How I learned to cook, part 2–or, I heart/hate Cairo

You already know about my troubled relationship with Cairo. But I do have to admit that if I hadn’t spent the better part of a year whimpering on the bathroom floor there, I wouldn’t be half the cook I am today.

I couldn’t eat in a restaurant there. It was just too risky–who knew where the bacteria lurked? At home, I could douse my veggies in mild bleach solution, and cook everything till the toxic critters expired.

But what to cook?

The year before, in Indiana, I’d become pretty proficient in the weeknight dinners–but that was when I had a Kroger and an international-foods mart both within walking distance. I’d look through one of our 15 cookbooks, and then pop out and buy the stuff I needed. We could buy just about anything, except maybe a whole goat.

Now Cairo is cosmopolitan and all, but the groceries are a little more…limited. In my immediate neighborhood, I had splendid tomatoes, cucumbers and eggplants, and all manner of fruits–but no brown sugar, for instance. We only got that once Livia made friends with a State Department guy, who would buy it for us at the commissary.

So this was my first time cooking with severe constraints on ingredients–after some early frustrations, I finally figured out I had to work the opposite way from Indiana: shopping first, then figuring out what to cook. Turns out this is what everyone in places with good produce does, and what I tend to do more now. At the time, it was a major paradigm shift.

moosewoodFortunately, Livia had brought a very useful cookbook with her: The Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home. The essential constraint of that cookbook–no meat!–happened to dovetail very nicely with my own needs that year. Even once my Arabic got better, I didn’t really feel up to the task of going down to the butcher and having him hack me up some flesh. Now I’d relish that, but then, it just seemed like too much of my limited energy to expend in the name of dinner. Vegetarian it was.

I made cucumber-and-tomato salads. I made just-cucumber salads, and just-tomato salads. I made ratatouille. Livia made this great eggplant with tomato sauce and hard-boiled egg.

The things that really kicked us out of the familiar produce rut, though, all came from the Moosewood people. Quick-pickled green beans with dill. A great dish of bulgur, dried apricots and dill, with wedges of feta cheese and tomato on the side. Beautiful-looking and nourishing–even if the “feta” was this strangely creamy Parmalat-box stuff made from water buffalo milk.

Another pilaf recipe called for dates and cinnamon and almonds. It was meant for rice, but since I had lots of bulgur left over from the other thing, it seemed only logical to use that instead. That year, I got very good at dissecting recipes–cutting out the flavors I wanted and attaching them to some other ingredient I wanted, for a sort of Frankenstein dinner.

And it was that year that I first realized how limitations are the best drive toward creativity–imagine The Five Obstructions, but with food. More like The Five Ingredients.

I was also horrifically depressed that year–not just violently ill, but freaking out about how I’d left my boyfriend back in the States, and how I really, really hated studying Arabic, and that it was definitely the end of the line for grad school…but then what? In times of extreme crisis, I pulled myself off my tear-sodden pillow and consulted the dessert section of Moosewood at Home.

Thank Jesus and Muhammad both for Moosewood Fudge Brownies and Six-Minute Chocolate Cake. The first required a single pan to turn out gooey, super-rich chocolate squares; the second was a miracle–a truly tasty cake made only with dry ingredients and a little bit of vinegar. You could even feed it to a vegan, if you needed to.

And I think it was a Moosewood recipe–the really basic Pasta Fresca–that made me go looking for basil. In Egypt, basil is not a food–it’s a plant you grow on your balcony to keep the mosquitoes away. We had one of our own for a little while, but it quickly withered and died. A little while after that, I happened to notice a big bush of it growing in a parking lot on my way to school. It was a little dusty, but it was definitely basil. All through the next seven hours of Arabic classes, I was thinking about basil–a sixth ingredient!

On my walk home, I stopped and snapped off a bunch of it. If I hadn’t already been the crazy khawagaya (Egyptian for gringa) already, that sealed the deal. The parking-lot attendants, with their droopy uniforms and empty machine guns, laughed and laughed–probably because they’d been taking a piss on that bush just a few hours earlier.

But whatever–that’s what mild bleach solution is for. After that, I paused every few days to pick basil, and it added a little extra interest to the cucumber-and-tomato salads, to the various eggplant things, and to a pasta dish I began to eat a few times a week: I made a basic tomato sauce, with lots of garlic, then stirred in a bit of that buffalo-milk feta, and all the chopped-up basil. Toss and serve.

What a luxury now, when I think back–to always have good-quality fresh tomatoes at your fingertips. It makes me wonder why I went to such lengths to get any other ingredients. In one of my last Arabic classes, our teacher asked us all to give a short presentation on what we’d miss most about Cairo. I talked about the produce.

About nine months into the year, my stomach was fairly stable–and I honestly think my regained health was due to the fact that I began drinking heavily and frequently. Whether it killed the bugs in my gut, or I was just less of a stress case, I don’t know, and I don’t really care. Never mind that cooking was an exciting process that drove me into exciting foraging situations and small triumphs nightly… It was also a way to save money–money that I could spend on booze.

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