by Kate Heyhoe
Kate's Virtual Journey: A Progressive Feast
7th Stop: The Nile, Egypt
"I want to eat like an Egyptian," I tell the captain of the felucca, as we set off to market to buy provisions for our Nile voyage. The captain prides himself as being somewhat of a gourmand, having relatives in almost every arena of the food world. "My father is a date farmer, my uncle grows olives, and my sister's family runs a restaurant in Cairo. Not bad for a bunch of Bedouins, eh!"
Captain Abdullah and family may have at one time been Bedouins, living in tents as wandering desert nomads, but nowadays they've traded their "houses of hair" for permanent homes in oases and urban centers. Yet, while they may no longer sleep in black tents woven of goat and sheep fur, they do maintain many tribal traditions, particularly in their foods and celebrations, as I soon experience.
With provisions bought and stowed, we set sail from Aswan to Luxor, a four or five day journey, with a stop at the Daraw camel market along the way. If you can ignore the minor discomforts, a ride on a felucca is a smashing way to view Egypt: sleeping on the open decks at night, then dreamily observing the Nile's passing shores, villages, flora, and fauna in the day's warm light—occasionally manning an oar or two when the boat hits pockets of doldrums.
Along our journey, the captain and his cheerful, dreadlocked Nubian first mate, Ahmed, alternate between the rudder and the make-shift galley. We have a deal: I pay for the food, sparing no expense for quality, and they create the meals—in true Egyptian style. The prospect of eating well puts everyone in good spirits, except maybe for the live chicken that will no doubt soon be supper.
For our first night's dinner, we dock at sunset on a small island and feast on some simple but exquisite mezze (small snacks and little dishes served from the Mediterranean to the Middle East), washed down by Stella beers trolled through the Nile water to chill. The mezze assortment of flatbreads, hummus, tahini, olives, baba ghanoush, stuffed grape leaves, slices of a quiche-like omelet, and tins of anchovies, all picked up in the Aswan marketplace and nearby restaurants, reflect the influences of Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Arabia, and even France on Egyptian cuisine. Ahmed shares his own North African specialty, fuul, or fava beans, mashed with lemon juice and cumin.
"Tent cooking is at the root of Egyptian cuisine," explains Abdullah. "Caravans and Bedouin tribes trekked from land to land, picking up spices, techniques, and tastes which they spread to other lands. They valued packable foods, such as rice, beans and dates, and raised beasts which could either transport themselves or their owner's goods, like sheep and camels, but which also provided clothing and dairy products," he adds, raising his glass of camel's milk with a flourish.
We finish our meal with a handful of dates, harvested by Abdullah's father in Bawiti. "Dates are the soul of the Bedouin, and of Egypt—much more than just sweet jewels of the desert," he says.
Indeed, date palms are true trees of life, edibly and figuratively. Pharoahs' tombs, columns, and pictures of certain gods depict date palm leaves as emblems of longevity. From ancient past to the present, leaves have been made into sandals, baskets, rope, roofs, and bricks. Date trees provide lumber, furniture and fuel. Pyramid workers were paid in dates, which were also used to sweeten beer and make wine. Today's dates are made into vinegar, sweet pickles and chutneys, baked goods and pastes, and the seeds are roasted as snacks. In the arid desert where fresh foods can be hard to come by, the mineral-packed, nutritious date is truly a god's gift. In fact, holy books of the Moslems, Christians and Jews all celebrate the date in various passages.
As we warm ourselves on the shore by a campfire, Abdullah tells us date stories. One charming tale about the Holy Family's flight into Egypt goes like this: "They traveled with no food," explains Abdullah, "leaving in such a harried rush, but when they crossed into Egypt, the palm groves smiled and welcomed them. One very tall tree bent down to Joseph and Mary, so low that they could pluck the heavy crop of dates from its crown, and cherubs sitting on the fronds serenaded them with greetings and songs of peace."
* * *
On Tuesday, after Ahmed's hot breakfast of cheese, more fuul, and fresh eggs (courtesy of the captive hen), we arrive at Daraw and head straight for the camel market.
Ouch! From the serene Nile waters and peaceful date legends, we're suddenly thrust into a cacophony of sounds, blizzard of smells, and kaleidoscope of sights. Busses of patrons and tourists kick up clouds of dust. The camels fortunately can close their nostrils at will to keep out the sand, but all I can do is hold a bandana to my face and let Abdullah push me through the crowds.
Scores of camels and their drivers have trekked some 30 days from the Sudan to come to the Daraw market. "Meet Ali, my brother," says Abdullah proudly, turning me towards an older version of himself. Ali, once a young camel driver like those in the market, is now a successful camel trader in Cairo. "I buy and sell camels to sightseeing companies, so wealthy tourists can go trekking around the Pyramids," he says jauntily.
Having said that, he commands an elegant, cream-colored camel to kneel down, and assists me in the unlady-like task of mounting the saddled beast. Another command and we have lift-off: the camel is up on all four of its thin but powerful legs, its feet pads spreading to keep us from sinking into the sand.
I can see why the camel is called the "ship of the desert." It moves both feet on each side of its body at the same time, in a rolling motion for the rider. Not as comfortable as riding an elephant, I remark, but not as big and scary either. The men mount their own camels and together we tour the market.
As we survey the camels for sale, the brothers educate me on the attributes of these noble dromedaries. "Like dates, camels are Allah's gift to the desert peoples. They provide transportation , strength, nourishment, shade, fine wool, and thick, tough hides." Some areas still use camels for pulling ploughs and transport, but today, most camels are sold as cultural icons or for thoroughbred racing. (A camel can race at speeds of up to 12 mph, and walks at around 3 mph.)
By mid-day, Ali has completed his shopping spree, having bargained for half a dozen young males (camels live about 40 years) and a couple of females. In a few days, he and his camels, refreshed from their journey across the Libyan desert, will head north to Cairo. While Ali tends to business, Abdullah and I return to the felucca for rest and a few rousing games of dominoes and backgammon.
That night, Ali and his drivers join our felucca group for dinner and a casual celebration. After some firelight dancing, complete with drums and tambourines, dinner is served.
We sup on a comforting stew and fiery barbecued steaks—a little tough but tasty. "I can't quite place the meat in the stew," I remark. "It's very good, but what is it?" I inquire. "Camel's foot stew," beams Abdullah, "my mother's special recipe. And that meat is camel steak—the best part just for you." It dawns on me that the lovely long-lashed, cud-chewing creature I rode at the camel market had been sold to a butcher and was now serving as our main course. My face must have looked like it hit a Mack truck. "Don't be so shocked," laughed Abdullah, enjoying my western reaction. "My people have eaten camels for years, and now they are becoming known as a special delicacy," he said. After all, he reminded me with an enormous grin, "You did say you wanted to eat like an Egyptian."
Other North African, Mediterranean & Middle Eastern Recipes:
Kate's Virtual Journey: A Progressive Feast
This page created November 1999
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