Thursday, August 30, 2007

Time Enough To Eat

Egyptian food is wonderful. Much of the wonderfulness of it comes from the freshness of the ingredients. I was cruising the news on the internet and found an interesting piece on Time online (you can reach it by clicking the title here) about how much of the cultural aspects of eating are being lost in the globalisation of fast food. My closest fast food place is probably about 15 km, a fact which never fails to please me. In Egypt fast food places all deliver, making it even easier to destroy yourself with food. On the other hand, sometimes I get an invitation to Mabrouka's and that is much, much better. Mabrouka is a widow about my own age with four sons and two daughters. Two of the sons are married, two are not yet...all of them live in the family house. The daughters are married and live nearby. Mabrouka grows her own poultry and buys produce in the village that is grown by her neighbours. She is a wonderful cook, as you can see in the photo. Dinner included chicken cooked with sliced potatoes in a tomato sauce (fresh tomatoes of course...not a can in her house) that were baked in a wood burning oven. The roast chicken was also baked in the oven and the stuffed aubergine, peppers, zucchini, and cabbage leaves were cooked on a stone top to the oven. It's more work than I want to do, but boy, do I appreciate her work. Dessert is usually fruit.

I wish I could say that since moving to the farm I've lost a ton of weight and become sleek and svelte, but that would be fibbing. I haven't but I know that my diet is a lot healthier than it was in the city. The temptation to just call for a pizza was always really a tough one. Now most of my meals are prepared from the things that we are growing on the farm. This depends on the season, but being able to freeze or dry vegetables makes them last. Like most of our neighbours, we are growing the summer crop of bamia, or okra. Part of the reason for this is because I find the flowers lovely. Fresh okra is eaten while still small, but the parrots and poultry appreciate the larger pods. When dried and ground into a powder, the pods are the basis of a Sudanese stew, moolah, of which I am inordinately fond in the winter. The pods have small spines on them and I'm always struck by the dedication of the okra farmers who have to pick their crop in the summer heat while completely wrapped in fabric to keep the spines out of their fingers, arms, legs, and faces. Much of the crop is frozen to provide okra for winter meals, since when it is cooked with the rich tomato sauce and small chunks of meat, it makes for a very filling meal...much more filling than is needed in summer.

Another summer crop that is more appreciated in the winter is molokheya, which could be called the Egyptian national dish. Molokheya is essentially a weed called swamp mallow other places, a tall plant with shiny oval leaves and small yellow flowers. It grows almost anywhere wild and is also planted in fields. The leaves are chopped if fresh, or crumbled when dry, and cooked in a chicken, rabbit, or beef stock to which is added a fried garlic, coriander and a bit of cumin. Hot pepper can be added to taste as well. The molokheya makes a rather mucilaginous soup...another word for sort of slimy...but it is known to be good for digestion. Once you get past the texture, and some people never do, it is wonderfully delicious over rice. We have a small field of it growing next to the longeing ring and I find the plants all over the garden popping up next to roses or behind palm trees. Welcome.
My parrots like peppers, my grooms love peppers, and I like them too. This year we planted hot peppers and I learned that if you pick them young, they are usually sweet, but if you wait for them to ripen to red, they pick up a lot on the heat scale. Peppers have a ton of Vitamin C among other things and are very good for you. I never had any idea how many peppers can be produced by relatively few plants. It's quite astonishing and I haven't had to buy peppers all year. We also are still working our way through the braided onions and garlic in the verandah, while it is almost time to plant again.

Zucchini is a vegetable that is planted all year round and it only takes about two months to complete the growing cycle. One of my friends in Alexandria called Egypt "the land of the eternal zucchini" because of the omnipresence of this vegetable. Yesterday I made a salad from gargeer (aka: Arugula) cut fresh from the garden, tomatoes and red onions also just picked, the first zucchini from our garden sauteed with garlic and mushrooms (the only bought items), with chopped roast chicken. Zucchini just out of the garden tastes NOTHING like the stuff that you get from the supermarket. In another week I'll be sending zucchini home with my grooms because there really are limits to how much I can eat, even with the poultry, rabbits, parrots, and tortoises helping.

Finally, being on the cusp of the mango and date seasons, we have a number of sweet options. The mangoes this year had a hard time with the summer heat, but they are just as juicy as ever. The new dates are just coming on the market in time for Ramadan in a couple of weeks, and the sweet red Zaghlouls are already being sold on the roadsides. Left for a couple of days they turn brown and softer, resembling the dates that are more common in Europe and North America. The grapes, both seedless and with seeds are still in season as are the guavas. As the weather cools, apples, oranges, and bananas will take their places.

The farmers here for the most part eat a vegetarian diet. Vegetables grown in the fields, cheese and yogurt from the family cow or buffalo, and bread or rice are the staples. Breakfast is often cooked beans known as foul (pronounced "fool") cooked with onions, garlic, cumin and lemon, and eaten with cheese and bread. Lunch may be bread, cheese, onions, and then dinner might be a vegetable stew. It's a healthier diet than is followed in the city by a long shot. Sometimes it's easy not to miss junk food.
copyright 2007 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani


Unknown said...

the crop's of bambia flowers are lovely

Leila Abu-Saba said...

THis is fabulous. I am sending the link over to Prof. Rami Zurayk at land and people blog. He's an agriculture and sustainable development specialist in Lebanon and is devoted to local food. I think he will appreciate this post. If you haven't found his blog yet, you might like it.

Leila Abu-Saba said...

Re: molokheya - The latest issue of hte New Yorker magazine has a profile of Claudia Roden, Egyptian-British cookbook writer. She tells the reporter all about molokheya and claims that only Egyptians like it. I am going to have to write to her about this (I otherwise worship Claudia Roden and use her cookbooks extensively). My Lebanese family is crazy for molokheya, to the point where they worry themselves sick trying to make the stuff grow in American climates that are not hospitable. WHen I went to Egypt for my junior year abroad I was happy to eat molokhiya over rice - with lemon I think. Yum, yum, yum. We put fresh cilantro into it at the last.

No, the Egyptians are not the only ones who love it. Count the Lebanese, and I'm pretty sure the Palestinians, too.

Another term for molokhiya in English (according to my Lebanese edition dictionary) is "Jew's Mallow." Interesting, huh?

Maryanne Stroud Gabbani said...

I'll have to try your version. Claudia Roden was my first Middle Eastern cookbook and still the best I think. I've bought copies for my kids who are currently in grad school exile in the US.

Leila Abu-Saba said...

Hah! While we were all emailing and commenting on each other's blogs this morning between 10 and 11 AM Pacific Time, Rami Zurayk just blogged Maryanne's food post.

Sometimes the internet is so much fun. However I ought to get back to work - have to plan for the class I'm teaching. Thank you Maryanne and Rami for such an entertaining hour of farm-and-food blogging.

مارية said...

Getting very way to get food...argh!!

Mia said...

I truly enjoy your posts where you talk about the every day life in Egypt... the food, the culture. I can hardly believe it's been almost a year already since I was there, but planning to come back again soon. It's an amazing country.

Unknown said...

Today I want eat two times...

Anonymous said...

I just read the New Yorker article about Claudia Roden and given what I've read here about the cooking... time to buy a new book I think....:) Or a couple of books...oh dear.


Forsoothsayer said...

i thought olokhiya was "jew's mallow" and gargeer was rocket.

the levantines love molokhiya, but they make it differently than we do (lemon?? cilantro??). they don't chop up the leaves all small like we do.