Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Eat like an Egyptian?

Like a dog pissing on every lamp post and tree on it’s daily walks around the neighbourhood the Ancient Egyptians really knew how to mark their territory. Through the monolithic statues, the fine details in the hieroglyphics and the awe inspiring pyramids they have left their mark on the world for all eternity.

My interest in the Egyptian culture goes back to when I was a little girl. Whenever mum took my older sister and I to the big mall in the nearby city of Canberra I would get permission to stray away from the clothes shopping and go to a tiny little shop that was as near to an Aladdin's cave as any child could dream of. The store was no bigger than 3 meters by 3 meters and it was overflowing with golden statues of Tutankhamun, proud heads of Nefertiti and effigies of half human half animal gods. Once inside the store there was little room to move more than a few feet in any direction. I would stand there staring open mouthed, never purchasing just admiring until mum came to retrieve me. One day with no warning that shop was gone and along with it the little old Egyptian man who owned it.

Ever since that time I dreamt of going to Egypt and living that history for myself. I never gave much thought to anything else the country had to offer outside of seeing those ancient pyramids, statues and cities myself. As anyone who has been to Egypt knows, you will not be disappointed. Not even a near lifetime of dreaming about it had dulled the experience with overwrought expectations, it was magnificent.

I won’t go into the details of what I saw and felt. Anyone with even the faintest interest in travel knows what to expect from Egypt, the heart pumping thrill of being in the presence of such a great ancient civilisation is predictable. The story I will tell though is one far more emotive. Just thinking about it upsets me, I wasn't expecting it, it jumped out at me like a child gunning for frights on Halloween. A country with such rich history spanning the vastness of recorded human existence there was just no warning that the food would be so bloody terrible.

I was originally reluctant to write about it, not being confident that maybe I hadn't missed the good food and that it was all hiding out of sight in secret back alleys I had not frequented but after recently reading Alan Richman's short story "Omar Sherif Slept Here" on Egyptian food in the Lonely Planet publication "A Fork in the Road" I feel bolstered. His version of events seemed to echo mine.

My first day in the country should have been a warning of things to come. Our little group of travel agents arrived into Egypt around 6am. We had come directly from Singapore where we had spent the night on route. We were taken by bus to our hotel and led to a Western style buffet breakfast of fairly poor standards. Over cooked eggs with rubbery yolks, soggy toast, suspicious sausages and dirty table cloths. Okay, okay I thought, it was hardly going to live up to the truffle topped scrambled eggs for breakfast and Moet afternoon teas they were serving up in the Valley Wing of the Shangri-La Singapore where we had just come from.

We spent the following 14 hours in true travel agent style being shuttled from one hotel inspection and tourist sight to another without even the offer of food. Some of my colleagues had reached a distressed state around 3pm and finally got up the courage to ask our tour guide if we were going to be eating lunch that day. He looked around our group of hungry travel agents salivating as if we would have eaten the velour off the bus seats at any moment and shrugged saying that we could grab a snack at the Giza petrol station we were about to pull up in. As I innocently ate my potato chips on the stoop of the petrol station fascinated that I was actually looking at the pyramids from this position I still was unaware of the food traumas to come.

As the trip rolled on and we lazily sailed on our river boat downstream on the iconic Nile River through the surrounding lush exotic landscape, camels grazing on the green grass and ancient temples a plenty we experienced varying levels of poorly made Western food. The river boat itself served western buffet style food three times a day under the watchful eye of the locally employed staffed who couldn't seem to get their heads around what 9 women were doing in Egypt without their fathers or husbands to watch over them. We were quite the spectacle, so much so that by the time we were made to dance with the men on the ship on the Nubian dance night I was concerned for their safety, so many overly excited Nubian men in one room who knows what could happen.

My curiosity was beginning to be aroused, if we hadn't seen any local food in all this time, what do the people of Egypt really eat that makes this stodgy Western crap a better offering to the local fare?

Exiting the temple of Queen Hatshepsup I actually found out the answer to that question but it took years for me to realise I had found it. The trip was nearing its end and I still had not bought my husband (then boyfriend) a gift. In true tourist site style we had to "exit through the gift shop", or in this case a mini bazaar of individual vendors selling the usual tourist garbage. Here I stumbled upon a small spiral bound cookbook entitled "Egyptian Cooking and other Middle Eastern Recipes". The blurb on the back touted the book as a "must have for anyone who wants to eat as the Egyptians do". Perfect present found. I slipped it into my bag, proudly presented it to Martin on my return and to the bookshelf it went unopened for 5 years until recently I picked it up thinking I would make something delicious and exotic for dinner.

I will return to the book story, but just going back to Egypt for a moment. I must admit in the final days in Cairo there were some glimpses of light in the dark tunnel of Egyptian cuisine. We had a tasty lunch at the 5 star Safir Hotel and the highlight was their dessert buffet. It was expansive, modern and held some completely delicious treats worthy of appearing in any world class setting. It was impressive, so much so that they bought out the pastry chef at the end of the meal who received a round of applause.

We were also taken to an amazing Turkish restaurant hidden away in the Khan el Khalili bazaar. The decor was decidedly Moroccan and the food was a fusion of Middle Eastern Cultures. The ambiance outweighed the overall taste of the food but it did seem to be the closest we were going to get to an authentic experience.

Unfortunately this highlight was followed by a tragic buffet that led to a bout of gastroenteritis that took me months to fully recover from. So in more ways than one Egypt left a lasting impression on me.

Back to the book. So, years later when I finally pulled this one of the bookshelf to learn more about what Egyptians really eat I was shocked to find recipe after recipe that consisted of no more than basics like mince, garlic and tomatoes. It was simple beyond comprehension and there was not a thing in there I was inspired to cook for the main reason that I know what Lamb, onion and oil is going to taste like, total crap.

I know there are more modern interpretations of Egyptian food in cookbooks on the market today and I am certainly going to be delving into those soon. It seems to be a cuisine in desperate need of reinvention. The cookbook I bought was a revised edition of a 1984 cookbook. I was only two years old at that time and what would I know. Maybe everyone was eating crap in 1984 not just the Egyptians?

If you would like to prove me wrong and I beg you please do, send me your authentic Egyptian recipes or reinvented delicacies to and I will promise to widen my view and give them a go. Who knows I might just eat my words (no pun intended).

Me playing tourist
Not sure these tourists got the memo on Egypt being a conservative country, inappropriate much?

Now that's what I call a sand dune!

Originally posted on Wednesday, 15 October 2014 by


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