Sampling the delights of food in a previously unexplored country is one of the pleasures the traveling fan can enjoy when starved of match action. So here are a few of my encounters with the local fare.
I did not expect the introduction at the opening game that I received. Due to the presence of Hosni Mubarak, I arrived at the stadium at 3p.m. some 4 hours before kick-off. I have heard various stories since, and it would appear that the Pkv Ministry of Youth refused to sell tickets for the match from 2.30 on match day. People were told they would not get to the stadium on time. (I would have told them that there ticket wouldn’t be produced by the time the game kicked off). The latest time I have heard of anyone entering the stadium on that day was 4.30. So despite the fact that the ground was nowhere near full, the opening ceremony took place with fans who had tickets outside due to the security put in place for the day. For the recent group decider between Egypt & Cote D’Ivoire fans were refused entrance from 6p.m. despite holding valid match tickets.
So having come to the stadium myself from the Ministry of Youth, I had yet to have anything to eat. Ready to sample the local equivalent of the pies and Bovril served at home I was horrified that as well as sponsoring the event McDonalds also had franchises at the stadiums. One thing to avoid when going away is taking the easy option and going there, unless it is an emergency! Somewhat disappointed I settled for a Cheeseburger and fries, followed by a Pepsi. I am pleased to report that other culinary experiences have had a far more local taste.
The first night, I arrived in Cairo I used my guide book to find a recommended restaurant. Starting at the beginning of the alphabet I headed for Alfy Beys. A place with a vintage decor run by strict Muslims. Arriving at the restaurant there was no one else there, undeterred,I enquired if they were serving food. A smile appeared on the old man’s face and he ushered me in and sat me down. The place looked like it was the morning after a New Years Eve party as the remnants of 2006 in cotton wool could be seen sellotaped to the wall, whilst half deflated balloons were tied to bottles on the table. Looking down the menu I noticed firakh, I had read of this and so placed my order I received half a grilled chicken on a bed of rice with a mixed green salad. The food was fine, especially for the price. The waiter asked me if I wanted a drink and offered me a beer. I thought this strange, but as there was still no one else in the place I accepted. He called out the window and seconds later placed a can of Stella on my table. It would appear that the Egyptians have had their own brand of Stella since 1897. Back home I am aware of one person who is nicknamed after the drink due to his fondness for the stuff. I have yet to meet the Egyptian Stella.
Whilst in Port Said at a local restaurant we quickly made friends with the owners as three of us ordered one of everything on display to acquaint ourselves with the local fare. The highlight of the meal was the discovery of shakshouka. It consisted of chopped meat and tomato sauce in a casing of pastry. Another delight was koshari a mixture of rice, noodles and lentils topped with a tomato sauce.
On the streets the sound of hissing comes from Egyptians trying to catch your attention and give you their usual refrain, and the deep fat fryer which is used to make ta’amiyaa – which is a small round pattie made from fashed fava beans and herbs. The fava bean is a staple part of the diet here and breakfast often consists of a plate of fuul, the beans being mashed together and served on their own taste like Mexican refried beans.
For next to nothing you can purchase bananas, oranges, physalis, dates, nuts, different local breads including a date roll and brown sugar which looks like a lump of desert sand, but for someone with a sweet tooth tastes delicious.
In Alexandria, once again I headed for a small local restaurant enticed by the decor reminiscent of Yates’s spit and sawdust days, I bravely sat down. The owner, quickly tried to tell me all about his home made soup, which was being made in a churn by the entrance, of course it was highly recommended, but I was somewhat unsure of what he was trying to describe. Sometimes a little information can be a dangerous thing and I declined his offer whilst a friend accepted. The soup arrived, and whilst hot and with a definite tang my friend was unable to name the taste. At this time I watched as out of the churn came a sheeps head followed by its lungs and esophagus, all attached. I am aware that it is impolite to show a Muslim the soles of your feet, but at this stage I was definitely thinking of showing them a clean pair of heels and leaving.
Whilst in the Windsor Bar I noticed that the spirits on display looked look those at home with all the major brands you would expect on display. Upon closer inspection it was clear that this was not the case, trying them enhanced this opinion. I reckoned that if people did drink this stuff then it would probably turn them blind anyway and that they then wouldn’t mind as they couldn’t read the labels.
One of the best parts in walking around the streets in Egypt is to come upon a juice shop. Fruits are stacked up outside and drinks are made fresh there and then in front of you. All the usual flavours are there, in addition to those we all know you can find fakhfkkina, a mixture of mango, strawberry and orange. Tamarind, Sobia made from coconut milk and my favourite Sugar Kane (a perfect end today).