What Mrs Ehlwe cooked February 18, 2007Posted by C Y Gopinath in Food.
The best little meal in Cairo may be had in the shadow of the Sphinx, where lives a taxi-driver’s wife who knows just how to treat chicken
WITHIN TWO HOURS OF REACHING CAIRO, I was tucking into a hearty Messianic breakfast with a faintly self-congratulatory smile on my face. CYG, I said to myself, you old goat if only your friends could see you now. Eating feta cheese with olives. And Ramses knows what else. Having a regular international experience, you are.
The fare consisted of items that you yourself will possibly have encountered in the Bible and Lawrence Durrell. Yoghurt with honey. Goat’s milk cheese with black olives. The flat, round unleavened bread called pita. Fried egg with some thin slices of Egyptian bastirma, their version of pastrami. Turkish coffee in those cute, fist-sized demi-tasses — exotic but, by Osiris, wait till you get to the grinds at the bottom of the cup. What a choke.
I mention all this so that you may know what is not the real thing. This is merely a 5 star caricature of Egyptian food. And it costs a Pharaoh’s ransom — 16 Egyptian pounds (about Rs.106).
My search continued, now on the streets of Cairo, downtown Cairo, where life is a good deal more uncertain, and the flavours and aromas in the air far less familiar or identifiable. I found myself a room in an old, but spick and characterful hotel called Windsor, which grew in a bylane not far from Tahrir Square, the heart of town. In the small teahouse across the lane, as evening dawns smoky and warm, Egyptians men convene on chairs outside, and play rounds of the dice game called tawala, punctuated by many many cups of dark kahwa (coffee) and puffs at hookahs.
Well, this felt like more like North Africa, all right. But where was the food?
The food, it turned out, was in the humble home of one Omar Ehlwe, who mainly drives a taxi around Cairo. As far as I am concerned, his pretty wife, Mrs. Ehlwe, knows exactly how to treat a chicken.
Omar, 25, comes from a reasonably well-off Cairo family. I stumbled into him at his little bookshop on the promenade along the Nile River, and after that, we were inseparable. We went all over the city in his beat up old Toyota taxi, listening to his beat-up Egyptian pop music cassettes. Omar symbolises the best of his country’s hospitality, the non-touristy, non-huckstering kind. So it was without any misapprehension that I made bold to invite myself over to his house for a meal.
“Are you married?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said.
He laughed. “Only one. I am not a greedy man.”
“Is she a good cook?”
He considered. “There is only one way to find out,” he said.
“I accept,” I said graciously.
We drove up to his house, which stands almost in the shadow of the Sphinx and the three great pyramids of Gizeh. His house, gloomy but roomy, contained an extraordinary number of ancient, gorgeous, brocade-covered sofas. Sitting on one of these, I awaited a common but typical Egyptian meal. But what finally reached the table was one of those masterpieces, whose excellence lies in their utter simplicity, style and charisma.
There are three players in the Ehlwe Symphony, and the simplest is a salad assembled from diced tomatoes, cucumber, conchiglione (shell pasta), parsley, with lemon juice and salt. Make this rightaway and tuck it away in your fridge. Meanwhile, rub salt all over the fowl, and leave it to tenderise for about half an hour.
The third instrument in the opus is the small, round and purple aubergine that the Egyptians called betingan. The piece de resistance. . Preparing this is simplicity itself — take about 12 aubergines (to feed about four) and make a single horizontal slit three-quarters of the way along each, so that it appears to have a mouth. Now deep-fry the aubergine in very hot oil till it becomes soft but not pulpy, and turns a golden brown inside the mouth.
Leave them on kitchen towels to drain the oil, and then cool them awhile in the fridge. While this happens, prepare a pureé a equal parts raw garlic, hot green chillies, some salt and some lemon juice. Spoon a bit of this into the ‘mouth’ of each aubergine.
It was from Omar, later, that I received an account of how Mrs. Ehlwe addressed the chicken in her kitchen. She deep-fried the fowl in oil that had been spiced — with cinnamon, cloves, cardamoms, bay leaves, mace, whole black pepper, things like that. By the time the chicken turns golden brown, it has absorbed the subtle fragrances of all those spices. Leave this part for the last, so that the chicken is served hot.
Well, I have put that meal on my tongue, and I can tell you I now know what Messianic really means. When betingan joins that succulent, subtly spiced chicken, an extraordinary duet begins. The aubergine with its spicy filling lands on your tongue like an Ottoman warrior, full of energy, fire and piquancy. The bland chicken suddenly meets its mate, and a remarkable pas de deux is set up, with each dish highlighting the other. Throw in a spoonful of the juicy salad after it, and the aria will be complete.
I left in a respectful silence. At the door, I asked Omar if I could thank his wife. He hesitated, smiled, as though allowing gratitude was somehow at odds with true hospitality. “It is OK,” he said. “She knows you liked it.”
A pause. “Besides, she does not understand English.”