Archive for April, 2012

Bake me a pie as fast as you can

Today started like any other day. Get up, shower, breakfast, carry out the house chores and then take a well-earned rest by lounging on the sofa with a good book. Of course after the book I needed to prepare dinner. That’s where the problem kicks in. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time trying to figure out what to cook every day. I used to be disorganised. An hour before Mr S is due home I would lazily open the fridge door and see what ingredients I had. The shelves would generally appear bare, with the odd rotten onion and a bruised courgette.

Miserably placing the ingredients on the kitchen counter I would hunt the internet for recipes according to what I had. Of course this was bound to be a disaster, as no one wants to eat a tasteless dish of saute onions and courgette. Something had to be done, and fast. So I got wise. I mobilised, I planned, and I executed. I devised a daily menu for the week which I jotted down on a white board, mainly as a reminder for myself and a look at exciting things to come for Mr S (okay lentil curry and rice is hardly thrilling, but it’s easy to make).

No one wants to spend a long time planning a menu, we all lead busy lives right? But trust me, writing one will save you a lot of time, money and excessive trips to the shops. As I had written down all the ingredients, I no longer had to waste my time idling in the isles whilst I tried to remember what I needed. Or worse yet, return home and remember that I had forgotten something.

Today I was craving something typically British and my mouth was salivating when I thought of cheese and onion pie. Good old cheese and onion pie. Whenever I went shopping in my local town centre, I would always stop by the bakers Greggs for a pasty. I have fond memories of biting into the hot center whilst cheese oozed out and the pastry would flake, leaving a mountain of crumbs all over my chin. But now I live in Cairo, and not in the position to saunter into my local Greggs. If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad will go to the mountain.

So mopping the drool away from my keyboard I typed the words “cheese and onion pie recipes” and hit the enter button. Over 16,400,000 results turned up, and all for a humble cheese pie. After reading through various recipes and different versions (some which contained parsley?) I came across a blog by the hungrymanc. He describes his preferences as “I like to cook, I like to eat, I like to read and talk about food.” Being a Manc myself, and at that point a very hungry one, I took this as some sign from God himself telling me to read on. The hungrymanc recommends various recipes, and one that directed me there was a recipe by Geordie duo the Hairy Bikers.

When shopping, I had to wait a ridiculous amount of time at the supermarket cheese counter whilst the lady in front of me ordered everything in sight, only to find that they had no mature cheddar. So I had to settle with a mixture of gouda and Egyptian rumi. I only hoped the pie would turn out fine.

Ingredients

  • Frozen ready-made puff pastry (1)
  • 50ml/2oz whole milk (2)
  • 150g mature cheddar cheese grated (3). I wasn’t able to get hold of cheddar so I used a mixture of Gouda and Egyptian Rumi cheese
  • 1 tbsp plain flour (4)
  • 2 onions, finely sliced (5)
  • 1 medium potato, peeled and cut into cubes (6)
  • ½ tsp English mustard (7) 
  • Salt and pepper (8)
  • 50ml/2oz double cream
  • 1 egg beaten for glazing the pie
Pastry
Usually I like to make my own short crust pastry, but today I cheated and bought ready-made puff pastry. To make your own and for detailed instructions of the pie recipe follow this link.

The dish turned out tasty and was wolfed down served with a salad, and my favourite food-Heinz Baked Beans. I was surprised at how easy it was to follow this recipe. No elaborate ingredients from a Gordon Ramsey dish, no experimental cooking Heston Blumenthal style. Just plain and simple. Rather like the dish itself.

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Hazem Abu Ismail

Face cut out of Hazem found in Tahrir, and now residing in my home


The Writers’ Centre

A few days ago I went to the opening of the Writers’ Centre in the heart of Islamic Cairo. The centre has been set up by Linda Cleary, who describes herself as:

 “..a poet – writer – performer, originally from UK with a theatre background and Diploma in LAMDA Speech and Drama. As well as her own work as a writer, actor and performer she has been delivering workshops in creative writing, theatre and related arts for many years; working in Holland, Czech Republic, Australia, UK and Egypt..”

There has always been an art scene in Cairo, but ever since the revolution it has exploded. Walls are liberally covered in revolutionary graffiti, expressing distaste for the military and political parties. Demands are noted and murals are executed onto the blank canvas of a wall, paying homage to those who have passed away. Even the downtown Townhouse Gallery, which was established in 2000 caught on to this. They held an exhibition last year titled “This Is Not Graffiti”, inviting local artists to experiment with their work, bringing the conventional public art into a private space.

Writing and poetry are another form of art and one that the Writers Centre has been established to support. It is unexpectedly situated on the roof of the Arabian Hotel, five minutes from the hectic market of Khan Al-Khalili. You have to wade through hordes of sellers, tackle the treacherous traffic and turn a blind eye to the grubby streets in order to reach there. The hotel sign is enormous, brightly lit up in red, a beacon penetrating the grime. It’s hard to miss.

Climb up the three flights of stairs (mind the wobbly banister) and walk through the door into the alfresco centre. The opening was already in full swing, with individuals narrating their poems or stories. Long benches were lined up against the walls and a colourful cloth helped separate another seating area. Covering half the roof was a canopy made from wood, offering shade during the day. I quickly grabbed a seat and immediately became engrossed in the readings. I experienced a fusion of emotions, at times reflecting on the words and other times laughing out loud.

One poem was about a paper bag and the need to break free from the constraints of it. Only when it rains is the person able to break free and breathe again. A humorous story by a British ex tour guide recounts his experience of leading a group in Luxor all by donkey. He opened his story with the words of an Egyptian donkey handler, who informed him the donkey he will be riding is called Bob Marley. The story weaves a comical narration of dialogue and incidents, most notably when the animal gets too amorous.

A white and orange striped cat (that resembled a skinnier version of my own portly house cat) leisurely roamed around, causing some distraction to recitals. She weaved in and out of our legs seeming to frantically forage for something (most likely food). At the end I found her blissfully curled up on someones lap, savouring the attention she was searching for.

There was mesmorising music by a violin player, and a clarinet band. Interesting enough, one of the songs played by the clarinet band was called Gollywog’s Cakewalk, by the French composer Charles Debussy. Much to the delight of attendees, there was entertainment provided by the local Egyptian Tannoura group. Three traditionally dressed men played instruments while a young teenager, clothed in a voluminous coloured skirt, twirled to the beat. It was impressive watching him keep his pose and at the same time perform some amazing stunts with the skirt.

Linda has worked really hard in opening the centre and although it is far from complete (book shelves are needed and books), it looks great and you can tell a lot of devotion has gone into it. Attending the event inspired me to write more and I’m hoping that being amidst the books and inspirational minds, it will propel me forward. Hopefully the centre will help you to.

The Writers’ Centre
Roof of the Arabian Hotel
10 Al Aaded Street (Off Al Mansouria Street)
El Darassa
Old Cairo

Opening hours: Daily, 12:30pm to 10:30pm

Facilities: Wi-Fi access, bathroom and parking by the hotel


Another taxi conversation

“I want to marry a Pakistani girl,” the taxi driver said whilst half turning to see my reaction. I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat trying to ignore the comment. Suddenly I became aware of how hot the inside of the taxi was. It was 6:30pm and the sun was quickly setting with the call to prayer bellowing from the mosque speakers. We had been stuck in traffic for a while now, and although I had shut my window to keep the smog out, I now desperately wound down the glass. The warm dirty air swept into the taxi, cooling my face.

I thought to myself how predictable these conversations have now become. Someone asks you where you’re from and you reply with Pakistan, or if you’re feeling playful that day you might say India. The responses are usually one of three, or if you’re unlucky all of the below:

1) “Aaaahhhhh sharuk khan, Amita Bachan!”

2) “They worship many gods, sah? (right)”

3) “Osama Bin Laden…”

While I was busy deep in thought, the driver again repeated his wish, just incase I had missed it. I looked up and noticed for the first time since I had got in the taxi, that he had a tuft of curly hair forming just below his ears. He was in his early 40’s and had the look of a man attempting to pursue his mid-life crisis.

He endeavoured to get a reaction by staring in the rear view mirror and smiling. I tried to avoid eye contact, and after racking my brain, for what seemed like an extensive amount of time, I managed to come out with a response “Go to Pakistan and find one”. A huge smile formed on his lips and he laughed to himself, “You’re going Pakistan? When?”. There seemed to be a language communication problem, and in that moment I wished I hadn’t been so sluggish when it came to revising my Arabic.

“No, I’m not going Pakistan, you go to Pakistan and find one”, I said through gritted teeth. A nervous laughter resonated from his mouth, trying to hide the dent in his ego. The car turned silent and after thumbing through my notebook, I stared out the window wanting to find some other form of distraction. The roads around Khan Al-Khalili were abuzz with street sellers, peddling cheap “made in China” tat, most notably a toy cat with flashing green eyes. The empty tourist shops looked strangely enticing with pyramid paper weights, papyrus scrolls and belly dancing costumes for the more adventurous.

My attention was rudely distracted by the driver of the run-down car next to us who had the face of a pressure cooker on the brink of bursting. He clenched the steering wheel till his knuckles grew pale and ground his teeth like a mad man in an attempt to control the situation. The undercutting of one car abruptly released the trapped steam and he exploded releasing a tirade of abuse.

Thankfully, it was time for me to get out as the taxi pulled in beside the lively entrance of the market. I handed the driver the fare as he looked up at me, his hopeful eyes searching for any change of heart on my part. I turned around, and no longer in his view quickly disappeared amongst the crowd.

*Read Taxi, A wonderfully narrated book by The Egyptian writer Khaled Al Khamissi on his experiences of numerous taxi journeys


Final day-Lake Siwa

After all the excitement of yesterday I had a well deserved lie-in before stirring at 9am. We ordered breakfast and ate on our veranda overlooking the garden surrounded by palm trees. The faint sound of a rooster could be heard somewhere in the near distance, and the sweet chirping of birds rang loud. The sound of nature was graceful and some how unfamiliar to my ears that were attuned to the hubbub of the city.

Today we wanted to visit Lake Siwa and the small secluded Fatnas Spring for a dip before we travelled back to Cairo later that evening. We hopped on our ramshackle bikes and cycled the lengthy 6km. The road was easy to navigate and very quiet. After leaving behind the town centre we slowed down to a leisurely pace taking in our surroundings. Motorised rickshaws steadily passed us by reflecting the relaxed environment. At every opportunity, we would stop and ask for directions, just to make sure we were going the right way. We didn’t want to cycle for 6km and then realise that we’ve been going in totally the wrong direction!

By now we had passed no living soul for 15 minutes and it truly did feel like we had the whole oases to ourselves. Palm trees were dotted by the road side and small cement holes filled with water seemed to pop up off the beaten track. Soon the palm trees dwindled out and the landscape gave way to open land. In the distance I could make out the still reflection of water.

The vivid colours next to a derelict house grabs our attention and makes us stop to get a better look. Beside the house was a ditch that had caused the soil to turn an intense deep red, and stick to the bottom of my shoes when I ventured too close to the edge. Juicy dates were left out in the hot sun to dry, causing them to wrinkle and harden. Moving on, the perspective suddenly changed with the lake appearing on either side of the straight road. This in all its glory was Lake Siwa.

Soon the road closed in on a forest of palm trees and came to a stop besides the Fatnas Spring. With the sun now rising higher in the sky the spring looked so refreshing that I just wanted to dive in fully clothed! A hand-made sign reminded people to be careful as the water was deep and not for weak swimmers (Me!). Pass the sign and through the heavy foliage was a cafe ahead and a toilet to the left. Although the toilet looked promising from the outside, the interior was dirty and unsuitable to use. It was only good enough to quickly get changed in, which I did.


The Spring has a few steps that lead you gently into the water. I stayed besides these steps, and only when I mustered up the courage to swim across did I manage to leave it’s safety. At this time the place was deserted and we had the place to ourselves. Although the spring was hot, it still felt cooling to feel the water against my body.

After a good swim we walked through the thick canopy and to a cafe that overlooked the lake. During the summer when the sun is fierce, the water dries up leaving only salty terrain. Now though as the season was Spring, the lake was full. The water was intensely still and tiny fish swam by careful to not disturb the tranquility.

A palm tree had toppled over into the water creating a perfect spot to sit and admire the lake close up. I can honestly say that I did not want to leave that place. And as I sat on a mat in the shade of a tree sipping a cold mint juice, I knew I would return here one day. Soon. Please pray it will be soon.


Frozen yoghurt

Taking a break from blogging about my Siwa travels, i decided to get an ice-cream yesterday. Only this is no ordinary ice-cream… and no its not ice cream made from breast milk! It’s the new craze that seems to have taken over cairo (still in its infancy though)…

frozen yoghurt.

Luscious


Cont….Day 2, Desert oasis


We made our way back to the hotel and rested for two hours before eating lunch and then making our way to the Palm Hotel for the tour. The hotel was down a side road just off the main square and is more of a backpackers commune than luxurious. There was a large sandy garden with palm trees scattered around, but stagnant water from a makeshift swamp attracted an influx of mosquitos attracted to the smelly sulphuric water.

In our tour group were three British university students who were in Cairo studying Arabic on their year out and another British woman living in Alexandria. After much discussion regarding the seating arrangements, four people squashed in the back seat while we sat in the front.

The driver leisurely drove through the back streets, every now and then swerving to avoid the pot holes which seemed to appear from nowhere. Half built crumbling mud houses and asphalt roads gave way to a vast expanse of desert. The driver stopped the car and got out to deflate the tires so the jeep could drive over the sand easier. With that he slowly eased the jeep onto the sand and we were on our way into the wilderness.

The drivers are known to steer furiously over the dunes, swerving and zig zagging at top speeds, but ours decided to play it safe and keep to some limit. He zoomed over the dusty mountains, every now and then turning haphazardly so that we all gasped and screamed.  Soon the jeep came to a stop on top of a large dune where we got out to take pictures.

The weather wasn’t ideal with it being overcast and now freakishly windy. Sand was blowing strongly in our eyes, nose, mouth and into every recess possible. In the distance we saw the outline of two more jeeps navigating up and down the dunes, edging closer towards us until they screeched to a halt next to our jeep.

With sand-boards we tried to whizz down the dune but with the wind against us and the poor quality of one of the boards it was a loosing battle. After a few attempts I did manage to go down, but then climbing back up was a KILLER. My legs were burning as i struggled to keep a constant pace, with every step causing the sand to crumble below me. After numerous breaks i managed to make it up and it felt like I had just mounted the summit of Everest. I did not try it again. My shoes felt weighed down after all that, and when I tipped it upside down, it produced a tiny mountain of sand.

The jeeps left and made the short journey winding round a dune where suddenly we caught sight of a row of palm trees and a lake in the middle of the desert. It was an amazing sight. Even more amazing was swimming in it. I had bought my swimming gear and quickly changed into my leggings in the car.

The first step I took into the water shocked me and made me shiver in pain. After a few minutes though my body got used to the cold and it was fun to splash about. I’m not a strong swimmer, having last swam at least ten years ago, so I stayed near the bank and made use of the wet sand to gently exfoliate my body. This was one spa treatment you wouldn’t be able to find anywhere.

A group of people started wrestling in the water. Others bravely swam to the opposite side of the lake, whilst some lazily sat upon straw mats in the shade of the trees. After 30 minutes I got out to dry in the sun before we quickly went on to the hot springs.

Seeing the desert spring made me say quietly to myself “Is that is?”, for its size was a quarter of the Spring of Cleopatra. But my disappointment soon gave way to relief when I went in. The water was strangely hot, like being in a hot tub but with a crust of algae floating around. Fresh bubbles were bubbling from the mouth of the spring below and it felt wonderful when you put your feet there. There’s no words to describe the feeling of sitting in a hot spring other than bliss. Sheer bliss.

Sitting cross-legged under the palm trees on woven mats, a group of Siwan men (our guides) were brewing a pot of the famous Siwan red tea. We had that served in mini glass cups whilst enjoying the last of the sunset.

After our tea we quickly drove over to a site in the desert which many years ago used to be immersed in water. Now all that was left was fossils buried in the rock hard salt. I managed to pick up a few lose shells, but the majority of the ornate ones were stuck and needed a pick to get at them. Obviously I wouldn’t do that as it would damage the site and leave nothing for others to appreciate.

To enjoy the sunset we went to the top of a dune where the view was astounding with nothing but the vast desert for miles and miles. The sun was still out but slowly disappearing behind a mountain of sand. The thing you notice out here is the absence of noise. The only sound was the gentle blowing of the breeze and it was so peaceful and tranquil. It’s definitely hard to find that calmness in this day and age.

A group of Bradford boys were busy burying their friend in the sand until only his face and closely shaven head showed. Some, probably feeling the need to make the most of the peace, ventured far into the desert until they were nothing but a tiny dot on the horizon.

I looked over at the last of the suns rays disappearing on the skyline, and it made me appreciate what I have and to also appreciate God’s attributes – Al Majid (The Majestic), Ar Rahman (The Merciful) and Al-Malik (The King). Sometimes we need to come to a place like this to truly be thankful for what’s right infront of us.

Men formed in a straight line to pray the Maghrib prayer, the gentle breeze carrying the words out into the unknown. Darkness had fallen as we drove to an isolated camping spot deep in the desert, where those who had paid would spend the night. A fire was already lit and mats laid circling around the flames enticing us to lie down. The cloudy sky had cleared up and a few stars were visible but unfortunately not the whole milky way which i’ve been told is not unusual to see here.

It felt magical just laying there and gazing up at the black sky dotted with tiny stars. It would have been even better if the camp had enough food for us to stay and eat but as they didn’t we had to make our way back to town. We drove through the darkness with only the sand infront faintly lit by the jeep’s headlights. As we made the descend from sand to gravel I looked back to say goodbye. But all I could see was the pitch-black desert surrounded by an eternal silence.