Thursday, September 27, 2007

What Will I do with all that beer?


Meeting up with Emily was yet another reunion with someone that had visited me in Egypt. Unlike Jenny, however, Emily and I have known each other since 2nd year residence at university (5 years or so).

Not many people would rush to the airport at 6am on a coldy and rainy Thursday morning. I'm glad Emily is one of those people. It's nice to see a familiar face in an unfamiliar country so early in the morning.

She whisked me away to downtown Prague via the bus, metro, and tram. A few hours later we were off to the middle of nowhere on the train.

I'm pretty sure Emily has mastered the Czech Republic. She speaks like a native, navigates the country like a local, and even enjoys a pivo or two.

Thanks for the gracious hospitality, Emily. I think I'll be seeing you in Azerbaijan as well.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Jenny in Praha




It was quite the reunion with Jenny. Not 6 months earlier, I was on my way to the airport in the middle of a foggy night in Cairo to meet her and her friend Claire. The two girls showed us a thing or two about drinking throughout their vacation, while I showed them as much of Egyptian life as I could.

In Prague, the favour was returned. Jenny was so gracious as to lend me her apartment while she worked in Belgium. Before and after she went away, though, we got plenty of shisha smoking and beer drinking in. She even made it clear to me that my flight was not in fact on Saturday night, but on Sunday night.

On our last night, we feasted on pork and other delights in this dungeon outfitted with armor. Then she took me on a night walk through old town square to take some pics (top one is from there).

Thanks for everything, Jenny. A meeting in Azerbaijan awaits.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Paddleboatin' on the Vltava

The building that looks like a man and a woman dancing.


Old Town Prague

Charles Bridge


Paddleboatin'

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Adventures in Czech and Poland

On the way to Cesky Tesin


A Glimpse at Polish Road Signs


Town Square in Cesyn, Poland

Border Crossing that Got Me 4 Stamps in 16 Hours


Navigation is Easy in Cesyn

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Egyptian Engagement Party

The Bride and Groom


An Egyptian Dance Party

More of the Bride and Groom

The SilverKey Crew

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Mohammed Ahmed

Never has a restaurant been as hyped as Mohammed Ahmed in Alexandria. I probably heard about it on my first night in Cairo and didn't stop hearing about it until the day I left. Every time I sat down to enjoy a fuul sandwich or bowl of fuul, someone would chime in and say, "You should try Mohammed Ahmed's fuul in Alex." I made sure to thank the person each and every time such words were uttered.

Despite the hoopla, it was still my attention to sample the famed fuul. I just needed to get to Alex; something that turned out to be a lot easier said than done. After months upon months of excuses, I finally made it up to Egypt's second city. My host: Luli. Along for the ride was Luke and Annika. It was time to feast magnificently.

Rumour has it that the recipe for Mohammed Ahmed's fuul was actually created by a Jew. At that time (a hundred-plus years ago), what is now Mohammed Ahmed was run by the same Jewish man. Eventually the guy was forced to leave town. The recipe then found its way to Mohammed Ahmed, who changed the name of the cafe to that of his name. Please correct me if I'm wrong, Luli.

I had no idea what to expect. Would the place be a fuul stand, a cart, a cafe? Would it just have fuul or would it boast a complete menu? Luli navigated us through the unintelligible Alexandrian streets until we reached the venue. I soon learned that we would be eating in what looked like a rather commercialized establishment. I'll admit to being a tad disappointed that we wouldn't be eating on the street, but I was not here to judge the environment, only the fuul.

We sat down and let Luli get to work on ordering everything on the menu. And I mean everything. I think we got at least one of each thing. Fried cheese, shakshuka (fried eggs and tomatoes), ta'amiya (falafel), tahina, baba ganouq (eggplant spread), among other things. For the main event, I ordered fuul eskandroni accompanied by an omelette.

What came was much different than I had anticipated. The fuul beans were arrayed on a flat dish and left completely whole (no mashing). Creamy tahina was drizzled over the dish along with chopped tomatoes. I couldn't wait to dig in, so I put my omelette on top and mashed the mixture. My utensil this time was shami (Levantine) bread, as opposed to the usual baladi bread found in Cairo.

The first bite was one of surprise and bewilderment. There was nothing powerfully flavoured about the fuul, nor did it live up to the hype. The tahina, mind you, was revolutionary in a way that the Egyptian street food scene has never witnessed. It gave the fuul an extremely light flavour.

I walked out of the restaurant full beyond belief. It was indeed a good day.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Mahrous

If you're one of those people that despises the commercialization of the fuul industry, Mahrous may be the place for you. Tucked away in the innards of Garden City, a short jaunt from the Canadian embassy, and somewhere in between the Muslim Council and the Four Seasons lies this unassuming full stand. Its worldly possessions are but a cart, some pots and pans, an edra, a stove, and whatever foodstuffs are needed for the evening. Just don't let that fool you, because out of the edra comes one of the finest fuuls in all of Cairo.

My first experience with the place came after an unsuccessful hunt for an ahwa (cafe) showing the Cricket World Cup. Simon had graced Mahrous' street tables on previous occasions, so it was suggested that we head there to take care of some post-party munchies (we had left the party in search of cricket). As great of an idea as it was, neither of us were entirely sure how to navigate Garden City's seemingly impenetrable maze of rounded streets and spooky buildings. Luckily Mahrous is somewhat of a famed institution in those parts, so a couple of street sweepers were quickly able to point out where we needed to go.

I remember seeing lights. Lots of lights. There was a parking garage across the street and an apartment block to the left. It looked like the fuul stand had been given a tiny triangle of building to work with. Not to worry, as the place was hopping at three o'clock in the AM. We were greeted and seated by a friendly basha, who didn't seem fazed by the presence of two foreigners. Simon did the ordering as I had yet to become a fuul connoisseur.

Shortly thereafter, starters began arriving at our table: chips, gibna (cheese), onions, tahina, pickles, and bread. And then the main event. Two piping hot bowls of fuul eskandroni topped with omelettes were set down in front of us. After the customary bean mashing, I tore off a piece of bread and prepared myself for what was likely to be a fuul revolution. I was not disappointed. The first bite was incredible. It was like no other fuul I had ever had the honour of tasting. Whatever the proprietors were doing, they were doing it right.

I returned to Mahrous a number of times; whenever I needed a reminder of how delectable fuul could be or needed to break the monotony of the day-to-day fuul. Everyone I met that had any sort of interest in fuul was escorted there and encouraged to try what came to be known as "Glorious Fuul." But it wasn't just the fuul that kept bringing me back. There was something about the atmosphere. The street tables. The rich sitting next to the poor all enjoying Egypt's staple dish. The friendly service. You couldn't ask for a better place to eat fuul.

Monday, September 10, 2007

A History of Fuul

I don't profess to know much about fuul. My experience with the Middle Eastern version of the cooked and mashed fava bean has been only in Egypt. I have not had the pleasure of sampling the Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqi, Jordanian, or Saudi Arabian versions, so the review to come should only apply to the land of the Pyramids.

Fuul is often looked at as a mundane concoction that simply cannot be good, no matter what is done to it. For something so "not good," fuul has developed quite a reputation as the staple food of Egypt and favourite of most foreign males that grace the country's streets. You won't go far without seeing either a fuul cart, a fuul cafe, or someone carrying a bag of fuul. It's that pervasive and that popular.

Fuul is cooked in an edra, a giant, lightbulb-shaped metal pot. A good batch of fuul usually must cook on low heat overnight until the beans are soft and tender, perfect for mashing. Perhaps the greatest skill of the fuul master is getting the fuul out of the edra with minimum spillage. It's a tough motion to explain literally, so I'll say that it'll likely lead to a strong right arm. You'll just have to see it to believe it.

Once the fuul is out of the edra, it is put into either a bag, a bowl, or a sandwich. Then a variety of sauces, spices, and oils are added; tahina, olive oil, corn oil, cumin, red chilli powder, coriander, salt, and pepper to name a few. This is where the magic happens. The proper combination of these things can make or break the fuul. And, I believe, the right combination is the ultimate prize for any fuul enthusiast.

The most well-known varieties of fuul are as follows:

Fuul Eskandroni - Literally, Alexandrian fuul. It contains tahina, tomatoes, onions, and other spices.

Fuul Zebda - Fuul with butter. Browned melted butter poured over the beans.

Fuul Zeid Zeitoun - Fuul with Olive Oil.

Fuul Seda - Straight fuul.

There are a few others, but these are the ones worth mentioning. If you find yourself in a Middle Eastern roadside stand and don't know what to eat, use the above as a pretty good guide.

Alright, so now you have a little reference for the definitive review of the most glorious fuuls in Egypt.

The Contestants

Bow down to the most glorious fuul in Egypt. I will be providing a definitive review of the two contestants in the next post. Without further adieu, here they are:


Fuul from Mohammed Ahmed in Alexandria




Fuul from Mahrous in Cairo

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Blanka and Alex


It was quite the Calgary reunion in Prague. Here I am with Blanka and Alex. It was great to see them after almost a year.

They seem to be doing a pretty good job of dominating Prague. We hung out at their sweet place, went for some pretty spicy Indian food, and watched them own me at beer drinking. Who knew 10 months in Egypt would make me so averse to beer at every meal.

Thanks for the hospitality, guys! See you somewhere soon, I'm sure.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Re-creating the Prague Spring

"This document gives the Soviets full control over Czechoslovakia."


"To the north. Look everybody!"

The iron-fisted ruler of Soviet Russia

Why aren't people interested in what I'm doing?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Nothing Short of Excitement in Lhasa

"With my typical great timing, we arrived the same night someone else decided to have a big blow up and shot up the dining room. Midway through dessert we heard shots being fired and glass shattering - someone was firing in through the window. I have no idea who, or why. The chef came out of the kitchen and started throwing cleavers back out the window. Diners started scattering, a group of Japanese tourists hid under a table and we threw money on our table and left to the sound of bullets, breaking glass and one very angry chef. Last supper indeed!"

-Meryl in Lhasa

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Congratulations

Congrats to Nick and Keri, who are now officially married.