Friday, 16 February 2007

Street Food: Egypt vs India

When I first considered writing about street food in Cairo, the few people I knew in Cairo had a good laugh and cautioned me that having just arrived in the city I was completely setting myself up for the curse of the Pharaohs. Well, being a desi and with an ability to eat the Pav Bhajis and Paani Puris and Vada Pavs on the streets of India, the streets of Cairo posed no threat at all, so I was all set to explore Cairo by tasting everything it had to offer. (But I did tuck a strip of lomotil into my wallet to be on the safer side.)

There's such a variety of snacks, meals, quick bites and drinks on offer on the streets of Cairo that it would be impossible to try them all in a few days, but I did manage the highlights.

A good day begins with a good breakfast. A fuul or tamiya sandwich is what is considered ideal. I tried these at Arzak in Maadi Grand Mall, from a stall near the Sultan Hassan Mosque and Moqattam courtesy the Pen Temple Pilots and a couple of other street carts. I loved them all. Fuul is paste of cooked fava beans spiced to your liking with maybe a few fresh veggies thrown in too for texture.

The tamiya is a deep fried patty of the same fava beans. But they taste completely different in this form than as fuul. The tamiya is flattened and stuffed into the eish (pita bread) with a little hummus or tahini and more fresh veggies.

My favorite is a little tahini, a little fuul, tamiya and pickled brinjals all stuffed into one sandwich. This makes for a messy eat since the ingredients tend to squish out the sides, but to quote Rachel Ray, it's completely "yum-o!"

These sandwiches can also be stuffed with omelettes, french fries and all kinds of combinations. At 1-2 LE each they are an absolute steal.

It's interesting to watch the sandwich guy stuff the assortment of ingredients into the bread. It reminds me of the anda parathawala outside IIT Delhi who nimbly cracks and throws a raw egg between two layers of a paratha while the paratha is frying on the pan, all in one single flowing movement to produce the most scrumptious anda parathas ever.

I don't think India has a direct comparison in terms of taste for fuul or tamiya. The closest similarity I could think of was boiled and smashed peas which are used as a base in some chaat preparations. Also the tamiya is a bit like a dhalwada.

For lunch in Cairo. I'd go for Koshary. Actually, I can eat this for breakfast, lunch and dinner and never get tired of it. It's considered the common man's food, but I've also heard someone say they think it should be named Egypt's National Dish. A combination of pasta, lentils and tomato sauce topped with fried onions. Its light yet filling, nutritious, quick, healthy and ohhh so tasty. The guy who makes the koshary normally has all the ingredients ready and warm. When an order is placed he mixes it all in a jiffy and its mouth watering to see how he deftly assembles the dish. The crunchy onions on top are better than cherries on a cake.

When it comes to Koshary every single person you meet in Cairo will tell you that they know the "best" place to eat it and everyone claims that their place is better than anywhere else. On recommendations, I've tried Arzak in Maadi , Abou Yoosef in Mohandaseen and street stalls all over the city. Although I loved them all, I must confess I'm a little partial to El Omda's Koshary topped with Chicken Shawrma because it gives me my meat fix too.

Although there's no confirmed Number One Koshary in Cairo, what is certain is that a good hot steaming plate of Koshary can warm the cockles of anyone's heart. Koshary is complete soul food and this is what I will crave the most when the time comes for me to leave Egypt.

For mid meal snacking there are umpteen options all over town: baked sweet potatoes, roasted nuts and seeds. A friend of mine said she would rather buy one roasted sweet potato from the street vendor than a kilo & a half from the grocer for the same price.

They are that delicious. For the thirsty there are a variety of juice stalls to try from. The aaseer asab (sugarcane juice/ghanne da ras) works perfectly to counter the dehydrating effects of Cairo's heat. It replenishes body salts, it's tasty and completely refreshing with a strong natural sugar-fix to it.

By dinner time, most Cairenes are more relaxed and have the time and leisure to wait for a good meal to be prepared. If you find yourself with the time to enjoy a meal, then head down to one of the kebab houses, order your hearts fancy and wait for the wonderful steaming dishes to be brought to your make-shift table on the street.

The two most recommended kebab places are Farhat at Khan el Khalili and Mohammed Rifai at Sayeda Zainab. You can order various meat based items here. Kebabs and kofta are the most popular combination. In Egypt, Koftas are rolled and skewered minced meat with spices. Kebabs are roasted marinated chunks of meat. Chops, roasted chickens and grilled hamam (pigeons) are also on the menu at places like these. I'll admit I haven't had the courage to try the pigeon yet, but all the other meat that I've eaten, I've enjoyed.

While the tantalizing smell of your meat grilling in the open oven teases you, you will be served eish (bread) with a choice of salads. Green salad, tahini, hummus or babagannoug. My recommendation: control your hunger pangs and ignore the bread until the meat arrives otherwise you may be full before the main course arrives. Sip on the shorba (served cold and spicy) instead, it will increase your appetite.

India though, has a larger variety of kebabs in all kinds of forms made from all kinds of meat. Kareem's near the Jamma Masjid in Delhi, Tunde Kabab in Lucknow, Chawla's Chick Inn in Chandigarh are just three of my favorites. Tandoori chicken is perhaps the best known export from India but that's just the starting point of Indian kebabs. Tender reshmi kebabs, boti kebabs, gilauti kebabs with ulte tawe ka paratha. Just writing their names down makes my mouth water. The varieties of kebabs available in India are as numerous as the varieties of chaat or parathas or any other dish that you may mention.

If you didn't know yet, India has more cuisines styles than it has states, so there's variety in everything. Other popular street food in India includes Dosas, Idlis, Chole Bhature, Samosas, Vadas, Vada Pav, Missal Pav, Halwas.... At the risk of repeating myself - the varieties are endless.

Although I have broadly categorized Egyptian Street food as breakfast, lunch & dinner items, when you eat these treats can be as flexible as meal times in Egypt.

Is Indian Street Food better than Egyptian Street Food?

Well, Indian food is spicier and more chatpata, but I wouldn't venture to say that either is tastier than the other. They are both almost completely different in flavour but both are excellent.

The only thing I would stress on is that - to eat these street food delicacies, you should be standing on the road, inhaling some diesel fumes, amidst the honking of taxis and the food should have the flavor of the street on it. No five star hotel can ever make these same items taste even half as good. Be brave, ignore the hygiene factors, the occasional fly in the hummus and dig in. It's worth it.

Bon appetit!

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Wednesday, 14 February 2007

M T R Foods Sold for $100 Million

MTR Foods has taken a Scandinavian turn. It's not US spice king McCormick that will buy MTR Foods as speculated earlier, but the Norwegian foods-to-metals group Orkla.

Shock/dismay/sadness/happiness.... a series of feelings ran through me when I read these headlines in Finance Asia & the Times of India.

Shock since I did not have any idea that MTR was up for sale, being in this faraway land. Dismay & sadness that a Scandinavian Company has taken over at the helm of MTR. What do Scandinavians know about Kannadiga cuisine? Happiness that MTR as a brand was worth 450crore, three times its current turnover. But mostly I feel sad. What Orkla will do with the brand & the product compositions remains to be seen. But things can never be the same.

Why am I writing on business news which I normally just read & never write about ? Because I have a deep personal connection with MTR. To me, MTR is like the khansama from an ancestral kitchen who keeps giving me treats, tips and tricks to turn out better food in my own kitchen.

My love affair with MTR began when I moved to Bangalore in 1999 & was introduced to the Mavalli Tiffin Rooms in Lalbagh. The institution is over 80 years old and produces some of the best, most authentic South Indian Vegetarian cuisine ever. There is always a long line of people waiting to get in. Right from 6:30 in the morning when it opens. Fluffly idlis, crisp dosas, the rava idlis that they popularized. Words cannot do justice to their piping hot sambhars and other yummy food.

Three floors were not enough to house their customers, and they later branched out into a fast food principle based "Namma MTR" in Bangalore & Dubai to keep up with the demand.

MTR pickles found pride of place in my kitchen right next to the pickles that my mother and grandmother sent me. MTR spice powders and masala mixes were the number 1 choice if I did not have the time to make my own.

When I left for the US, half my luggage was MTR instant Bisibele Baath mix on request from several colleagues who were missing the "taste of home".

By the time I returned they had vastly increased their range and had also introduced the "Ready to Eat" line. Heat and eat, even simpler than the "Instant Mix" and much less oily than a lot of other brands prevalent in the Indian market.

When we moved to Cairo, a large part of our shipment consisted of MTR instant mixes - rava idli, dosa, upma, gulab jamun among others. From Soups to Ready mixes, to Papads to Chips to Ice Cream mixes to Pickles to Ready to eat and Frozen Foods - MTR prepares and sells them all to their hungry customer base.

Their forays into North Indian food and Malayali food can be forgiven since they seemed to manage a pretty admirable job with those items too.

The restaurant and the packaged food business were separate entities. As of now there isn't much clarity on whether the restaurants will also belong to Orkla.

I hope Orkla does not tamper with the product compositions because they have been perfected with a lot of care. I pray they do not destroy the brand completely like other MNC's have tried to do with Indian Acquisitions. And I wish they will start exporting to Egypt.

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Book Review : National Geographic Series - Holidays Around the World: Celebrating Diwali and Ramadan

Author Deborah Heiligman has embarked on an ambitious "Holidays Around the World Series" with National Geographic

Aimed at 6-9 year old children the series is rich in photographs from around the world and lower on textual explanations, letting the pictures speak for themselves.

Celebrate Ramadan & Eid Al-Fitr with Praying, Fasting and Charity and Celebrate Diwali with Sweets, Lights, and Fireworks are the first 2 titles in the series.

Deborah has collaborated with a Consultant for each book who personally celebrates the festival being discussed.

I'm not sure what the scope of these consultants was though, because I spied a couple of technical errors in the book on Diwali. For example the Taj Mahal is called a mosque, Lord Ganesh is said to symbolise prosperity, the meanings of deepa and vali have been interchanged. The Consultants could have been limited to just writing the afterword instead of proofing the text of the whole book.

I'm not too sure about the exact technicalities in the book on Ramadan because whatever I have viewed has been as an outsider looking in. Although, I have been able to observe it in greater detail here in Cairo, where the sahour's and iftars are celebrated even in 5 star hotels. The entire city fasts, the timings turn topsy turvy. Offices close earlier. Unlike India where most praying and fasting happens inside closed doors of houses and mosques, in Cairo the sheer numbers forces them onto the street even during the regular Friday noon prayers.

The pictures are amazing and well laid out. For someone who celebrates either of these festivals, the pictures will seem incomplete because Diwali there are so many more aspects than can be represented in a 32 page book. But for someone who has no idea about Diwali, Ramadan, Islam and Hinduism, this is a very good introduction. I would have loved to compare these 2 books with the books on Hannukah or the Passover which I do not know about as well as these 2.

I especially loved the satellite pictures of India on Diwali and 6 days later showing the difference in intensity of light between these days. The pictures in both books represent an excellent geographic spread.

There is a recipe in each book that a 6-9 year old can easily help an adult assemble. Children who see these books will be instantly attracted and it could be a great way to initiate dialogues into cultural differences.

The books are an excellent buy for someone who is trying to introduce children to an alternative culture and festival. Priced at $15.95 per hard cover version, the entire series will be a wonderful addition to any Children's or School Library.

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