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A Foodie’s Thoughts on Ramadan in Cairo

A Foodie’s Thoughts on Ramadan in Cairo
    written by
    Wesam Masoud

    Ah Ramadan,
    the word itself can make a foodie smile. Cairo
    comes alive with the sounds of Arabic music and a severely bipolar traffic
    disorder. The food available in Cairo
    also takes a different form to cater to the Ramadan expectations and appetites.
    The month-long season of increased sedentariness and appetite wreaks havoc on
    the waistline, and is often blamed for the paradoxical increase of blood
    cholesterol levels, even though most people claim to fast from sunrise to
    sunset. How is this possible?

    The answer
    is very simple: Ramadan tables are all about excess. A person fasting is a person who demands
    certain privileges: to be left alone to writhe in hunger, then to be fed like a
    king at sunset, then to be left alone to writhe in indigestion until just
    before dawn, only to begin the cycle anew. For a lot of folks out there,
    Ramadan is the only time of year when they regularly eat two meals a day;
    outside of Ramadan they’re lucky to eat one. These Ramadan meals must fulfil
    certain criteria, lest we anger the poor fasting glutton.

    Let’s
    examine the first Ramadan meal: fetar. Literally translated, it means breakfast;
    and for 11 months of the year, it is often ignored or supplanted by nicotine
    and caffeine infusions. During Ramadan, fetar becomes an essential part of a
    person’s day – even if they’re not fasting. Expected on the fetar table are at
    least two kinds of meat, assorted starches and salads. Chicken and beef stews
    are pretty standard, as is a casserole of macaroni with béchamel. The most
    consumed liquid during this teetotaling month is a thick, dried apricot
    smoothie (sans milk) or a dark and deeply refreshing cold tamarind infusion.
    Rice? Check. Potato? Double check; the side dishes are the mortar to the bricks
    of the main courses, building a veritable fortress of cholesterol and fat
    capable of withstanding the siege of self-inflicted famine.

    The second
    meal, sohour, is a different matter; the quantities may be less, but what it
    lacks in quantity it makes up for in variety. It’s meant to be a light meal to
    shore up the fasting man’s defences against the coming hunger. Foods rich in
    complex sugars, low-salt dishes and plenty of water seem to be the best
    combination. The reality is very different; during a recent visit to
    Tagine
    , salty and protein-rich foods were consumed – all of them very tasty
    – but the effects of which ensured a painful and arduous fast the next day.

    Foul medammes and tehina are arguably the most popular options, followed by
    lightly fried potatoes, sambousak, chicken livers and assorted yoghurt and
    cheese salads. I know a household that fed their prepubescent children pancakes
    and French toast for sohour – they turned out fine, but developed an aversion
    to consuming maple syrup before 8AM.

    For a Cairo neophyte, this can
    all be very overwhelming; the entire city becomes feverish with hunger; Road
    rage during the day intensifies as does the traffic congestion. Hotels bombard
    us with buffets and set menus designed especially for consumption during
    Ramadan. Invitations from friends and family will come; fetar at the house, and
    sohour probably at some Nile-side lounge to smoke the shisha, drink the juice
    and eat the mezzas. It’s all very entertaining, but you would expect quite the
    opposite from a month that tries to bring us closer to ourselves through
    self-denial and discipline. We shouldn’t be getting fatter; we should be
    getting smarter and kinder.

    To be
    smart, you should check yourself before you wreck yourself‘; that is to say
    that one should not eat till one’s insides are bursting with roasted beef flavour.
    Sample all that the abundant dinner parties have to offer; just not to excess.
    Like a seasoned marathon runner, you should also realise that slow and steady
    wins the race. Pace yourself to keep those taste buds and that stomach lining
    nimble and ready for the tsunami of delicious protein and fat barrelling down
    your gullet.

    True gourmands will revel in the experience of having their pick
    of all that life and Egyptian cookery has to offer. And there is something
    resplendent and patriotic about being served quintessentially Egyptian fare at
    almost every turn: outside of Ramadan, most restaurants wouldn’t be caught dead
    serving Ro’aa (except for those specialising in Egyptian food, of course).   For one month, Egyptian home-style food is as
    fashionable as Foie Gras on Focaccia.

    For this
    one month, one can walk through the empty streets twenty minutes before sunset
    and delight in the smell of cooked food everywhere. A traffic jam of the
    nostrils: roasted tomatoes, boiling chicken stock and the perfume of grilled
    meats emanating from every household cooking in uncoordinated unison is the
    reason we foodies love Ramadan so much.

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