Tuesday, July 25, 2006

It's an Egyptian Thing

A stomach bug has done a pretty good job on me over the last couple days, so I really don’t have any new adventures to report on. Instead, I’m going to take the opportunity to introduce you to Egypt’s national dish. You might be tempted to believe that it would be something with a lamb kebab, or some modification of the amazing Lebanese mezzes that are so prevalent here. But you’d be wrong. Meet kushari, the pride and joy of Egypt.

Kushari defies logic in a bunch of ways. First, it’s pretty shocking that this dish actually tastes good. Let me explain to you what it’s made of. Kushari is typically served in a bowl and it’s a mixture of rice, pasta (usually macaroni), lentils, chick peas, tomato sauce, and hot sauce. I mean, it’s the weirdest damn thing I’ve ever heard of. We Americans love to laugh at the fact that that for a national dish, this is pretty odd, and not too glorious…. There’s no suckling lamb roasting over an open spit here. Just a whole bunch of starches in a bowl.

On top of this, kushari is considered a fast food here, a food for the masses, and when I went with a couple of friends for my first try at this dish to Cairo’s most famous kushari joint, the waiters made clear that they meant fast food. Abu Tariq Kushari is right in downtown Cairo, down a rather grimy street, but it stands as a pillar of cleanliness and efficiency in an area where both are lacking. You no sooner sit down than bowls of kushari are heaved in front of each person at the table. Communal pitchers of tomato sauce, hot sauce, garlic sauce, and water are left on the table. I kept trying to get the waiter’s attention because the guy who had sat at the table before us, had decided that using a cup to drink water would unnecessarily slow the pace of the meal, so he drank straight from the pitcher. Clearly, the waiter thought that replacing the pitcher for me would also unnecessarily slow the pace of the meal, so he ignored me. All the while, my mouth was burning from the hot sauce, and as soon as I’d finished about half my bowl, waiters and new people looking for seats began closing in around us making no secret of the fact that they wanted us out. And so we finished, and we left.

Now, before the meal, one of my friends who had had kushari a bunch before warned me. She said that I should watch out because kushari would do a number on my digestive system. Despite the solemn nods from the other people we were with, all of whom were kushari veterans, I shrugged this off deciding that no dish made of rice and chick peas could possibly be that bad. It was that bad. The only way I can put this is to tell you that the aftermath of kushari is roughly the equivalent of swallowing a meat grinder whole and on. It’s like a couple little elves decided to get into your stomach and make mashed potatoes out of your internal organs. That’s really the only way to put it. As a guy who doesn’t get heartburn, the heartburn was surely the worst of it, but the stomach ache raged on for a day or two as well. The strangest thing about it is you’d never guess that those ingredients would pack such a punch.

But here’s the catch. Here’s what I haven’t told you yet. Kushari is the single most delicious thing I’ve eaten since I’ve been here. If you consider that pasta, lentils, rice, and tomato sauce are all some of the great comfort foods independently, put them together and what you get from that is glorious. In the moments you’re eating it, you’re seduced into forgetting the dire consequences. I’ve been back to kushari a bunch since that first try, and I’ll keep going back because it’s really that good. Maybe part of it is the feeling you get when you’re eating kushari, looking out the window at the dirty streets, packed into small tables while eating elbow to elbow with real Egyptians, trying desperately to look as though you are unphased by the hot sauce, indulging in a last-meal type of thing before the near-fatal intestinal battles ahead. Maybe it’s that. And maybe, when it comes to kushari, it’s good not to ask too many questions.

1 comment:

Peggy B. said...

Theo:

Thanks for these fascinating updates. And the photos are just wonderful, really gives a sense of just how different the landscape is--you are most definitely a long way from Middlebury, Vermont! Your comments on Egypt's "between a rock and a hard place" status in terms of the current conflict were very interesting. Keep your thoughts on that front coming. Meanwhile, hope you feel better.