Travel – Egypt – Part One – the Souk

Posted by | April 26, 2019 | Dining, Travel | No Comments

I have often said if I won the lottery, I’d sell the house and travel and you’d probably never see me again. If money were no object, John and I would travel ALL of the time. In fact, I’d travel just to see new places and try new experiences and of course, EAT. ALL. THE. THINGS.

Do As the Locals Do

As I write, I am sitting on the sun deck of the Uniworld River Tosca on the Nile in Aswan (yes, tomorrow I am seeing the dam). Up until last night the cruise has been wonderfully packed with gorgeous history, monuments, ancient temples. Our Egyptologist, Ayman has been extraordinary in THE very sense of the word (more on that in separate blogs). But when I travel what I really crave is a “do as the locals do” experience as we had on our first Uniworld cruise, checking out the local markets and such. Because we are “repeat offenders”, and I have kept in touch with Chef Daniel from our first cruise, he suggested I chat with Sameh (the Hotel Manager) and share my desire with him, and lo and behold, last night we had the BEST night of the cruise so far. We had a private guided walking tour through the local souk and I ate all the street food Sameh and Chef Hamdy recommended.

What the Fuck was She Thinking?

Now there are some of you out there thinking, “What the fuck was she thinking?!” or “She ate stuff off street carts and didn’t freak about about getting sick?” or “Wasn’t she worried about food poisoning?” I am here to tell you this: if you are going to eat like you are at home, travel may not be for you. Stay the fuck home and watch a documentary! I am also here to tell you that none of the places I ate from would have passed “code” in the US and frankly I don’t care. If it was good enough for Anthony Bourdain (RIP) it is certainly good enough for me. Most, if not all, of the passengers on this cruise would NOT participate in this type of event and it is not offered as a scheduled excursion for that very reason. For me it was perfect! And what made it even more perfect is that there wasn’t a crowd of other people there from the ship. I had a one-on-one experience with just John and I. No question I asked was too stupid, all answers were given frankly and openly, and many great moments were shared. If this had been a scheduled tour, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much. It was just me and 3 guys, walking around eating snacks, smelling the smells, and taking in all of it. Every lush moment.

Shopping Where the Locals Shop

When you walk into the souk, the first thing to hit you are all of the aromas. The smell is literally intoxicating, heady, and energizing all at once. Spices. Meat cooking. Bread baking. Fresh produce and herbs. The second thing to hit you is all of the action. Throngs of people of all ages, shopping, eating, and visiting LATE into the night. Egypt is full of night owls and shit doesn’t really start to go down until after the sun does. Up until now, all we had seen shopping-wise had been touristy knick knacks and cheap souvenirs, but this was different. I was shopping where the locals shop, so there was no haranguing, bartering, or hassling. In fact, the vendors didn’t even speak to me unless I stopped to look at their displays and ask what something was. Truth be told, I am not sure if this was because I was obviously with Egyptians (Sameh and Hamdy), or if it was because that’s how it just IS, but all the same, I was in hog heaven (though obviously there was no pork to be had).

Pita Being Freshly Made

First off, I want to mention the bread. ALL of the bread here had been out of this world and I was enthralled seeing all of the pita being freshly made. They come off the hot oven tiles puffed up like a football and deflate as they cool. Last night we had ones so hot we had to toss them back and forth in our hands because they were simply too hot to hold on to for very long!

Pita puffs up to football size and deflates while cooling.
Sameh holding the fresh from the oven pita

Let’s Talk About Food Baby

So let’s talk about the food. I told Sameh that I eat everything except pineapple (allergic), and he questioned me TWICE to make sure I was game for anything. First up was the sautéed beef liver sandWISH*. A skinny, airy French baguette filled with thinly sliced sautéed beef liver seasoned only with salt. Superb! Then on to a spleen – yes, you read the correctly, SPLEEN – sandWISH done the same way. Would I have tried it in the US? Would I have tried it if I knew what it was? Maybe, maybe not, but I’ll tell you this – I am glad that I did! In very much the same way that beef heart makes a tartare that is beefier than regular tartare, this was like liver that was both beefier and liver-ier than liver alone…if that makes any sense at all.

Spleen tastes like beefier and liver-ier beef but it is a different texture than both.
Sameh and I eating spleen sandWISHes

We made our way through the souk and Sameh and Hamdy wanted me to try several things so they talked amongst themselves and settled on shawarma with a garlicky aioli, falafel in pita (not as good as Hamdy’s and he gave me the recipe), crunchy salt brined pickled carrots that had very little vinegar to them, and this crazy salted fish called fesikh (pronounced fee-SIKH – the KH in the final syllable like the CH in Challah bread – in your throat). The shawarma is served like a “wrap” in a flatbread similar to lavash instead of pita, and much lighter. The meat shaved off a revolving spit like gyro meat by a wild knife wielding vendor.

I am not sure that fesikh would meet "code" in the US, but the umami packed flavor punch was worth it!
Picnic in the park – L-R – Sameh (the Hotel Manager), Chef Hamdy, and me eating the Fesikh.

Travel Makes You Try New Things

While the spleen was totally off my normal grid, let’s get to the fesikh. This is the most authentic, and off the wall, totally off my radar and special thing I have eaten in ages. In fact, I would say it was the single most interesting thing I have eaten in a decade. Not for the faint of heart to be sure, this is an umami punch in the face. Not a flavor bomb…an umami punch in the face. I ate it drenched in olive oil and wrapped in a pita, but it is also served pureed with tahini into a dip or served wrapped in a pita with veg like you would enjoy on a gyro. It is a celebratory staple for Ramadan. So…they take a mullet fish, gut it, and ferment it in salt. It’s not hard salt cured fish like bacalao, it’s soft, like an anchovy, with ten times the umami kick. As I ate it I could imagine all kinds of applications for it in place of anchovies. HAmdy said it was like being electrified, and he wasn’t that wrong. The Egyptians on staff were flabbergasted that I ate it and that I liked it. Apparently most westerners are too afraid to try it. I am not the usual westerner to travel here.

Fesikh is salted fermented mullet
Fesikh in part of the freshly baked pita
Fesikh on display in the Aswan souk.
Salt fermented fesikh in a display case. And yes…it is vertical!

While I have enjoyed nearly every moment of this trip so far (despite irritating fellow passengers) and the historic sites and sight seeing have all been amazing, for me this trip is now complete. I want to see, do, and eat like a local. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just authentic. And now back to our regularly scheduled programming…Stay tuned for more on this cruise coming up soon.

Notes:

  • I have, for years, typed sandWISH instead of the regular spelling
  • I know the header is fucked up, I’m still working on it.
0 comments