Thursday, December 23, 2010


This food awakening began in late October when I visited Egypt. Friends warned me that Egyptian food was, to be kind, unremarkable. I might even - gasp - go hungry! I was prepared to loose a few pounds, in return for immersing myself in 5000 years of long-studied history. I have been a Tut-ophile since my teens (somewhat less than 5000 years, thank you very much), and had prepared myself for the trip by reading a dozen or so books and guidebooks. I couldn't find an Egyptian cookbook, darn it.
With a long list of places to see, I flew to Egypt. Nothing prepares you, however, for the chaos that is Cairo. Nothing prepares you for the insane traffic, or the street-level smog. Nothing prepares you for the agenda-driven Cairenes, either: 'you are a tourist, therefore I will lie, exaggerate, and finagle until you are broke and lost and starving'. And nothing prepared me for the food, either.
This was a mega budget trip. Two months on the road can be expensive unless you really work at cheap. If anyone can work at cheap, it's me, and food was one of the two places to save (lodging the other, but I'll never tell you details of where I stayed). On Tallat Harb, not too far from the incomprehensibly grimy and underfunded Cairo Museum, is a small eatery called Felfla. A utilitarian storefront with very little seating, crammed with locals and backpackers of all ages, this place offers fabulous food for almost nothing. The uniformed staff was happy to help even a non-Arabic speaking tourist.Their vine leaves (a dozen for little more than a buck) were superb, their felafel, their baba ghanoush excellent.
But the dish that really got my attention is KOSHARI (accent on the first syllable ). This macaroni/sauce/ frizzled onion dish is just the thing to teach your 10-year old son, if he doesns't know a ladle from a lemon, how to cook. This will serve four to six depending on appetites.
Cook a mixture of macaroni: ditalini, elbows, even mini-penne. Leftover pasta is good here, too. Just nothing really big, and nothing long or heavy like ziti. When cooked, drain, return to pan and keep warm.
While the pasta cooks, make a tomato sauce NOT Italian style, but the inevitable sauteed chopped onion,
 garlic enough to deter a vampire, canned mini-dice or fresh tomatoes with a generous helping of chopped cilantro, salt and pepper to taste, and ground cumin. A small shake of cinnamon is good, too.
Slice a good-sized onion and fry it in peanut or other neutral oil until brown and crisp. I suppose you could use those things in a can, but I like to scratch cook.
Open a can of garbanzo beans (even my culinary hero Mark Bittman says it's okay to use them), add a couple of smushed cloves of garlic, a generous handful of chopped cilantro, and simmer until everything is ready.
In a shallow bowl, put a ladle of pasta. Top with a ladle or two of sauce. Top with a generous spoon of the hot garbanzos and an equally generous spoon of the fried onions. Sprinkle, for an upscale look, more chopped cilantro.
At Felfla, they offer two sauces, one nicely spicy. You could do that as well. This could become a family stand-by and - who knows? - your kid could go on to become the next Food Network Star!

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I try to answer all comments, but when I'm on the road sometimes I'm not near internet cafes. Patience! Eat some chocolate! I will get back to you!