'll put all my other notes somewhere else.

***

Unfortunately, the first food I encountered on the journey was inevitably going to be on the plane over. Suffering the ignominy of airline food is never the best way to start a journey.

Coasting at thirty thousand feet over the glorious alps, Croatia forty miles out over the starboard wing of one of mankind's greatest inventions, the jet, and what are you served to eat?

A paltry excuse for a full English. And yet in that very British way we simply get on and eat it all (Or is that just polite? Or duty? It's included in the flight price - take full advantage!).

The view from the portholes, the occasion of flight, surely calls for the best of foods to be served... A steak perhaps, a roasted pig, the mighty lobster. But instead a pitiful pile of beans, a sodden, chewy omelette and a solitary, passable sausage. Packeted jam and butter for a stale roll. One small jewel that nestles on the tray - a chocolate brownie, gluten free, baked with an almond mixture rather than flour - is just enough to spare BMI's blushes.

I lived in hope that Egypt had better fare to offer...

***

One of the most frustrating things about the shrinking size of the world (though there are many benefits to the modern ease and speed of travel) is that the culture of a place begins to be tainted and can become lost in the evil that is the cultural melting pot.

For example, the hotel I stayed in, The Barceló in Giza, is part of a global chain of hotels. This means that the food from the restaurants is mostly inoffensively European, be it pasta, chicken, beef - even a carvery!

How can a country with it's own bold, unique identity, cultural significance and historical
importance be reduced to serving croissants at breakfast and gravy at dinner time?! It's an
outrage.

After further scrutiny of the hotel's breakfast buffet I did eventually find a couple of local items. That middle eastern and mediterranean staple, the falafel, and another more obscure item (or at least one I hadn't come across before) was simply labelled black beans. They were like a paste - a little similar to Mexican refried beans (usually pinto beans). I think there was a little chilli and cumin mixed in there too.

So it was to be that lunches out and about in the cities of Egypt had to give more of a taste of local cuisine. Surely...

***

It was three days in to my trip before I managed a real taste of Egypt.

Wandering down one of the little back streets in Cairo I came across a few little bakeries.
Stopping in at one I pointed at one of the glass cases (my Arabic is VERY limited. A few fairly useless phrases is all I have.), not really sure what it was I was looking at inside. But you have to have a sense of adventure, right?

Anyway, one of the guys in the shop came over and asked "One? Two?". I presumed he meant how many I would like, and so I replied "One." However, what he was really asking was how many Egyptian pounds worth would I like. Now one Egyptian pound is about ten pence - and even for this I was given a bag of seven little baked goods. I think he said they were called
Noshul or something similar. They turned out to be date cookies - a little like fig rolls, and
absolutely delicious. Well worth the pittence cash.

This cheap cost of living (at least that's the way it seems to those in the West), seems to be a bit of a theme when it comes to eating in Egypt. Wandering through another marked later in the week I found some saffron. For three Egyptian pounds (thirty pence) it was possible to get about one hundred pounds sterling worth of the stuff - absolutely incredible.

Speaking to another local about restaurants, it was explained to me that owning property near the Nile is very expensive, and mooring a boat to use as a restaurant is even more so. Because of this, he continued, restaurants on boats on the Nile serve food at a premium price. Curious, I asked him how much it might be for a meal one of these boats. Thinking for a while, he proclaimed that it would be about one hundred and twenty Egyptian pounds... I personally thought that twelve pounds for a meal out was a bit of a steal.

It makes me wonder what the average wage in Cairo is, but I never did get round to finding out.

***

It was at the hotel that I next encountered some more local cuisine.

It was dessert and both the guava and persimmon were on the buffet. I decided to try both. I know that both are widely available the world over, but I'd never had persimmon before, and guava I'd only had in Lebanon.

When I'd last had guava, I'd had it as a fresh juice, so I knew to expect the sweet flavour and pulpy texture. It was delicious.

The persimmon however, was particularly unripe, overly firm, and very very bitter. It also had the interesting - but definitely unpleasant - effect of drying out my mouth as I ate it. So, casting it aside, I am still waiting to try persimmon in its ripe state.

***

A couple of days later in a little town about seventy miles south of Cairo, I managed to
experience a proper Egyptian lunch.

Sitting on the west bank of the Nile, looking across to various mansions and other local interests - could there have been a better time to try Egyptian food for real? Was there a better place? Probably, but never mind. This was good enough.

Lunch was brough out in five or so containers and I was presented with a stack of a distinctly familiar flat bread - the Middle Eastern hobs (or aish in the local dialect). By the way, my translations may be a little off as I'm unsure of the spelling. It was what I got from some of the locals though, so shouldn't be too far out.

Each container was a different gem of the local food. A tray of grilled meats (Koftes and chicken - farakh), a tub of spiced potatoes, and another with salad (Salata, or more specifically, the very well known tabouleh), one of rice, and a tub of tahini which seems to be served with absolutely everything in Egypt.

Finally was a carton containing two types of beans. Beans seem to be one of the main staples in Egypt, from navy beans, to chickpeas, and many other varieties.

We were served what I believe may have been butter beans in an orange coloured sauce that
was a little spicey. The second was a type I've never seen before, and am not sure of the western name and I didn't catch the Arabic. The translation I do remember though - they are referred to in Arabic as bird tongues due to their small, tongue shaped look and slippery texture. Despite this nickname, they are delicious.

***

The same night I had perhaps my most interesting experience of Egyptian cuisine.

Engaging a few locals (what better way to learn about the culture of a place), one of them was eating what appeared to be a bowl of vomit. Naturally I was challenged to have a go at this particular delicacy - and as an avid foodie, who was I to turn down this opportunity?

The dish is in fact known as mlooha (literally, 'stink'). And it really does stink. From what I gathered from broken English conversations and excited gesticulation, it's fish that is left to go off. It smells like very very strong cheese. And it tastes so much worse. I was fighting back the retching as I scooped a VERY little up into some aish and gave it a try. Quickly, they thrust some spring onion into my hand to mask the taste.

The closest food I can relate it to is Bombay Duck, but it really is much worse than that. Not something I'd try again, but I'm glad I got the opportunity to experience it.

***

Moving further down the country, about 150 miles south of Cairo, it was just about time for breakfast as I arrived.

Breakfast doesn't seem to be Egypt's strong point. Or at least not to a Scottish palate. Served of course, the flat bread that is eaten with every meal, the aish. That morning though, it was accompanying another staple of Middle Eastern cuisine, the chickpea, in the form of fool. Fool is basically a chickpea casserole. I've had it before, but it really was horrible this time around. It didn't taste anything like when I had it in Lebanon - whether the ingredients were not the same, or just a difference in quality, I'm not sure.

There was falafel as well though, and that helped to make up for it. And chips, oddly.

Lunch was fairly typical, with all the usual foods doing the rounds. Grilled chicken, rice, bird tongue beans, aish and tahini. I like it, but not every day.

This seems to be the way in more rural Egypt though - with everything being very cheap
(compared to the already ridiculously cheap bigger cities), but never varying very much.

***

I was also delighted to find Mirinda in Egypt. This is a soft drink that's common around most of the world, but sadly lacking from the UK market. It's a little like tango, except much more 'nuclear fallout glow orange', and a little less realistically orange flavoured. So all round, much better than anything on sale in the UK.

Junk food is a bit of a mixed bag in Egypt though. Some of the sweets on sale are perfectly fine - like Keshta, a chocolate wafer - but in general, the quality is very low. And just try to find a standard bar of chocolate. Forget about it.

This is all made up for by the low pricing though - two Mirindas and two Keshtas? That'll be
twenty pence. Not everything is cheap though - crisps are fairly comparative pricewise. About thirty pence for a bag of Middle Eastern Walker's - Chipsy's as they're known!

Food at equivalent prices tends to be the stuff that you'll find the world over - be it McDonalds, Burger King, Walkers, or other well known brands.

Back in Cairo, I decided to try one of Egypt's very own fast food chains - Mo'men. I do not recommend that you do the same.

It was honestly the worst thing I ate in my whole time over there... except maybe the mlooha. I had a chicken baguette which was more like a fat baguette. Just greasy, no flavour and the texture was hideous. Let me share with you a wee story to give you an idea of how bad it was:

Cairo has a population of two million street children (in a population of twenty million!), and as I sat outside the restaurant, I was approached by one little girl who indicated rather forwardly, having sat down next to me, that she would appreciate some of my baguette. So I broke off a little and passed it to her. She took a bite, was obviously disgusted, and thrust the rest back into the takeaway bag. Not even good enough for those who struggle to get a proper meal every day!

Don't try Egyptian fast food.

***

And so to the last day. Having had enough of the breakfast on offer in the hotel restaurant (and indeed fighting through a mob to attain a dismal first meal of the day), I decided to take a walk down the high street in search of something more appetising.

After walking for a while, it occured to me that most of the shops would be shut - most places don't start to open until 11am, but they stay open until well past 11pm - but thankfully there was one little patisserie with it's door unlocked. The patisserie was Al Bohsali, proudly proclaiming on its boxes to have been producing cakes and other delicacies since 1870.

I am a firm believer that pudding makes the best breakfast. The shop displayed a formidable array of chocolates, cakes, baklava, and other Egyptian sweets.

Not knowing what anything was, and with no clear labels, I just picked what I thought looked best from the cake selection - and I picked well!

The cake was encased with a caramel cake surround and filled with various layers. From top to bottom, vanilla cream, pistachios, a thin sponge layer, a caramel cream that made up the majority of the filling, and finally a chocolate cake base.

It was a superb breakfast, certainly better than chickpeas!

***

And that is the conclusion of my various food experiences in Egypt.

I did of course eat many more meals and other bits and pieces than I described above, but really the rest was either similar or unremarkable.

The general cuisine in Egypt, as I've said, does not vary much - whether that's due to availability, pricing, local tastes, whatever, I'm not sure. But the country is well worth a visit - not only for its food, but also for the wonderful attractions, the lovely people, and the excellent climate.

Drop a comment if you've any questions and I'll do my best to answer anything I can!

Hope the blog was worth the wait...

***

Coming up:

- The big 'do' at the weekend.

No comments:

Post a comment