If you read my blog from the very beginning, in June and July I posted some questions I thought might require steep learning curves. Food has definitely been one of those learning curves, as my transition to eating in Alexandria has been full of trouble. I intimated to some of my diet-related troubles in previous blogs. I dedicate this blog to food because I believe in food’s power to bring together communities, to influence our bodily experiences, to give us true health, and to give insight into a new place. You all know that I grew up on a farm in the US’s Midwest; fewer of you know that I began this journey reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.
Pollan calls Americans “corn people,” borrowing the term from the Mayan self-referential term, after all the corn Americans ingest through processed, packaged, and restaurant food. The idea that we are what we eat – i.e. an extension of our larger environment – is found also in a Navajo story about “long bodies” that I use at camp. The story of my long body includes the edible environment in which I live, which means I’m no longer a corn person. Habitual checking ingredients of packaged products, I find nearly nothing here is made with corn products, except my popcorn and corn oil. (I only use corn oil when making popcorn, otherwise I use olive oil.) I learned, in the process of checking packages, where my food originates. Though Egypt does not require country-of-origin labeling, I can pretty safely assume that most of my raw ingredients come from within Egypt; however, I know my bananas come from Ecuador and I’ve accidentally purchased apples from Washington State. Thus, I am no longer made of corn but of international products; combined with the fact that my passport says I’m American necessitates the label of “foreigner.”
I’ll spare you the dirty details, but I have diversified my diet and where I exchange printed paper rectangles for edible ingredients. Fruits I buy from large carts set up by street vendors, usually in the neighborhood called el-Ibrahim; if I’m in desperate need of fruit I’ll buy from the market-filled street Khalil el-Khayat (it’s more expensive). Both are en route from the apartments to the university, which makes fruit shopping really easy. As I don’t know how fruits are farmed (i.e. with what chemicals), I generally only buy fruits that are peeled, which means I buy a lot of pomegranate, bananas, and oranges. Earlier in the semester I bought grapes, too, but their season has since ended. Dates I’ve not purchased, but in Siwa I climbed trees to eat the drying fruits. I buy apples, too, but I cook them with cinnamon and water – love me some cooked apples! I also really love pomegranates – since I knew I was coming to Egypt I’ve looked forward to the pomegranates. Guavas I’ve purchased a couple times; they’re one of the new foods I’ve encountered. I really don’t know what to do with guavas beyond drink them.
All over Egypt there are juice shops. They’re one of my favorite things to visit – fast food in the form of fresh fruit juice. The bigger chains offer fruits from other places, those that aren’t in season, such as the pineapple, avocado, apricots, dates, plum, strawberry, kiwi, and grapes offered by one shop we frequent in Sporting (another neighborhood). Your basic juice shop offers mango, pomegranate, orange, and sugar cane. Normally the fruit is squeezed at the shop, which means that every shop has a sugar cane press – I mention it only because you’d never see one in the US. Sugar cane juice is not as sweet as I had expected, nor is it as thick as banana juice. While you can get just one kind of juice, my favorite purchases are combinations. Some of my top combos are banana and pomegranate, or date and mango, or sugar cane and orange. I really don’t like mango in any other context.
Growing up on a vegetable farm and attending a college dedicated to providing its students local and/or diverse vegetables (among other produce), I’m used to having a lot of access to good and diverse vegetables. Though I could buy more veggies, I don’t want to deal with cleaning every head of lettuce or cabbage purchased from street vendors. So, my vegetable intake is more or less limited to carrots, onions, garlic, potatoes, green (and red and orange and yellow!) peppers, tomatoes, eggplants (the fat, bulbous, dark purple kind), and some veggie that’s a mix between a cucumber and a zucchini. I eat the cucucchini like I would a zucchini. If I purchased frozen veggies, I could also buy molokhiya, peas, and green beans. Molokhiya is a leaf finely chopped before being boiled into a gooey soup. The only molokhiya I’ve not found disgusting is that of Siwa, which I could eat half the bowl – molokhiya is a traditional Egyptian dish.
There are small “supermarkets” everywhere – there you can buy oil, tea, sugar, coffee, Nutella (of which I have only bought two containers, as I’ve not purchased the equivalent of pretzels!), honey, cleaning products, diapers, eggs, pre-made food, cheese, milk, juice, yogurt, pop, chips, chocolate, bread, butter, canned food, etc. I used to frequent one called Dinosaur on Khalil el-Khayat Street, but now I go to the larger, more Western Acceptus Hypermarket in Sporting. The hypermarket actually straddles the Corniche, but is underground. Brannon and Ben tipped me off to this place; now I buy dried apricots, oats, granola, juice, yogurt, and dark chocolate there. I’ve treated myself twice to dark chocolate and once to “Istanbolly” cheese (there’s something sharply bitter about its taste) and a small bottle of sparkling pomegranate juice. (The latter was termed “non alcoholic malt beverage.”) Eggs are still cheaper at Dinosaur, but nearly everything else is cheaper at the hypermarket.
One of my largest troubles the first month or so was reconciling my food ethic – source over price – to the situation in Alexandria. I tend to prefer local/organic/small business to large, Western-style packaged markets. In Egypt, though, I get bulk things like spices, oats, cocoa powder, and dried apricots and nuts in places like the hypermarket. But for their bulk section, the hypermarket and Carrefour (where I got all my spices the first week of class) would be classic Western supermarkets. So, now I go for the least packaged and cheapest first. The process of changing that food ethic was really difficult.
I don’t eat meat outside of restaurants. Even then I don’t eat a lot of meat: I love beef, but I tend to not eat beef outside of home, because my parents buy local, naturally-raised cattle. Pork is basically banned in this Muslim-majority country, and I miss ham and bacon. One of my favorite dishes is creamed ham on cornbread – Midwestern to the core. A week can go by without me ingesting any obvious protein expect the peanuts I eat at breakfast every morning. The pictures in the video of the butcher shops should be explanation enough of why I don’t prepare meat. I could buy frozen meat, but I feel the same about frozen meat as about frozen veggies.
Restaurants are delightfully varied in Alexandria – this is an unexpected perk of living in a giant city. I’ve bought two meals of falafel for 2 LE total (that was in Siwa) and a full meal of koshary (carb city!) for 3.5 LE or I could easily spend nearly 200 LE feeding three people at the Italian or Spanish restaurants just across the street from our apartments. Besides Egyptian fast food restaurants that offer koshary, delicacy meats like liver and heart, pizza, and falafel, there are a host of international food-based places, including the small Indonesian restaurant a bunch of friends took me out to dinner to for my birthday.
I’ve also had issues figuring out how to get lunch during the middle of schooldays. If I wait until I return to the apartments, I’ll eat lunch between 2 and 5 pm. My options around the university is mainly an Egyptian fast food chain called El Tibawy. I’m not necessarily a fan of supporting any sort of franchise. So, I often eat sandwiches prepared by the floor cleaning/drinks/food lady, Karima. She’s from Upper Egypt and speaks no MSA, but she has a huge heart and will help with our pronunciation and conversation skills in ECA. Karima’s sandwiches are bread with cheese (either “Turkey” or “egg” cheese), peppers, and tomatoes, then microwaved and wrapped in paper towels. They’re a healthier and mostly satisfying substitute for oil-soaked koshary.
A couple of notes related to the video: I emphasized the kitchen because my favorite meal is often breakfast. At Luther, breakfast was my least diverse meal, and I looked forward to my lunch salad and dinner smorgasbord. Here, oatmeal with pear juice, granola, pomegranate/banana/apricot, peanuts, and/or honey and cinnamon/cocoa powder, with a side of mint tea and fruit juice (I just finished a container of pineapple juice) and cinnamon-honey toast is my normal breakfast. Doesn’t that sound good?
Also, I searched through my iTunes and found few songs related to food. (Why doesn’t our musical record contain more about our relationship with food?) The ones I found accompany the photos. The last song, in Portuguese, has the title of “Sanduicé,” and I hope the words mention food. Anyway, enjoy the product of my day off!