INCIDENT IN CAIRO
New York Dr. Cesar Chelala
A few days ago, I took a walk and ended in Greenwich Village, one of the most interesting neighborhoods in New York. Walking down MacDougal, one of its main streets, full of restaurants with international foods, I had the pleasant surprise of finding an Egyptian restaurant dedicated almost exclusively to one of Egypt’s main dishes, kushari.
Kushari has an interesting history. It originated in the 19th century, when Egypt was a multicultural conglomerate and was going through a time of rapid economic development. It is believed to have originated in India under the name "Kitchiri" or "Kitchari", which means plate of rice with lentils, and was brought to Egypt by the British occupation troops in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
Kushari consists of a vegetarian mixture of rice, lentils, pasta and fried caramelized onion with a tomato sauce with spices, chickpeas and vinegar with garlic. This dish is considered gods’ food for the Egyptians, and is so popular that it is sold in kiosks located in all cities, along the roads, and even in the most exclusive restaurants. Because it is inexpensive and extremely nutritious it is more popular among the poor.
When I told the owners of the restaurant that I had tasted this dish on one of my work trips to Egypt they were very enthusiastic and offered me to try the way they prepared it. Although I had recently eaten, I could not refuse them and to their great joy I told them that theirs was the best kushari I had ever eaten.
This culinary experience reminded me of an incident during one of my trips to that fascinating city. The day I arrived, I went for a walk in the afternoon through the shopping center of Cairo, which was a few blocks from the hotel where I was staying. I was walking down one of the main streets when I came across one of those little street imitation trains that in my native city in Northern Argentina usually sell peanuts in the winter. Delighted with the discovery and without thinking twice, I gave the seller a bill hoping to receive in return a cone with peanuts.
In my hurry, and without realizing it, apparently I had given him a bill of great value because he received it with a huge smile. Immediately he took out a gigantic scimitar, opened the drawer of the train and to my great surprise instead of giving me peanuts he began to cut industrial quantities of roasted sweet potatoes which he was putting in a huge package made with newspapers. Before I could say anything, he handed me the bag with three and a half tons of roasted sweet potatoes in my arms while he thanked me profusely for the purchase.
There I was, without knowing what to do with the blessed bag of sweet potatoes while people looked at me as if saying, "What is that idiot doing with such a package of sweet potatoes!"
I soon realized that I was moving away from the area of the center of the city considered safe and I still did not know where to leave my package. Out of curiosity I gave a couple of bites to one of the sweet potatoes when, at the entrance of a dark corridor, I saw sitting on a precarious chair one of those Nubian porters (mostly from southern Egypt), something which is frequently found in Cairo’s apartment houses. His eyes were half closed so I thought he was resting.
I approached him carefully from behind and before he could say anything I left the bag with sweet potatoes at his side. When he felt the noise he looked up, looked at me, looked at the package of sweet potatoes and said something unintelligible with a rather stone face so I assumed that he either said 'good and holy', or 'thanks for the gift' or 'go to the devil with your sweet potatoes.' Without answering anything I left immediately, with the uncomfortable feeling of having done something wrong. The next day the sweet potato bites that I ate proved to be fatal. They gave me such stomach pains that it took me several days to recover. The incident, however, is still alive in my memory.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is the foreign correspondent of The Middle East Times International (Australia).