Monday, June 14, 2010

I'm hungry, let's have diner... or is it lunch? Breakfast maybe?

Yesterday I blogged about some peculiarities of food, diner invitations and all that. I hinted towards some details around diner, lunch and breakfast. But since the post was getting longer than I initially anticipated and I don't like to edit my posts after I'm done typing I just decided that I would cover some more eating in my next post, which is this one.

So the other day I noticed that again some of my colleagues had pizza around 5 PM. They call it 5 PM here instead of 17:00 hrs, which I quickly took over because my driver understands 5 PM better than 17:00 hrs and I'd rather ... well that's besides the point.
So these colleagues were having pizza again, they typically have junk food around 5 PM and I gave up commenting on that. For one, they also have an espresso machine that help me get my daily caffeine fix from freshly brewed espresso's. But I noticed that they all stay for just a little while longer and then head home or wherever they go after work. One of them I knew he is married with children, and as it turns out only one of the three actually is single and understandably eats out all the time. So what were these other two doing every day, working late and having junk food at the office. Didn't they want to spend time with the family? Are their wives such bad cooks that Papa John's pizza is a better alternative, even McDonalds?

Turns out that they were having pre-lunch at the office. Meaning that they were having a late lunch, which I call a brunch and have at around 3 PM not at 5 PM, because that's diner. And actually they don't have lunch either, they have a pre-lunch. Sort of a snack to fire up the ol' metabolism. Back at home they would have lunch... only to have diner somewhere after midnight or at least late at night. Weird to say the least because that doesn't leave much time for a late night snack... and indeed they do have late night snacks as well, sometimes. These colleagues of mine.
I don't dare to ask about breakfast, because there's no time left in the day to have breakfast, more over because I don't see them eat in the office before their pre-lunch.

But by now you should've guesed what I've been considering all this time... they don't eat during the day. Well, only if you consider that 5 PM is evening, which is true for many Dutch people because they have diner around 5-5:30 PM. So they're training for Ramadan, that's my guess. They're actaully preparing the whole year for getting through Ramadan without too much suffering. Considering that food is playing a huge part in their social lives (see my previous post here), it is crucial I guess to get through the days where eating is only allowed after the sun has set and before the sun rises again. Actually everything that can be considered consuming nutritious stuff is prohibited, including drinking and smoking as well as eating.

So everything aside, when I'm having lunch, sometime around noon. I am having a sandwich with, currently, blue berry jam, and my colleagues are having nothing. They have their pre-lunch at around 5 PM, when I have, well nothing or maybe a cookie.

Guess Egyptians and Dutchies are not exactly the same after all.


Sunday, June 13, 2010

Ritualistic feasting on food, the Egyptian way

As in many cultures I've come across in the past so many years, food and eating is also a playing a major part in Egyptian life. It is a way of expressing how much you love somebody, it's a way of showing how well you're doing. It's a way of showing others that you're really doing everything you can to make them feel more than welcome. And then there's the whole deal about having breakfast, lunch and diner.

But let me start at the beginning. I think it doesn't come as a surprise when I state that Egypt is predominantly a Muslim country. Although there's a vast amount of Christians up to the point that a number of Christian holidays are public holidays, Islam rules. The majority of Muslims I've come to see and meet in Egypt is very serious about their religion. Many morals and ethics are derived from, or rather inspired by the Koran I take it. When you walk around in Cairo you will hardly see boys and girls holding hands. Well you won't see them because they either don't or because they vandalized the streetlights and enjoy a little bit of privacy the result darkness grants them. This in fact happens in front of my apartment building. True story.
But you won't see any public touchy-feely amongst boys and girls or even amongst adults. It is plainly not done to show any form of affection in the physical way Westerners do. No pecks on cheeks or that kind of action. At least not between men and women. Same-sex touchy-feely is very common. I've experience some not so secret handshakes where I had to withdraw my hand with great force in order to be sure I would be able to use it the rest of the day because a colleague would hold it securely, preferably for the length of the conversation. But that's not the point of this post. The point is that you don't show you love your son in law by hugging him and pecks on the cheeks, that's just not done between son-in-law and mother-in-law. Instead, being the mother-in-law, you prepare excessive amounts of food and as son-in-law you eat it all and admit that you love the food. And no, it is not considered respectful to be honest and tell her that you really not all that into egg plant, or vegetables in general.

So what about strangers that are to become acquaintances, the kind of people you invite for diner. There's two types of these kind of strangers. Those that you really like and really want to become acquaintance with and those you don't really like, but invite none the less because that's required by whatever unpleasant rule. That second group is easy, you prepare food in such a way that it is as luxurious as possible, just to show off. It's show-off food. It's like throwing a BBQ and give the neighbor the best piece of meat just to show him you can afford it. Which is stupid because you're giving the best piece of meat to somebody you'd rather not give it to. Maybe not inviting him for diner? Well it's all about pride and in my world pride typically results in bad stuff like wars and killings and spillings of good stuff and all that. One should be proud but not act out of pride. But that's besides the point of this post as well.
So that leaves the first kind of diner guests. Those you like and you would like to feel very welcome. You prepare the food the best way you can, hoping that you're preparing the guest's favorite dishes the best possible way. And the food should be in abundance, because you want this guest to stay around for as long as possible. The guest will feel obliged to finish all and that may take a while and once all food is eaten he'll feel too stuffed to move and will stay yet many bits longer. It's like setting a trap for this guest but with only good intentions. And you top it off with a sisha, the waterpipe, to make your guest forget that he had an incredible amount of food stuffed into his stomach. Without the right tobacco, the guest may never join for diner again. This is very risky.

Just my view on all of this: I kinda like the Dutch way, where diner is prepared for all at the diner table, but just enough for them. It sends a very clear message to uninvited guests that they should've called ahead so you could tell them not to drop by around diner time. Or you could've prepared a bit more potatoes and make the slices of meat a bit thinner. For those that are welcome at the diner table, there's just enough. And in case you don't like the food, there's never that much that pretending you like it becomes one of the most horrible acts of terror in your life. You can leave a little of the disgusting food on your plate out of politeness,  to show the host that he or she had overdone the meal. That they went really out of their way to make you feel welcome. Remember, there was food for you to eat (or not) which means you were welcome in the first place... this is all nice and well, but what if the food is really good. What if it's not egg plants a-go-go but something really tasty? Than you're screwed in Holland, because there won't be enough for second rounds, so you remember what it was called for next time, or even better you ask the host or his wife a copy of the recipe. They will feel very flattered.

What this is all leading to? Well, sometime during my first month in Cairo, I was invited by my driver and his family to have diner at their place. And I have to admit that most of the prepared was very, and I mean very, tasty. Quite different from what I knew about Egyptian food, which at that time meant Shoarma. Some of the dishes were really not that good and since I believe that you show some respect to people by not lying and staying with the truth, I expressed my dislike of these dishes in all honesty, but respectfully refrained from any harshness.
The interesting bit was when I had enough, my stomach was full. Which doesn't take that much because I don't eat much, except when it comes to home fried French fries from Albert Hein. I can eat a whole kilo of them with fricandellen to match all soaked in Curry and Mayonaise with a good amount of onions and Peanut sauce. Anyway, one fried chicken wing (a large chicken) and some soup, some rice and other stuff and I was done. Or so I thought. Turned out I wasn't since there was still food on the table. And a lot of food it was.
Since my mum had taught me to be polite at all times, I did my best to eat some more, and my efforts were not left unnoticed. I was allowed to stay alive and not eat all the food. And the food was truly very good.

Every now and than I get some of the food in a pan from my driver, typically with lentil soup or koshari, which is a pasta dish that is very good, and the spicy sauce that comes with it, is excellent. I typcally need 2 days to finish it all, but that is probably because I don't eat all that much. Unless it is of course patat from Albert Hein, home fried of course.

Anyways, as long as I don't have to eat Egyptian amounts, I can really enjoy the food here. It's definitely not as spicy as the curries you get in Pakistan or India. Or as overly junkish as in the States. But it's good in general. Very enjoyable. I can really recommend koshari, it's really good.


Friday, June 4, 2010

Israeli commando's screw up my airport routine...

Today I'm flying back to the Netherlands to visit my wife and kids. It's been 2 weeks since I've last seen them. Well actually 11 days, but still. Since I always take the same flight back to the Netherlands (KL554), I have a routine on Cairo Airport. It pretty much means that I'm not really thinking when I get to the airport, I just go where I need to go, hand over my passport and the proof that I already checked in online, get the exit-form, fill it in, go through immigration, get a double espresso and a San Pellegrino and wait for the boarding procedure to start. This is my routine, this is what I always do, this is why I feel so comfortable on Cairo Airport.

Not today. I get to the check-in desks and there's nobody. I check my watch and agree with myself I'm not too late. And I am not too early either. But maybe my watch doesn't work as it is scheduled to be sent back to Suunto for repairs because every time I go scuba diving the battery dies on me. So I check the time with one of the police officers that walk around. And my watch is telling the correct time. So where's the check-in for Amsterdam. The displays tell me that it is some other location in the airport and my routine is getting screwed up already.
I find out where I need to go and start walking. I'm being told to make a detour 3 times because I'm not supposed to slip under some 'red tape'. I now realize that there's an awful lot of policemen in the airport and a lot of men carrying guns but not wearing a uniform. Weird I think, but determine that maybe I should walk around the taped-off areas.

At the check-in I ask what's going on. My Flying Blue Silver status allows me to check-in at the business desk and the guy probably feels obliged to answer my question. The full area where I typically check-in is now reserved for El-Al only, there's extremely heightened security and extreme luggage control.
Hmmmm, why could this be? But obviously because of the raid on this convoy with aid to the people in Gaza earlier this week and the fact that the whole world at least stated that this was at least unfortunate. I'm trying to be politically correct here. I never consider violence to be a solution and now it becomes crystal clear to me. The Israeli commando's that raided the convoy have screwed up my airport routine. So this is how it feels to be 'collateral damage', well it sucks.

Oh and just for the record: I have no idea as to what actually happened on those ships, so I have no idea as to whether or not these deaths was justified. So I'm not saying who is right or who is wrong, I'm just saying that violence is never a solution.


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Sharm el-Sheikhians are not Cairotanians

As promised in my previous post I was going to use this week to catch up on some experiences in Egypt.

Early May of this year I had my wife and kids over from the Netherlands. When you read the blog regularly you know that I live in Cairo by myself and my wife and two sons are still living in Almere, the Netherlands. Every other weekend I fly back to Holland to see them.
So early May they came to Cairo for two days and we then went to Sharm el-Sheikh and stayed at the Park Inn Resort, a resort very close to the airport (about 10 minutes) with an aqua park. The park is especially nice for younger kids. My sons are 5 and 3 and are totally into swimming and splashing and sliding and this aqua park allowed them on all slides but 3 of them, and these 3 were really a bit too adventurous for young kids like my son.
So we had a blast in Sharm el-Sheikh as well as in Cairo. In Cairo we obviously went to see the pyramids and the Sphinx. We also paid a visit to Cairo Tower. But the real fun was in Sharm el-Sheikh. The weather was great, of course, and so was the hotel. Rooms were spacious and clean. People working at the hotel were friendly. So was the food, buffet all the time, but very well prepared.

But the shop owners just outside of the hotel were pretty much the worst people I ever met. I mean, you know upfront that the shops are trying to sell as much as possible for naive tourists and we all know that typically these shop owners are very aggressive sales people. But the ones around the Park Inn Resort in Sharm el-Sheikh are horrible.
They practically dragged our kids into their shops just to get us inside as well. Probably to force us to buy something or else they wouldn't let us go. Even worse, they treated my wife with a total lack of respect, towards her or me for that matter. One time my wife was walking 2 meters in front of me, and the stares and looks she got were out of this world.

In one of my first posts about my experiences here in Egypt I characterize the Egyptians as the most approachable people I've met. Well I have to retract that remark... Cairotanians are the most approachable people I've met, Sharm el-Sheikhians are the most horrific people I've ever met. Okay, at least those that own a shop.
The badness of our experience was such that my wife didn't want to leave the resort any more, fortunately the kids didn't want to leave the pool either. But this counts for something. She got a pretty wrong idea of what Egyptians are like. I would've too, hadn't I met the Cairotanians. The shop owners we met in Hurghada were not as bad as those in Sharm el-Sheikh and in Marsa Alam I only met the drivers at the diving center everybody else was foreigner.

So my experience with the Egyptians in Sharm el-Sheikh during my vacation with the family was not so good. Thankfully I live among pharao's and they are really nice people.