New tastes

I had promised the foodies and aspiring Masterchef readers some more images and information on food here. I make daily discoveries in this field, from learning what is in the things I have been eating for some time in Egypt, to collecting recipes and instructions from the local chefs, friends, and the wives, mothers and sisters of friends here.

I have also tried some of the mass market packaged foods such as biscuits, bought when I have guests for tea. While many are interesting variations on what is available in Australia, such as the banana or cappuccino cream filled, dainty biscuits pictured, I prefer the unprocessed products such as local olives, dates, cheese, and the work of N. and his team at the bakery, who make good bread sticks, biscuits and traditional Egyptian cakes. They make two sorts of crisp bread stick, the thicker ones are plain flour and sprinkled with sesame seeds, but best are the thin ones which have cumin seed and salt in them.

I have also been treated to different cakes and biscuits sent in by the neighbour’s wife. She is a softly rounded young woman who knows I do not yet have an oven, and probably thinks I need fattening up – to have “a face like the moon”, round and pale, is a compliment here, and while I still have my share of plump bits left from the years before I lost weight, I am more angular than most of the women here.

I had been buying 5 pieces of flat bread each day, 10 when expecting guests (5 large pieces just like pita bread you get there cost 5 cents Australian), and keeping them in a large plastic container. Fresh from the oven this bread is delicious and soft, however it becomes dry within a few hours, so sometimes what wasn’t eaten in the morning would go to the donkey, and I would buy again at the bakery’s afternoon bake (the half dozen bakeries around town bake and sell from about 9am and 12.30pm, for an hour only each time). After five months of this, the other day T. explained that his mother kept bread fresh by wrapping it in a towel, then putting in a container. This made sense as this is what I used to do when I made scones – wrapped them in a clean tea towel to keep them moist – especially as I have often thought that the fresh, hot bread with jam on it tastes rather like scones with jam.

T. also taught me to make liver sandwiches as a meal, with the liver fried with garlic and spices, and we have had camel liver and the preferred lamb liver this way. Though not previously an offal fan, I found these delicious. T’s sister has supplied instructions, over the phone from Alexandria, for a tasty soup she makes with red lentils, the centre of foul (fava) beans, chicken stock and tomato, though I suspect it will take me a few goes to make it as well as she does.

I have learnt to make Siwan tea, which is normal tea leaves from China boiled in a small metal teapot with LOTS of sugar, half a standard glass of sugar to one and a half glasses of water – yes, that frighteningly sweet ratio is right – and sometimes mint. The tea is served in small glasses the size of Turkish coffee glasses or espresso cups, and the small teapot makes about enough for three people to have two glasses each. Traditionally Siwa tea is made with the teapot placed in an open fire, but is just as good made on a single gas burner, and you see this happening in every house, and many stores in town when the men gather to talk.

Spring is here and the selection of fruit and veg is changing, my daily fruit now includes oranges, peaches and a melon which is like our rockmelon but with green flesh and sweeter. I am gradually learning Arabic words for fruits as the seasons change. Beetroot has appeared in some stores, and some day if I can find time I will have a go at making beetroot dip, which I used to buy in Australia and really love – if anyone has a good recipe, please email me.

I finally found basil. I had not seen it in veg shops here but must have been walking past it every day, as this week I noticed several large, healthy plants growing around a banana tree outside a house near the bakery, and then more near the internet café. I showed the plant nursery and my neighbor and both seemed to tell me it is not available or out of season, so I have clipped a bit and put it in water to see if it makes roots, so I can grow my own. No basil for five months has been a major hole in my diet, especially with pasta. If I can get it growing I will plant some in the garden at T’s café also, so they can use it when they make pizza and pasta for tourists.

With 30 degree days here I decided to try ice-cream. I had been a bit concerned about how this was transported to Siwa and stored here, as the freezers in stores don’t always look capable of battling the heat or feel that cold, but the local children did not seem to be suffering stomach problems after eating it so I gave it a go, or a few goes.

One variety is halfway between a Choc Wedge and a Magnum, a chocolate coated vanilla ice-cream, and costs 20 cents Australian. Then there is the Egyptian version of a Cornetto in vanilla or chocolate with toffee pieces instead of nuts on the top, at 30 cents Australian. They were cold and delicious, and not much different to their Australian lookalikes. There is also an ice-cream in a cup called Paradise, expensive (for here) at 40 cents, a rich, smooth chocolate that lives up to its name, and that I think that will become my special occasion treat.

There is also Siwa’s answer to the Mr Whippy van that used to bring us running out of the house when we were children. Here there is no motor van with multiple varieties and toppings, but a man pushing a small cart around town, selling simply ice-cream in cones, so far I have seen them filled with vanilla or strawberry. I have not sampled this yet, usually he sets up near the schools and the children swarm around him. I have been hesitant to photograph him close up, but from this photo taken at a distance you can see the stack of cones on his cart.

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