Natural Viagra & The Ups and Downs of Egyptian Food

Cooking Adventures (blog)

fuul and tameya egyptian food

I was in the ancient land of pharaohs and mummies for nearly two weeks before venturing north to Cairo. Coming from India where vegetarian food is bountiful, spicy, and vibrant, I knew that eating in Egypt would require an adjustment period. What I didn’t expect was how much of a gamble the tastiness of a meal would prove. I’d tried koshari from a popular spot in Luxor, a wonderful mix of large and small noodles, brown lentils, an oily tomato sauce, crispy fried onions, and a thin vinegary hot sauce. A few days later in Aswan, the same dish was lackluster at best; undercooked noodles, mushy lentils, and minimal seasoning. Same thing with fuul (fava bean strew) and tameya (fava bean fritters, Egyptian falafel). The slow cooked beans could be creamy and delicious, with fritters crispy and hot. But more often than not the fuul was bland and the tameya was dry.

I developed an obsession with mango popsicles. Always tasty, they soothed the fire in my throat from the vicious cold I’d developed, and never let me down the way restaurants often did; under salted vegetable stews and plain rice, weird hybrids of Egyptian and Italian foods, and bitter pickled vegetables.

Arriving in Cairo after a looooong overnight train ride with my two new friends, Ryan and Ted, I was eager to explore while the boys took it easy at our hostel. Pushing through my fatigue from the mostly-sleepless night, I wandered through street markets, taking in the cacophony of motorcycles weaving dangerously around cars. I bought breakfast from a gentle old man with a huge pan of charred flaky dough stuffed with sweet cheese drenched in simple syrup. A delectable start to my exploration. Meanwhile, Ryan and Ted decided that they wanted to switch hostels (something about a very rude receptionist and bugs everywhere), so they schlepped their stuff and my 10kg bag to a much nicer place. We met up in the early evening, and I opted to call our ice cream stop dinner, forgoing the potential disappointment of an Egyptian meal.

Freedom hostel advertised complimentary Egyptian breakfast, and after mango and berry sorbet for supper, I was ready for a real meal. But since the cook had taken the day off, the staff had procured sweet (slightly stale) white rolls, hard boiled eggs, vache qui rit cheese (the wedges that come wrapped in aluminum), and jam. Not my fav.

I pride myself on my ability to find local food spots, and this morning those skills were put to the test. Wandering through the alleys around the hostel, I stumbled upon a large family-run food cart with a rudimentary permanent structure. Next to it a single table, three plastic chairs, and a brick ledge to sit on. A friendly man greeted me, gesturing to sit down as his wife dropped balls of tameya mix into a large pot of hot oil. Within moments his son placed three small metal bowls in front of me. One with carrot turnip pickles, another with fuul, and the third containing tameya. Every meal I’d had in Egypt paled in comparison to this one. The tameya was freshly fried; hot and crisp with a smooth luscious interior. It was the first time that I couldn’t figure out what herbs and spices were added to make it so intensely delicious. Dill? Mint? Coriander? It was addictingly good. The fuul was topped with tahini and oil olive and a sprinkle of chili powder and cumin. Warm and comforting, it was the perfect dip for fresh chewy whole wheat pita. For once the pickles were perfect, tangy and sharp without the usual preserved lemon taste, an odd fermented bitter-sour note. I finished my breakfast with Egyptian tea (shai); sweet, black, and strong, the ultimate way to end a great meal. The feast was about $1.5.

I returned to my hostel, raving to the guys about how good this place was. One of the hostel staff overheard us, stating adamantly that he doesn’t like the family who runs the tameya stand. He wouldn’t provide an explanation, and we’d realize over the next few days that this man, though helpful and engaging, was a prickly pear who liked to shoot off his (controversial) opinions without backing them up. Later that afternoon, I tried a parfait-drink hybrid; layers of fresh fruit, sweet vanilla yogurt, thick strawberry smoothie, and pureed mango. So delicious and refreshing.

Ted left to Spain to meet up with a lady friend that night, so Ryan and I were a twosome as we headed out for fuul and tameya the following day. They were so happy to see me return, rolling out the red carpet and bringing us a ton of food; tameya, fuul, pickles, pita, and seasoned French fries (made from fresh potatoes). It was the best meal both of had eaten in weeks and we thanked them endlessly. Ryan’s Arabic allowed us to converse, talking about American and Middle Eastern politics, and we learnt that they’d been in business for over thirty years. From the grandfather and his wife, to his boys, and now his grandson was being groomed to one day run the stand.

We were also served a salad, a mix of peppery local greens, raw onion, and chopped tomatoes. When it was placed on the table, they looked Ryan dead in eye, and said in full seriousness “natural Viagra.” It happened again the following day when we returned. And again when I was pulled aside at the end of that meals and shown the ingredients that went into the tameya.

Ryan told me later that in several cities around the Middle East, he’d be pulled aside and told that a certain herb was “natural Viagra.” I know that they were joking, but food that good, especially in Egypt, is guaranteed to bring you up. I know it did for me and Ryan.

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