Monday, December 24, 2012

Food in Egypt

I expected more.  I expected much more.

My memories of the Middle East have always included particularly fond experiences of incredible meals with intense flavours and unique textures.  I had grown to love the food of this region and my tastes had become far more sophisticated as a result of my travels.  The old kebabs I used to savour in high school and which sustained me through my university days were no longer what I considered to be the height of Middle Eastern fare.

Egypt really offered only a shadow of these memories.  It was a dull image compared to the bright and vivid recollections in my mind.  It is definitely unique in its offerings, but it lacked character and quality in what I had come to love.

Almost everywhere I went, there seemed to be one food that just dominated the entire culinary landscape of Egypt.  That dish was kushori.  It was without a doubt the national dish of the country.  This was a dish of rice, macaroni, tomato sauce and fried onions that appears to be almost universally eaten throughout Egypt by every class of Egyptian.  There's nothing wrong with kushori.  I actually quite enjoyed the dish and found myself craving it for dinner most nights as the easiest available option.  However, it was distinctly utilitarian and tasted more Italian than Middle Eastern.  This was unsurprising considering the Italian influence that Egypt once had.
Much like many other experiences in Egypt, it was just not memorable.

Most of the other culinary experiences were the same, with no meals being able to recapture in me the joy I had once had.  I wondered whether it was because I had become so accustomed to foods of the region or whether it was the food itself.  Had I reached a point in my traveling where even one of the most basic and primal of physical experiences, that of taste, had become dulled?
It concerned me.

Instead, I found that it was often not the food or drink itself, but the events surrounding them that I found myself enjoying the most.  Sitting in an old Egyptian bar with other travelers drinking the insipid and tasteless Egyptian beer gave me no end of delight, but it was the noise and atmosphere of the place that I captivated me.  It was the feeling of being in a place and time that no longer fit in with the rest of the country.

Even my morning meals were not immune to this disease of apathy.  I no longer looked forward to the actual food itself, but instead found myself reveling in the wonderful drama of the routine itself.  It was like a perfect procession, with the careful and deliberate actions of the waiters, the settings on the table and the stark white or everything that made the entire event so memorable to me.
I began to find that I was actually seeking out the simple things, for the things that I found comfort in.  I was no longer reveling in my searching for the new and unknown.

My old favourites such as the Arabian pastries were soon providing me more joy than I could have imagined.  The baklava in Egypt was nothing compared to what was available in Turkey, but that didn't make it any less enjoyable.
I found myself returning time and time again to the same gelato store in the middle of Cairo with Emily.  The smooth and creamy dessert was uniquely Italian, yet it had a definite Egyptian twist in the flavours.  I was surprised that could be so happy with this lack of compulsion to explore.  I was content with the familiar.
It seemed to all go back to the kushori.

The dish that was eaten everywhere and by everyone for every meal.  Was my repetitive behaviour merely a reflection of the Egyptian experience that I was meant to have?  Was the lack of exploring a sign that I had actually embraced the nation more closely that I realised?
I cannot be overly critical of everything though.  It wasn't as though the food was bad.  The food was generally good, but it was just that it seemed overly simplistic and bland in comparison to what I wanted.  It was probably a failure of the realities to match my overly lofty expectations that had no doubt grown and expanded in the years since I had last been in the region.

For instance, there were still definite highlights (relatively speaking) to what I was able to eat, such as the poultry and the spinach soup, malokhia.
The soup was nourishing, full of the goodness of all things green.  I was also surprised by just how good a roasted bird the Egyptians can do.
I should probably stop complaining so much.  Expectations can be painful thing.  A burden that destroys the beauty of what is there through the comparison.

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