The two women sat on their haunches, busy working fist-sized balls of dough into flat circles. One by one, they slid the dough a mud brick oven and pulled it out minutes later. The layers of dough had parted and a huge, pita-sized puff emerged. They smiled and passed it over to our watching group and we greedily tore it to bits to share amongst ourselves. The fresh, hot bread was immensely satisfying, and the women laughed, pleased with our expressions. They shyly held their hands out for tips, which we gladly gave. We had just visited Sakkhara Temple all afternoon and now our group had stopped a desert oasis for lunch. On our way down the steps to the open-air restaurant, a tiny crew of musicians and dancers serenaded us with drums and homemade instruments, then our guide, Emil, bustled us over to the main restaurant.
It was huge and would have easily held a hundred or more people at the long tables. A soda machine leaned against a tent pole at one end, a group of hookas clumped next to it. The whole establishment was under a big group of tents, and in all the time I have been coming there, we’ve never seen the kitchen. Our tables, as is often the case when we eat as a group, were already laid with an assortment of Egyptian mezzes, the appetizers so plentiful you could make a meal of them. Little dishes held hummus (chick pea and tahini dip), baba ghanoush (a dip made of grilled eggplant), tabouli (little granules of cracked wheat with garlic, lemon, parsley and mint), assorted spiced olives, cubed boiled potatoes dressed in oil, a fava bean dip that seems especially popular with Egyptians, and my favorite, fresh white beans cooked al dente, drizzled with olive oil, and topped with chopped onion and parsley.
Everything in Egypt is fresh, and for the most part, macrobiotic. Especially on the ships, you can see food being brought in that morning that was picked at most the day before, and will be on your table within hours. The Egyptians eat at least two courses (for those who can afford it): a salad course consisting of these appetizers, and then a meat course, possibly followed by a fish course, with fresh fruit for dessert. Pork is almost unheard of, and beef not particularly plentiful or popular, with chicken and lamb served everywhere. After our appetizers were mopped up with plenty of the fresh bread puffs, plates of grilled chicken and lamb took their place, each with a side of local rice, threads of saffron streaking orange through the soft white granules.
The lamb is delicious and seemingly unspiced, the flavor delicate and rich at the same time. The chicken is tender and perfectly grilled, full of flavor in my mouth. A few years ago, the Egyptians were convinced to import chickens from Denmark, because they eat so many of them here. The Danish chickens were larger and fatter, so it was thought they would quickly become more popular than the wiry little chickens so ubiquitous in Egypt. But they were practically flavorless, so they never caught on. Emil talks about a European friend who brought his boy over to play with one of Emil’s sons. Although the boy was only a year older than Emil’s kid, he was huge in comparison. But Emil’s small, skinny boy more than held his own with the big kid, outrunning and outplaying him until the older boy was exhausted. “The European boy,” Emil shrugged, “he is like Danish chicken!” He laughed hard, slapping his knee. Emil can be weird, but we love him.