Travel guidebook publisher Lonely Planet has released A Fork in The Road — a collection of 34 original stories that show how travel, food and eating combine to shape and inspire our lives. Edited by James Oseland, editor in chief of Saveur magazine, the book brings together culinary pioneers and literary hot shots including Michael Pollan, Gael Greene, Frances Mayes, Francine Prose and David Kamp. Here is the entry from Alan Richman, a long-time food writer who has won 15 James Beard journalism awards for restaurant reviewing, most recently at GQ. He frequently angers people, but never before have they been Egyptians.
It’s late summer in Cairo, less than a year after the rise of the Arab Spring, and I’m off to watch a protest at Tahrir Square, a celebrated venue for disparaging local government. On the schedule: a 1 p.m. demonstration against military trials for civilians. Who wouldn’t be against that?
My only concern is whether I will have time beforehand for lunch at a nearby koshary—koshary being the national dish of Egypt. Inasmuch as I am a food writer and not a news reporter, meals tend to take priority, but perhaps not at this moment. An opportunity to observe firsthand the most expansive political movement in the Middle East since the Ottoman Empire replaced the Byzantine is difficult to resist.
I am here as a kind of culinary anthropologist, someone who delves into restaurants the way more learned men, Egyptologists, peer into pyramids. They study the way the ancients lived; I look at how modern society eats. Nothing is more transparent than a restaurant, where little except the kitchen is hidden from view.
The Arab Spring has remained to this point relatively levelheaded, which uprisings rarely do. Nevertheless, I have been warned to stay clear of Tahrir Square by young professionals I met at a dinner in Lebanon, just before departing for Cairo. Actually, they advised me to stay away from the whole city, cancel my visit because the police had abandoned their posts and the streets were out of control. You have to admit, when residents of a city like Beirut claim they’re frightened of someplace other than where they live, a sensible fellow takes note.
I feel no unease as I walk out of my hotel, located in Zamalek, a residential district on a small island in the middle of the Nile. Life on this spit of land is considered upscale by locals, but that doesn’t mean much. Living conditions in Cairo peaked nearly a hundred years ago.
My confidence in the civility of the dissenters is reinforced when I cross the bridge onto the mainland and walk past vendors selling snacks and keepsakes. If I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that menace is rarely encountered in the presence of popcorn. My sense of well-being grows as I come closer. The vendors are offering Egyptian flags and T-shirts with dates commemorating the uprising against Hosni Mubarak, the former president. For sale are multicolored pom-poms whose purpose eludes me, although the presence of cheerleaders would add an additional level of friendliness to Tahrir Square.
I happen upon Mohammad Abdel Kairm, standing on the sidewalk outside his small souvenir and gift shop. He informs me that he used to live in Kew Gardens, a section of New York City’s Queens, and adds, ‘This is much safer than New York, I’m telling you.’
He says the latest troubles are being brought on not by protestors but by the police, who are paying people to cause trouble so that all Egyptians will cry out for the police and the military to return and save the country. As I leave his shop I inadvertently step on prayer rugs that have been spread out on the narrow, well-trod sidewalk. I immediately act contrite, not like a typical New Yorker who might complain that the rugs have no business being strewn along a busy corridor. The men who have placed them there immediately start yelling, but not at me. They are irritated at the shop owner for not warning me that I was about to walk over them.
In the square I see freshly baked sweet potatoes, cooked over coals, ordinarily irresistible but not on a summer day so brutally hot even the Great Sphinx is toweling himself off. Pushing, shoving, jostling, deliriously happy people are everywhere, climbing on everything in sight but leaving a wide ring of empty space around the potatoes, which are radiating a near-nuclear core of heat. I feel privileged to be at the epicenter, at least for one day, of this exhilarating and impulsive expression of democracy that is electrically racing through the Muslim world.
Although the square is already bursting, I am slightly early for the 1 p.m. commencement of events. The timing of the start is indicative of local respect for religious traditions—Friday is a weekly holy day, when services begin around noon and generally are over by 1 p.m. I must decide. Only two blocks away is Koshary El Tahrir, which is to koshary what Nathan’s on Coney Island is to hot dogs. Since I’m early, I alter course and make my way there. I’m hungry, and yet another bit of wisdom I’ve picked up over the years is that it’s never smart to miss a meal.
The watchful owner of the undersized establishment, never still, leads me to a table for two, already occupied by one. Across from me is a young man who has completed his meal but does not get up to leave as I sit down. He is too polite to do so. I quickly realize that he speaks English, so I ask him if he minds sharing his table. He introduces himself as Mahmoud Abozied and replies, ‘We are friendly here. We share everything.’
My bowl of food comes with a spoon and a cup, very army field mess. Everything is modern, which isn’t commonplace in Cairo. Koshary can vary somewhat, but here I see crunchy, toasted pasta—the textural heart of the concoction—plus rice, lentils, chickpeas and fried onions. It is possibly the least-expensive restaurant food on earth, with a small plastic bowl selling for less than a dollar.
The standard accompaniments are two sauces, one vinegary and the other peppery. I pick up the red bottle and the friendly fellow says, ‘Be careful with the pepper. It is hot like hell.’ He would make a fi ne food critic, because I am soon gasping. Egypt does not have a particularly fiery cuisine, and I thought he was exaggerating.
I thank him for warning me and compliment him on his culinary brilliance.
‘I am not brilliant. I am Egyptian,’ Abozied says.
I try the second sauce, the mild one.
‘Is it good?’ he asks.
‘Delicious,’ I say, meaning it.
‘It is cheap food,’ he says. ‘It is not poor food. Egyptians are simple people. We do not have a typical society rat race after money. We want safety. We have a common statement: “If you are in your house and have food, you own the world.” It is strange but true.’
He tells me that he is a financial consultant, which intrigues me, inasmuch as this appears to be a country without money. I ask him for a prediction of the future of Egypt.
‘We are in a mess,’ he says.
Then he leaves for Tahrir Square, a plain man trying to better his country, very American Revolution to me.
The food of Egypt, I will soon learn, is unsophisticated, unruly, inexpensive and totally cherished by Egyptians. Ingredients are combined in ways I cannot comprehend, and, for that matter, some of the most revered products are themselves off -putting. You’d think even an Egyptian epicure would tire of mulukhiyi, a not particularly toothsome green leaf that continually pops up in dishes. Basically, it is an uncomfortable cuisine for anyone who has not lived all his life here. Nobody comes to Egypt for the cuisine, except perhaps me.
A week of eating passes before I become discouraged by the restaurants, Koshary El Tahrir being easily the most satisfying. However, all it takes is one day in the city, September 9, 2011, for me to be stripped of my hope for the Arab Spring. Everything my friends in Beirut had warned me about came true.
That night, long after I had left Tahrir Square, protestors marched on the Israeli Embassy, an act of infamy. Three Egyptians were killed by security forces, and the scaredy-cat Israeli ambassador fled the country. (Moshe Dayan, Israeli war hero, would have wept.) I never was in danger from the embassy riot, didn’t even realize it had occurred until the next day. And while this was not the first Arab Spring event to turn violent, it did set a standard for senselessness.
I never stopped enjoying Cairo. At no time did I feel uncomfortable there, no matter where I wandered, and I went everywhere in search of a good meal. I was often lost. Away from the primary thoroughfares, the city is a jumble of unmarked or badly marked streets. Maps aren’t much help.
Walking around means constantly dodging cars as you cross streets. No drivers stop willingly for pedestrians, although they do honk incessantly. As I walked along sidewalks, I was splattered with water dripping from leaky overhead air-conditioners. I splashed through puddles of staggering biological implications—they were certainly not water, not when it hadn’t rained in a week. Much of Cairo is like any other poor city—tiny shops, some no larger than one-car garages, pressed up against each other; concertina wire protecting empty lots; plastic tables and chairs set out on sidewalks so friends can eat, drink, play cards and smoke the hookah. (Non-validated tip: Ask for your hookah ‘Egyptian’, and you might receive a sprinkling of hash.) I always feel alive when I walk along streets such as these. Maybe it’s because I’m usually alone in my travels and the crush of pedestrians is a substitute for company.
The unpredictability and diversity of the restaurants is unquestionably fascinating, although I am wary when I visit a city and find restaurants that offer foreign food primarily for one reason: they’re safe havens for tourists who distrust the cuisine of the countries they’re visiting. Egypt certainly meets that criterion. Nevertheless, I was eager to try La Trattoria, owned by Tarek Sharif, son of the famous Egyptian actor Omar Sharif. I had heard that he ate there frequently, but he wasn’t on hand the evening I showed up. In fact, only one table was occupied.
The décor was minimalistic, stark, very Ingmar Bergman. The one bit of art was a mounted poster promoting Italian wines, although the restaurant offered none. A young, dour waiter glanced at me, picked up a menu, and shuffled to the rear of the room, not even looking back to see if I was following. He silently pointed to a seat. I took it, feeling as though I had been relegated to detention hall. The space was airless. And peopleless. I sat, waited. A few more tables filled up, near the front. I remained alone.
The waiter ultimately returned and placed a knife and fork in front of me. They pointed in different directions. He put a cloth napkin in front of a different chair, one where I clearly wasn’t sitting. I ordered a selection of appetizers. Vitello tonnato—roasted veal with a creamy tuna sauce—was the highlight of my meal. It almost convinced me that the cook had knowledge of Italian food. The skewered baked shrimp were crunchy. The mozzarella was impossibly hard, but excellent compared to the spaghetti pomodoro, which was tragic.
I understand why Omar Sharif is a steady customer. The despair of Doctor Zhivago, his greatest film, is mirrored in the bleakness of his son’s restaurant.
Less ambitious than La Trattoria, but even more disappointing, was Lucille’s, subject of a 2007 story by Time magazine with the headline, ‘The World’s Best Hamburger Is In Egypt’. I wanted very much to believe. Lucille’s is very Johnny Rockets. The menu is plasticized, a facsimile of the kind found in chain restaurants. It has photos and a credo: ‘… we mix and grind our own ground beef to give you the best quality there’s no better way to do it!’
Friends and I ordered burgers, of course. The buns were oversized and spongy, and dwarfed the miniature portion of meat within. The meat itself tasted like the kind you get in supermarkets when you buy chopped meat on special, cook it, and wonder why it doesn’t taste much like beef. I’m not saying Lucille’s has the world’s worst hamburger—I’m not as impetuous as Time—but it’s in the running for the title.
The concierge of my hotel kept urging me to try a nearby pizzeria, Maison Thomas. When he gave me the address, I realized it was the same as two other restaurants already on my list of places to try. That was puzzling until I realized that all three were attached in different ways to the same building, a monolithic relic of old Cairo that was so huge, so spread out, so battered and so gnarly I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn it had a root system. It even had a name, Baehler’s Mansions, after a hotelier and developer prominent in Cairo in the early 1920s.
Maison Thomas was in the front, on the main thoroughfare, and easy to find. Abou El Sid, famous for traditional Egyptian cuisine, was toward the rear, behind a huge, black Temple of Doom door. La Bodega turned out to be above me, on the second floor. The building boasted an ancient cage elevator leading up to it, but the elevator didn’t work. I wondered when last it had.
I had lunch at La Bodega—such an odd name for a place serving French and Continental Cuisine. It looked more like a private club than a restaurant, one King Farouk might have patronized, although I later learned that it wasn’t quite old enough for that. The dining room was glamorous, with vestiges of grandeur. The walls were the color of oxidized white wine. The bar was mostly brass. The wood trim was painted black. The flatware was heavy.
I was the only person in the room at lunch, which I believed would guarantee attentive service. I was wrong. I asked my indifferent waiter for shrimp flambéed tableside, which was on the menu, but he shook his head. I never knew why, although it might be a dish not offered when the temperature outside reaches ninety-five degrees Fahrenheit. He suggested beignet of salmon, which turned out to be a cross between a samosa and a spring roll, light and fresh but more like a snack than an appetizer in an elegant and expensive restaurant. For my main course, he was insistent that I have chicken tagine, served Moroccan style. The white meat was overcooked and served in a light, innocuous cream sauce. Couscous, the Moroccan touch, came on the side.
Maison Thomas offered a startling range of pizzas. Someone with considerable imagination had conceived them, given that both the Hawaii and the Monaco featured smoked roast beef, which I doubt is a staple of either locale. The mozzarella was impressively gooey, but the crust was so flat, pale and flavorless I was reminded of the unleavened bread that the Jews took out of Egypt when they fled a few thousand years ago.
The best feature of Abou El Sid, it turned out, was that magnificent door. If only it had remained locked. Inside, this classic restaurant resembled a haunted house, the mood enhanced by an occasional screeching sound, which was either a banshee or a blender gone berserk. I tried all manner of dishes, including a green soup containing mulukhiyi leaves (oddly medicinal), liver prepared Alexandria-style (overcooked and flavorless), and a pudding called keshk (reminiscent of cold, sweet, gooey cream of wheat). The wine, made in Egypt, was marked up in the manner of New York, which means four times its store price. I finished only one dish, the lentil soup, slightly too garlicky but otherwise without flaw.
I often imagined what dining in Cairo must have been like a hundred years ago, when the city was a place of grandeur. There isn’t much of that splendor left, except in the near-ruins of still-occupied residential buildings and in some of the better international hotels. By far the most refined meal I ate was a Turkish dinner at the Kempinski Hotel. Let others wonder how the pharaohs could have built pyramids using twenty-ton blocks of stone. I can’t understand how a people whose civilization predates all others couldn’t come up with tastier food.
I wondered if the centuries-long dominance of the Ottoman Empire had somehow muddled a promising Egyptian cuisine. All manner of culinary influences would have been introduced, and it’s possible that local cooks had the bad judgment to embrace the wrong ones. On the other hand, I might have expected too much from the food. Egypt is about ninety-five percent desert land. That doesn’t leave much space for growing crops or grazing livestock.
An Egyptian-American teacher and writer suggested to me that Egypt’s culinary descent was no different from what has occurred in all aspects of life there—the stifling of cultural, societal and intellectual standards. She said all had been stunted by the kind of oppression that led to the Arab Spring uprising. I can see why koshary, a profoundly simple dish that came into existence in the nineteenth century to feed poor working families, has survived intact. Its sturdy goodness is impervious to change.