Whilst penning a travelogue, one has to sort out hundreds, if not thousands, of memories and snapshots and select a few of the best or most illustrative ones and mercilessly discard the rest. My intention was to limit the series on Egypt to just three posts but subsequently realised that I had chopped off too much. Hence this postscript in which I talk about my impressions of the people, Egyptian cuisine and offer some tips to people planning a visit to Egypt.
India and Egypt share a lot in common. Both are ancient civilisations and have emerged from centuries of foreign rule. Though the population is only 80 million, there is a lot of ethnic diversity with some who can pass off for Europeans, some who look like Africans and the rest of them look North African or Arab. Not surprising, if one takes into account its history and its geographic location, which is at the intersection of Asia, Africa and Europe. The people are warm and hospitable. They love Indians and Indian movies and music. As one movie buff told me, “We can identify with Indian movies, not with western ones.”
Egyptian women enjoy the same level of freedom as their Indian sisters, if not more. It was heartening to see that women do not have to put up with boorish behaviour of men which is, sadly, widely prevalent in India. Nor is there moral policing of any sort. What was surprising however, is that even though most women wear western clothes, they cover their heads with scarves, which I suspect, is more of a cultural thing than a religious one. Most Egyptians have kinky hair and straight hair is highly prized. Another cultural aspect is that they consider wheatish-brown complexions to be more desirable than fair.
Egypt is a third world country and life is a struggle for survival for most Egyptians. Incomes are low and barely enough to meet the cost of living. Egyptian professionals moonlight as taxi drivers and tourist guides to supplement their meagre incomes. One sees little poverty on the streets of Cairo; I suspect that the ubiquitous police does an efficient job of ensuring that the poor are not permitted to enter areas frequented by foreign tourists. I caught a metro and visited the northern suburb of Shobra, where people with lower incomes live. The ambience is not much different from the neighbourhoods of the less affluent in India except that the signboards are in Arabic. I also noticed that most houses are unplastered and look unfinished. I was told that taxes need not be paid if houses are under construction, even if people live in them!
Before visiting Egypt, I was apprehensive about whether there were any culinary options for a vegetarian like me. To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that Egyptian cuisine has a lot to offer to veggies. This was, of course, an economic imperative since the average Egyptian was not rich enough to afford meat and seafood on a regular basis. Although most of Egypt is an arid desert, a ribbon of land on either side of the river Nile is very fertile, thanks to all the silt deposited during the annual floods. It supplies Egypt with its requirement of food grains and a very wide range of vegetables and fruit. The farmers transport their produce on donkey/horse driven carts and sell them straight off their carts.
What most Egyptians have for breakfast is foul medames or mashed fava beans, topped up with a dollop of olive oil and garnished with chopped onions and tomatoes and a dash of crushed garlic. Foul is eaten along with eish, a kind of pita bread. Another popular dip is hummous (a smooth paste of Garbanzo beans a.k.a. Kabuli Chana). Olives and vegetables pickled in vinegar are usually served as accompaniments.
A hugely popular dish Egyptians eat for lunch or dinner is Koshary. Koshary is the Egyptian version of the Indian Khichri. In fact, the word koshary is a corruption of the khichri. Koshary is a simple dish of rice, lentils, garbanzo beans and macaroni, boiled together and is eaten with a dash of tomato sauce and crisply fried onion rings.. Tahrir Koshary is the Pizza Hut of Cairo. It is a fast food chain and its salesmen delivery piping hot Koshary at the customer’s doorstep on their Bajaj motorcycles. They have three sizes, small (EGP3), medium (EGP4) and large (EGP5). Koshary is cheap and filling and the Koshary joints are always full of families.
The farmlands flanking Nile also are a source of sugarcane, oranges, bananas, water melons, mangoes and various other fruit. There are juice vendors everywhere and a tall glass of freshly squeezed juice costs only EGP 2 (about Rs. 15).
Most Egyptians aver that their national dish is Molokhiya, a dish made from the leaves of a jute plant. The leaves are finely chopped and boiled in water or chicken stock and tempered with crushed garlic and coriander fried in butter. Molokhiya is usually eaten with rice.
Then, there is the Baba Ghannoug (also pronounced as Ghannouj or Ghannoush depending on the dialect), which is similar to Baingan ka bhartha. Large brinjals are baked/roasted on coals, peeled and mashed with olive oil and garnished with finely diced onions, tomatoes and chopped parsley. Fresh lemon juice is squeezed onto it to impart a tangy flavour. Baked sweet potatoes are a hot favourite too.
My personal favourite is the ta’ameeya, which is like a wada made by deep frying a paste made with fava beans (foul). A ta’ameeya sandwich consists of pita bread which is rolled over a couple of ta’ameeyas and chopped lettuce, tomatoes and cucumber. A couple of Ta’ameeya sandwiches and a can of pepsi costs about EGP 5 and believe me, it makes for quite a heavy meal. One can also opt for a shawarma sandwich in which the stuffing is grilled chicken or mutton slices instead of ta’ameeya.
Indians are familiar with middle eastern stuff like shawarma, kebabs and koftas, which are obviously avaiable in abundance, but the taste is milder than the Indian variants. This information is, of course, hearsay but authentic, as it comes from an Indian friend who knows all there is to know about kebabs and koftas.
- Then there are the international food chains like KFC, McDonald and Pizza Hut for people who aren’t very adventurous when it comes to food. There are Chinese, Thai and Japanese restaurants too.
There is an understaffed, overpriced and poorly maintained Indian restaurant called the Nile Bukhara in the posh neighbourhood of Mohandesseen. The food they served did have familiar names like Paneer Masala and Tandoori roti, but the service was tardy and indifferent. I had to ask for cutlery several times and by the time it arrived, the food had gone cold. One can safely give it a miss unless one is absolutely desperate for Indian food.
Things to do (that I have done but did not write about):
1. Go on an evening cruise on the Nile. It is lovely and one can experience Sufi dancing, belly dancing and live Arabic music. The Nile looks lovely at night. Dinner is included in the price but one has to pay extra for alcoholic beverages. They will also give you a souvenir photograph before disembarking but it is not complimentary.
2. Enjoy a felucca (country boat) ride on the Nile during daytime.
3. Go shopping at the 14th century Khan El Khalili market but learn to bargain hard or you will risk getting ripped off. Inexpensive souvenirs of your visit can be brought here like Tutankhamun fridge magnets, crystal pyramids, key chains and miniature models of the sphinx, Queen Nefertiti, papyrus paintings, etc.
4. Visit perfumers and papyrus workshops and see craftsmen employ ancient techniques. Do not buy anything there. You can buy papyrus paintings but bargain hard.
5. Travel from one end of the metro to the other. It is fast and cheap. Photography is not permitted in the stations and remember to retain your ticket. The exit turnstile will not open unless you insert the used ticket into a slot.
Things to do (that I wanted to do but couldn’t find the time to):
1. Go on a luxurious Nile cruise to Luxor and back. It is a 7 day cruise and you get to see the Aswan Dam, the Luxor museum, the temple of Abu Simbel, the Valley of Kings and Karnak. It will set you back by USD 500 to 750.
2. Visit Coptic Cairo. Egyptians were Christians before they converted to Islam. Here you will find the Fortress of Babylon, the Coptic museum, the Hanging Church of the Virgin and a number of ancient churches.
3. Visit the Red Sea resort town of Sharm El Sheikh, which lies at the tip of the Sinai peninsula, the only part of Egypt which lies in Asia. Under Israeli occupation, the fishing village got transformed into the playground of the rich and the famous. Development continued after Egypt got back possession of Sinai in 1982. If casinos, yachts, water sports, scuba diving and snorkelling are your thing, then this is a must. If not, then it is worth missing, just like I did ;-)
Where to stay: One has a lot of options from backpackers’ hostels to 5 star hotels and everything in between. It is best to stay near Tahrir Square from where you can catch the metro or visit the museum or contact local tour operators. One can make use of sites like www.booking.com or www.tripadvisor.com to compare tariffs, locations and user reviews.
I stayed at Cairo Center Hotel (www.cairocenterhotel.com) which is centrally located, has clean bathrooms, provides fresh towels, bed linen and soap every day, free wi-fi access if you have a laptop (you have to pay by the hour for the privilege of using their PC), and the tariff is inclusive of a very basic breakfast (Toast, butter, cheese, a boiled egg and a cuppa tea). I paid about EGP 125 per day which is cheap even by Indian standards. It is great value for money. There is no point in shelling out a small fortune for a hotel if all one needs is a comfortable bed to sleep in and a clean toilet.