My Egyptian memories
Have you noticed that almost as soon as the excitement of the festive season fades and the cold, dark reality of January starts to kick in, we are surrounded by holiday adverts. Golden sandy beaches; sparkling turquoise waters; sun-tanned, healthy-looking, smiling families are suddenly everywhere you look. They’re not daft these advertising companies; they know that we’re yearning for the next thing to look forward to and they know that we are sick of the dark evenings and cold, frosty, windscreen-scraping mornings, not to mention the ‘dry January’ that some of us have foolishly embarked upon.
I for one am thoroughly sick of the cold and a conversation with an old friend this week has gotten me to thinking about a much warmer and sunnier period in my life. My friend Jo and her partner Liz are planning a trip to Egypt and contacted me for some advice about their trip. They asked because we spent 3½ happy, chaotic and wonderful years living in Cairo so I know a thing or two about travelling there and will also use just about any excuse to reminisce about our time there.
My first impressions of Cairo were just bewildering. We arrived in Egypt on Christmas Eve 2008. We had Christmas lunch on board a pleasure boat on the River Nile and our post-lunch walk was around the Great Pyramids at Giza. Quite an introduction to life in Cairo, but even more memorable was trying to cross the road at the height of Cairo rush hour!
Lots of Brits holiday in Egypt every year, I had been myself, but we tend to stick to the Red Sea resorts or the Nile Cruises from Luxor. Cairo is a whole other kettle of fish, a massive super-city with over 20 million people thought to live in the metropolitan area. This is something like a quarter of the entire population of the country so to say it is crowded is a bit of an understatement.
Anyone who has been to Cairo will probably remember a few things, the pollution, the traffic and the looming Pyramids visible whenever the smog and dust clears for a short time. I drove my great big 4×4 in that Cairo traffic for 3 years and I promised myself many times I would never again complain about potholes or traffic in the UK.
People probably don’t remember much about Egyptian food, it’s not a particularly memorable cuisine. The closest thing to national dish in Egypt is something called ‘koshari’, which is a real stick-to-your-ribs dish entirely unsuitable for those following a low-carb diet. Rice, pasta and brown lentils mixed together with an intensely garlic-flavoured tomato sauce and garnished with lots of crispy fried onions. Really delicious but I could never finish an entire plateful!
The other classic dish is ‘fu’ul’ which is always served at breakfast and remains to this day one of my husband’s favourite ways to start the day. This is a dish of stewed and mashed fava beans flavoured with cumin and garlic and then served with lots of garnishes of lemon, finely chopped raw onion, parsley and pickled chillies. Better than porridge for keeping you going until lunchtime. And then there is the wonderful roadside snack of ‘ta’ameyya’ which is the Egyptian version of the Lebanese classic falafel, made of crushed and spiced broad beans and the deep fried in small crispy nuggets and served with traditional flatbreads and drizzled with the wonderful sesame seed paste called ‘tahini’ . Wow this is making me hungry!
Special mention must go to the large flat breads called ‘baladi’ bread, meaning literally country bread which is the staple carbohydrate of most Egyptians. Or as my Dad called it when he came to visit us, “Have you got any more of that bloody bread?!” It was incredibly cheap due to government subsidies, enough for the four of us for one meal for about 10p. Freshly made every morning and carried around by boys weaving in and out of traffic with towers of the stuff stacked up on plastic crates carried on their heads.
My years in Cairo certainly influenced my culinary development. Not only did I discover some fabulous middle Eastern cuisine, but the availability of ingredients and the seasonality of the fruit and vegetables in particular made me develop some new skills and many more vegetarian recipes as meat was scarce and sometimes of dubious quality. Fish was also quite difficult to come by in Cairo although I had easily the best fish supper I have ever eaten in my life on a trip to Alexandria which is on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast.
It was also where I started to give my first cooking lessons to my friends in the expatriate community who were missing a good curry from back home. I even gave a cookery lesson and cooked a meal for guests at the Ambassador’s residence one memorable evening. I cooked and taught and then the meal was served by white-coated serving staff using what I guess was the second-best silver and china. We ate with the sights and sounds of evening Nile felucca traffic as our backdrop and finished with coffee and shisha pipes on the terrace.
There is insufficient space on this page to convey all of my memories of Cairo, good and bad. But as I write it is the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution, just one of the historic events in the region during the so-called Arab Spring. It was a scary time for the whole family as we were evacuated out of what was essentially a war zone, but we will never forget the kindness and bravery of our Egyptian friends, colleagues and even strangers. Egypt is a proud nation with an incredible history and I wish them only the best in securing their future.
In the meantime for Jo and Liz and anyone else going to Egypt soon, don’t forget to ask for a few of those local delicacies. And my favourite Arabic phrase…? To be used when something is really very good and you are very happy ‘Meyya, meyya! Walla feraakh gameyya!’ You will delight any Egyptian if you compliment them with this phrase – meaning literally “Excellent, excellent! All the chickens are in the shop!”
Enjoy the sunshine.