Locative Gastronomy and Rasha’s Baba Ghanouj Recipe

Spice Market in Cairo

Some life lessons are best expressed through an “everything I need to know about (x) I learned from (y)” statement.  Like, Everything I need to know about love and relationships, I learned from Tom Waits (future book title), or Everything I need to know about opera, I learned from Loony Tunes (figaro, Figaro, FIGARO!).   There are certain of these axioms I’d love to apply, like the Anthony Bourdain tenet of locative gastronomy – Everything I need to know about local food, I’ve learned from five star chefs (the closest I’ve gotten was an Istanbul self-date). Until the Travel Channel comes knocking with Bourdain’s budget, I’m sticking closer to: Everything I need to know about a location’s food and culture, I learned from Andrew Zimmern. Continue reading “Locative Gastronomy and Rasha’s Baba Ghanouj Recipe”

The Art of the Self Date

Most of the time, company can be a good thing, but occasionally it is just as nice to be by oneself.  Some signs you might need a self-date are: an incredible need to decompress, have the time to finish just one crossword, ideally with a glass of wine by your hand, or you may just happen to be in a completely new country where you know no one else.  Provided, in the latter that it is safe to go out, do so.  It is the best way to experience a country and get to know people.

I had narrowed my Istanbul self-date down to two choices. Dukkan, a steakhouse I covered in 2008 and which was started by Defne Koryürek and Emre Mermer, two Istanbulites who are local food advocates.  Their premise for a restaurant multiple reviewers have called  “Carnivore Heaven” was to instill pride in a national cuisine.  Until 2007, the top two cuisines represented in Istanbul were Chinese and Italian, catering to the many businessmen who came through the city. Continue reading “The Art of the Self Date”

Easter in Egypt

According to the World Fact Book, Egyptians have the following religions affiliations – 90 percent Muslim, 9 percent Coptic Christian, 1 percent other Christian.  This weekend was a long holiday weekend – recognizing the roots of Easter in some ancient fertility celebrations.  Monday, in fact, was a bank holiday across Egypt, Sham el Nessim  – whose name translates roughly to Smell or Breath in  (Sham, with Shamo being Renewal of Life) the Spring Breeze (el Nessim – which is breeze or zephyr.) It is a holiday that has been traced back 4500 years, to roughly 2000 BCE and predates any religious celebrations.  (Egypt is/was an early adapter to a lot of religions – remember that Christianity was started here, and the walls of St Paul’s monastery still stand.)  All Egyptians celebrate, with picnics and feasts – we had a delicious vinegar battered fish and classic Egyptian rice.  Read more about food and Sham el Nessim at The Egyptian Kitchen.

The breeze – by the way – is worth stopping to smell.  Just walking down a street, you feel like you are smelling the most perfect cup of herbal tea, perfectlly brewed and steeped.  It is better than any perfume.  For Sham el Nessim, we went to a park along the Nile, and played.  One of the nicest things about parks here is the beverage service – a very nice gentleman brought coffee in a samovar and poured it into a crisp white porcelain cup and saucer.  Even the police celebrated – they’ve put away their winter black jumpers and wool pants and donned crisp white cotton uniforms, the likes of which Laurence of Arabia would appreciate (I can’t spend an hour in white without getting dirty, and even in a city as dusty and grimy as Cairo, these guys stay immaculate – I think it’s something they teach at the Police Academy.)

To celebrate Easter for the boys, we set up an Easter egg hunt, and tried to think of stories involving the Easter Bunny (which is hard.)  Even harder was trying to get the man at the Supermarket to help me find Jelly Beans. I recognize that I am the ignorant Westerner hoping someone speaks English in a foreign land, but there was still strong comic element to the whole thing. I asked, and he originally thought I wanted jelly, replying yes, we have apricot, grape or strawberry.  I said, no thank you though, but I am looking for Jelly Beans for children, as a treat.  A sweet, even.  He heard, sweet red kidney beans. This went on for a while, me trying to get treats for the boys without the boys hearing it, and the man offering me a litany of beans from around the world; none of them from Cadbury.

Eventually, we did find sweets and treats, but at a different store.

Here are photos of the egg hunt and park outing.  One photo is Egypt Kitty, the cat adopted by Villa 41, hidden among the flowers – in case you hadn’t had enough hunts this last weekend.

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In the Kitchen

During a trip to Carrefour we picked up the makings of Koshari, a traditional Egyptian national recipe that is delicious. The dish consists of  onion, lentils, noodles or macaroni, garlic, rice, chickpeas and macaroni, with vinegar, tomato paste and red peppers plus seasonings.  It is then garnished with fried onion.  It’s basically vegan, and vegetarian, but not quite gluten free (a recipe is included below.)

Cooking was a young mother of 3 and 3/5th children (she’s due in August) who has lived in Cairo all her life. “Only Cairo,” she said with a smile.  A slight, attractive woman, she is Muslim, and wears a hijab in the al-amira style – a covering made of two separate pieces, one close fitting  layer over the skull and then a looser outer layer.  On the wearer, the neck is covered. She travels with it on, and because there are mostly just women and children in the house, she takes it off when she gets here.  She was assisted by the housekeeper, who is Filipino, but moved to Egypt 24 years ago when she married her Egyptian husband and converted to Islam.  She does not wear a hijab, but dresses very decorously, even in the heat.

Koshari may seem like a recipe for all the leftovers in the kitchen, but it takes a while to make all the possible sauces and cook everything, which gave me time to talk to these two ladies about the women I had seen in niqab.  In Egypt, this term covers what we would call a burqa – either with the netting over the eyes or without.  When I said the word “burqa” neither woman knew what I was saying (and it can’t all be my bad accent.)  I am curious as to what life most look like from the inside of one of those things;  especially as today (the 11th of April) was the first day of enforcement of France’s ban on the burqa.

Both women were fairly adamant that they would never wear a nijab, and both were slightly dismissive of the women who do so (either by choice or cultural dictates to which they are subjected.)  “If you wear the niqab,” says the native Egyptian “you should pray 5 times a day and memorize the Qur’an. Some women just wear it for comfort.” The housekeeper, settling in for a good gossip, then told me, “There are criminals in the city who dress in the niqab.  They beg, and look pitiful . . . and then they rob you.  Be careful of these.”

The women had strong negative responses to the garment, even though both were devout Muslims.  This really interested me, and I pressed a little further as chicken was dipped in flour, an egg mixture of milk, salt and black pepper and then breadcrumbs before before being tossed into a skillet of boiling oil (presumably to offset all the healthy benefits of the koshari.)  It seemed that while a hijab was modest, and kept men from “flirting” with them , the niqab was a false modesty.   One mentioned that to her mother-in-law, if she were to wear a short shirt (the type that goes to the waist of pants or slightly beyond) she would be immodest.  Her mother-in-law would like all of her shirts to hit her knees.  While she feels this is excessive, to her there was  difference between the “modesty” of the hijab (even with her shortish shirts that only go below her hips) and the “comfort” of the women who totally covered themselves up – implying false modesty.

But when I pushed further, to ask what either thought about this “comfort”, they both shied away and started to talk about men flirting.  “Like anything, some of the women who wear a niqab are good, some not.”

Lucy (the same person who was my guide on the first Art excursion) and who is also married to an Egyptian, mentioned that a friend, who had experience inside and out of a niqab, felt most objectified when she was inside.  She felt she instantly became an inhuman object, almost the forbidden fruit. I realized that’s in essence what I had been doing to women in this garment as well.  They were faceless things  who took up a lot of the side walk, but not someone who would be greeted with a Sabbah el khier (sp?) as  would a woman in a hijab.

Recipe for Koshari, from EgyptianRecipes.net

Ingredients:

–          2 large chopped onions
–          4 cloves of minced garlic
–          ¾  cup vegetable oil
–          ¾ cup uncooked long grain rice
–          ¼ tsp red pepper
–          1 tsp cumin
–          1 can of tomato sauce
–          ¾ cup brown lentils
–          4 cups water
–          1  cup elbow macaroni
–          ½ cup white vinegar
–          1 cup of boiled chickpeas

Directions:

1- In a large saucepan, put the lentils in water and bring it to a boil.

2- Simmer over medium heat for 25 minutes then drain.

3- Add new water to the lentils and then add the rice.

4- Continue to simmer for 20 minutes more or until rice gets tender.

5- Fill a separate saucepan with water, add a little bit of salt and bring to a boil.

6- Add the macaroni to the boiling water and cook until it gets tender, then drain.

7- In a skillet, put some of the vegetable oil and heat it up then add the garlic and simmer until its color starts fading.

8- Add the vinegar to garlic and bring it to boil.

9- After the vinegar boils with garlic, add the tomato sauce and some salt and pepper to taste, then add the cumin. Bring the mix to boil on high heat, then lower heat after it boils.

10- Put the rest of the oil, should be plenty, in another skillet and heat it up, then add the chopped onions and stir until it is brownish. Take it out of the oil and leave it aside.

11- Take a little bit of the oil used with the onions and out it on the macaroni and stir it until the macaroni gets the onions flavor.

Serving:

To serve this dish, you can put it in layers, like the Egyptians do, or just mix it all together. But if you would like to do it all the Egyptian way, here is how to do so.

1st: Put a layer of rice and lentils.

2nd: A layer of macaroni.

3rd: A layer of the special sauce.

4th: A layer of the boiled chickpeas.

5th: A layer of fried onions.

Bedazzle Your Burqa

Part of the extensive produce selection at Carrefour

Sunday (the first day of the work week here,) we went to the Maadi City Centre mall to go to Carrefour, a hypermarket – a supermarket squared – that is like the bastard child of a love triangle between Wegmans, Whole Foods and a small suq.

Best Spice Rack Ever

Since it was a mall, I walked around and checked out the stores.  There was a Starbucks, two other coffee chains,  and lots of typical mall clothing stores – Mango, Monsoon (which I liked automatically, because Triny and Susanah always recommended it), Zara and Aldo shoes to name a few (Top Shop and Next coming soon.) Continue reading “Bedazzle Your Burqa”