Iftar and Jewelled Salads
Since the very first glimmer of light, to the last point where a light thread can be told from a dark thread (surprisingly it is not actually very dark) they cannot eat, drink or smoke, and the really devout do not even swallow their own saliva or take medications. The former makes a walk in Zamalek somewhat more unpleasant than usual.
In Jordan we fed our guards every night of Ramadan for the years we were there. It started on the first night of Ramadan in our first year when a guard came to the kitchen window while I was in the kitchen. It was mid Winter and very cold and he asked if we could open a small can of very cheap tuna. I used to buy the same brand for our cat. I was horrified that he would break a long fast with such a meagre and unpalatable meal. Every three days I cooked a large vegetable dish which was thick with lentils and chickpeas and very savoury with local herbs, onions and garlic. As I heard the call to prayer it was handed out. With it were the traditional dates to break the fast, a drink made of a flat dried apricot leather called Khameruddin and water – the apricots soaked to be swirled up into the water – and youghurt and fresh local flat bread.
To our total amazement we were thanked for feeding the guards during a farewell visit to the palace – it is amazing that word would filter through to such a height. In the end we were actually feeding about seventeen, as many guards from other residences would drop in and leave their posts. We were well guarded – but no-one else was!
Here it is traditional to break the fast with dates cooked till just tender and broken a bit (seeds removed) in mild. In the first few days I made the thicker nursery pudding variety, cooking over a low heat till the milk condensed and was thick. Tonight I made the other version, where the dates stayed more whole, and the milk stays almost white. Sugar is stirred in – Egyptian like sweet foods after a fast. With this I took out a large fresh salad since it is still hot, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers all chopped into small dice, tossed with a fistful of fresh basil, and parsley and salt, pepper olive oil and lime juice dressing. There was a bowl of soft, slightly salty white cheese and olives on the side. Also a small plate of dried apricots, whole walnuts, and a very sticky local dessert with almonds in semolina and thick with syrup.
While talking food one of the guards raved about the salad I gave him the other day so I thought I would tell you about it too. I have been making it regularly since an accidental “My goodness, what do I have in the frig with Bob bringing a friend for dinner,” night. The friend is vegetarian and I had decided I could make gnocchi of cheese and semolina with a light fresh tomato and basil sauce. However, I had no salad greens, and they are only just appearing on the market – a bit limp and wilted and not at all enticing.
I made a salad, all chopped into centimetre cubes in the local style, with three different fresh crisp capsicums – red, green and yellow. Add three fresh tomatoes chopped, a generous cup of cooked brown lentils (I soak them for half an hour to reduce cooking time and boil till just tender), LOTS of fresh mint and basil, and a dressing of raspberry vinegar and olive oil with salt and pepper. The best part – add the seeds of a whole large pomegranate. This salad is full of colour, fresh with pomegranate and mint (the former is just a bit crunchy and tangy and the coated seeds are jewel-like in the salad. Lentils add a touch of earth and a bit of protein. I have added other things from time to time, like fried cubes of eggplant, or cucumbers chopped, but we are eating this a lot while pomegranates are in season.
I have a concert and whirling darwish (dervishes if you want the western term) to tell you about. However that will have to wait until another day. I go tomorrow morning to the Moqattam Hills to see the project being run to help the women and children who sort Cairo’s garbage. Watch this blog.