Food Blog #2: Shakshuka

One of the most important events of our recent visit to Aswan occurred on the morning of our final day. Before going to the airport, I headed to the roof to meet the owner of our guesthouse, who had promised to make me some breakfast. When I arrived, he placed the following meal before me:

Shakshoka is delicious.

There was tea (mandatory in Egypt), bread, potatoes, and  fried okra. Then, he brought out two skillets. As you can see in the picture, the one of the left contains freshly scrambled eggs and the one on the right contains some red-ish pasty stuff. This “stuff,” I was later informed, is called “shakshuka.” It is delicious, sort-of good for you, and an interesting case of multiple cultures creating their own version of the same dish.

Shakshuka is usually a combination of tomatoes, peppers, onions, and spices, and is served with fried or sunny-side-up eggs. There are a plethora  of different versions of this dish, and you can find it served in Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Israel, and Egypt.

Having experienced the joy of shakshuka in Aswan, my wife and I replicated the magic in our own kitchen. First, I chopped up the onions and peppers and sautéed them in olive oil.

Cooking 1

Then we added finely chopped tomatoes. She also put in garlic, chili powder, cumin, and paprika, and then let it simmer.

Cooking 2

Then we cracked four eggs on top and cooked it all under a lid for a while.

Cooking 3

 

We topped the finished product with parsley. When it was done, it looked like this!

Cooking 4

We served it with bread for scooping and soaking up the sauce, and it was complete! It was a delicious and easy to assemble meal that I would recommend to most people.

 

Aswan Adventures – Tombs and Museums

Those of you who read my lengthy description of our airport adventure are probably interested to know if the rest of our trip to Aswan fared better than the first 12 hours. By the time we arrived at the guesthouse at 6 am in a small Nubian village outside of Aswan, we were exhausted. And we were only able to collapse into bed for a few hours before rising with the sun to catch a ride to our first site of the day. Despite our exhaustion, we were determined to see the sites.

This is the Nubian village we stayed in. It was quite colorful and (surprisingly for Egypt) quiet after dark!

The village, with a mosque, and beyond is the Nile

We stayed in a cool guesthouse, like this one. Nubians paint pictures and  designs on their houses, a custom that I hope to someday emulate.

Nubians like to paint their houses.

Their architecture also makes use of domes, which keep the rooms cool and also amplify your voice in interesting ways.

Awesome domes

During this trip, I got my first taste of shakshuka, a delicious breakfast dish of eggs, tomatoes, onions, peppers, and… other stuff.

Shakshoka is delicious.

On our first day in Aswan, we rode in a felucca up and down the Nile to visit all the sites. It was breezy and extremely relaxing, especially compared to driving.

Better than driving

Our felucca driver was very nice and we enjoyed talking with him and also sitting on the roof of his boat. We noticed that most feluccas were elaborately decorated…

They see me rollin'...

Our first stop was Qubbet El-Hawa (meaning “dome of the wind” in Arabic). This hill-side site consisted of many Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom tombs of  Egyptian nobles.

Qubbet El-Hawa

To get to the actual tombs, we left our comfortable boat and trekked up this really really long flight of very large stairs. This picture does not do justice to the size of the stairs, the exhaustion of climbing them, and the exuberation of reaching the top.

aka Stairs of Doom

The tombs were beautiful and totally worth the long climb. This is a “false door” inside the tomb of Menkhu and Sabni. This is the “door” that his spirit was supposed to use to go in and out.

It's False

After the tombs, we stopped in the actual city of Aswan to eat and shop in the market. The part of the market meant for tourists was, sadly, almost empty, as you can see in this picture.

Unusually slow day

Our last stop of the day was the Nubian Museum! It was built in 1997 was very attractively designed, inside and out.

Pretty girl, pretty building

The Museum was pretty spiffy inside. The big guy in this picture is the one and only Ramses II, who wasn’t Nubian, but he built the statue in Nubia, so it totally counts.

Inside the museum

So that was our first day in Aswan. We were extremely sleep deprived, but the tombs were awesome, the food was delicious, and the Museum was pretty. 10 out of 10, would see again. Stay tuned for Day 2 of our Aswan Adventure, “Abu Simbel: The Worst Day of the Year To Visit Abu Simbel.”

The Aswan Flight Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

So there we were, shocked and dismayed after the woman at the ticket counter informed us (politely) that we had missed our flight to Aswan. We were aghast, not just because we had missed our flight, or even because the tickets were non-refundable, but because we had somehow missed a flight from an airport a mere 18 kilometers from our home, even though we had left our house with plenty of time to spare.

I don’t know how long we stared at that (very polite) woman before speaking, but when we finally managed to speak, we asked when the next flight was. She (very politely) checked her computer and then told us that there was a 9:15pm flight that night going to Aswan which had plenty of empty seats. Heartened that we still might be able to pull this trip off, we went to the ticket-purchasing counter (which is a different counter than the checking in counter) and asked the man to change our tickets to the 9:15pm flight.

The man, who I shall refer to as “Mohammad,” checked his computer and looked at us, confused. “There is no 9:15pm flight to Aswan,” he said. In response, I tried to say four or five very sensible things at once, but only managed to squeak, “…huh?”

After discussing the situation with Mohammad, I learned that we could put ourselves on “standby” for the 10:15pm flight that night, in case any seats opened up. Hardly wanting to take a taxi home just to return in a few hours, we elected to stay in the airport. We got comfortable  in one of the benches with snacks, Bry’s laptop and a tiny bit of hope in our hearts.

With little else to do, I returned to the ticket desk every hour to see what other tickets were available, in case 10:15pm didn’t work out. Mohammed said that all the flights to Aswan were full except for two flights at 5:00am, which both had 2 seats available in business class. On my next trip to the desk, another man was there, let’s call him Ahmed. Ahmed told me there was one, not two, flights at 5:00am, and there were 4 business class seats available. An hour later, Karim told me that there were actually 8 seats available on that flight, one of which was in economy. Another hour later, Rasha insisted that there were actually 15 seats available in business class and 1 in economy. I had no idea if this was the result of computer errors, lots of passengers cancelling their plans, or ticket desk people just inventing numbers to get rid of me. (the really polite lady walked by to check on us every few hours until her shift ended)

10:00pm came and no seats had opened up on the 10:15pm flight. Determined to get to our destination, we upgraded our tickets to business class on the 5:00am flight (so we could sit together). Now we were faced with a new predicament; if we went home, we would need to come back to the airport at 3:00am. No matter how close you live to the airport, there is no way you can find a taxi at 3:00am, and, after missing our first flight, we were not going to miss this one. So only one choice remained: return to our airport bench for another five hours.

And so we did.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the story of why we sat in an airport near our home for twelve hours in order to catch a one and a half hour local flight to Aswan. It is also the story of how we flew in business class for the first time in our lives.

So was it worth it? Was Aswan so magical that our memories of the airport, Rasha,  Karim, Ahmed, Mohammed, and the really polite lady were banished forever? That, dear reader, is another bizarre story for a different day.

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After 10 hours in the airport we finally got our tickets!

The Aswan Flight Part 1

To begin with, our home in Cairo is very close to the airport.

It takes, at most, 15 minutes to get there by taxi. 20, if the traffic is horrible. 30 if your taxi explodes and you have to fetch a new one. Never 75 minutes. Never. Not unless you went by bicycle, and even then, you’d have time to have a picnic on the road-side without missing your flight. Unless you had an allergic reaction to something in your picnic and your legs swelled up so you could not push the petals anymore. Even then, you could probably waddle the rest of the way without being late for take-off. People would point and laugh at you, but if you could squeeze your inflated self into your seat on the plane, you would get where you intended to go.

This brings me back to the point I started from; our home is very close to the airport. This must be made quite clear, or the story I am going to relate will not seem as magnificently unfortunate as it should. And once I have finished imitating the start of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” I will begin to impart my unlikely story, detail by excruciating detail.

My wife and I had for some time been excited about our trip to Aswan, in the south of Egypt, to see tombs, museums, and temples. When the day of our departure arrived, we hailed a taxi and headed to the airport an hour and a half early.

A few minutes into the drive, all the cars in the road inexplicably just stopped. This wasn’t slow traffic, or even crawling traffic. This was a mile of cars parked in the street for fifteen minutes. And then, just as suddenly as it had started, it ended, and everyone carried on their merry way. As we drove, we could see no sign of construction or car accidents. It was, in a word, bizarreevenforEgypt.

As we drove into the airport, the driver insisted that our flight to Aswan would leave from Terminal 1. He was very sure of himself, so we went along. 30 minutes later, we learned that he had no reason to be so sure of himself, and that we actually needed Terminal 3. 30 minutes after that, we learned that Terminal 1 is really really far from Terminal 3, especially when giant u-turning buses block the road and your driver takes two or three wrong turns.

Now, if you have been doing the math, 15 minutes in stopped traffic + 30 minutes going to the wrong terminal + 30 minutes going to the right terminal = late. We rushed through security and up to the ticket counter at exactly too late. The woman at the counter (who was very nice) told us we had missed our flight, and we stared at her in disbelief. We had missed our flight from an airport mere minutes from our home.

to be continued…

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Language Practice Joke

As dedicated readers may remember, in my previous blog, Language Practice Battle, I described how I have been doing my best to practice my Arabic skills by using them in conversation. While some Egyptians insist on practicing their English on me, others humor me and my limited childish banter. So it was with the meter reader who came to check my electricity usage yesterday. I opened the door, and the conversation went like this:

Salam alicom.    (Yo.)

Alicom salam. Lizem byshof meterak.    (Yo. I need to see your meter.)

Meshi.    (Okay cool.)

Btitkalem Arabi kwayes.    (You speak Arabic well).

Ana arif shwaya bas.    (I only know a little.)

Btakal foul?    (Do you eat fuul? [a common Egyptian dish of beans])

Ayawa tab3n.    (Yeah, of course.)

Kwayes. Enta arif Arabi.    (Good, then you know Arabic.)

Thus, he insinuated that by eating traditional Egyptian food, I would learn to speak like an Egyptian. Needless to say, I will be eating much more Egyptian food now.

Language Practice Battle

Anyone who has experienced the confusion,  dislocation and affirmation that is learning a new language as an adult will tell you that practice makes proficient. Practice practice practice. They will also tell you that practice is a million times more practice-y when you do it with someone fluent in the language. This is true if you’re learning Arabic, English, French, or Klingon.

So it should come at no surprise that people in Egypt who want to improve their English will often go out of their way to speak English with English-speaking foreigners, like me. It should also come at no surprise that I want to improve my Arabic, so I go out of my way to speak Arabic with Arabic-speaking Egyptians.

These two conflicting goals clashed yesterday at the fruit stand.

Fruit stand man: Hello how are you?
Me: Kwayes, hamdulliah.
FSM: What would you like? Mangos? Kiwis? Apples?
Me: *frowns* Ana iz moz.
FSM: *smiles* Bananas? How many?
Me: Seta.
FSM: Okay six. Anything else?
Me: Yimkin, tofaya ahmar?
FSM: Yes, how about these apples? They are fresh.
Me: Taza meshi. Min fudluck arba.

And so we went, back and forth, each too stubborn to give in, for the entire exchange.  When I left with my fruit, I gave him the proper Egyptian salutations: “Ma salam.” He turned and said, “Bye bye, have a nice day.”

Souq 2

Go With the Flow

It's a taxi.

One day, I took a taxi home.

(Many a strange story has begun with that line, I imagine.)

The driver was silent throughout most of the drive, which was bizarre in itself. Then, about halfway to my house, without speaking a word, he pulled over on the side of the road next to a small tea stand. Once we’d stopped, he reached behind my seat and retrieved a small plant with a six-inch tall stalk and leaves. He held it out to me and said, “Smell.” So I smelled it. Then he said, “Hold.” So I held it. He left the car.

It's a tea cup.

I sat alone for some time, staring at the unexpected foliage in my hands. When the driver returned, he had a cup of tea. He took the plant from me and stuck it into his tea cup stalk first, like a flower in a vase. “Very good,” he declared. Then we drove the rest of the way home.