I apologize in advance to the readers… actually, it was only one reader who commented passively over last week’s article over my Facebook page; one of those who think that writing about memories and social conditions lived by a certain writer is an escape from discussing the issues and problems burdening the society.
And so, I ask your permission to go on serving you another meal of the summer light meals… as we still remember watermelon, cheese, hard bread, and watercress which constituted the components of that light meal that used to fill our stomachs and not exhaust our livers or gall bladders.
The appetizer for our meal this time will be about that the majority of Egyptians used to have meals of the light kind most of the year… for if we considered that having animal protein like meat of lambs, goats, cows, buffalos, camels; poultry of rabbits, ducks, geese, pigeons, chicken; and fish is a criterion to turn the meal from light to heavy – as stewed vegetables or legumes and rice or meat porridge with butter and its products were served aside – then meat, poultry, and fish were not served in most of the families I used to know and which I belonged to one of them except in the times of seasonal occasions… these seasonal occasions were Greater and Small Bairams, Prophet Muhammed Mawled, ar-Raffrafa which is the Islamic New Year, the 27th of Rajab – meaning Isra’a, Mid Sha’ban, and frequent times in Ramadan, then Ashura or the tenth of Muharram.
For that reason, people in the countryside and in some cities come up with occasions to serve meat, poultry, and fish… and so, some families hold what is called “the Night”… they say X has a night; meaning he made a vow to hold a night if something – that no one knows about but him – happened… also, when they celebrate the birth of newly-born male or his circumcision… or hold it as a charity for the sake of God in general.
That “Night” used to start by arranging the place specially if a Sufi whirling was to be held… they also used to hire a Quran reciter and a supplications’ singer… then, they lay down the carpets, Tabali – those wooden circular low-height tables, or even rented wooden tables which they used to sit next to one another with the eyes set on the one carrying the big plate holding the meat chunks or chicken above.
In most times of the year we used to eat light meals – I do swear to this – as those meals were about stewed vegetables or legumes without meat or poultry – except for the smell of the sheep-tail fat kept to fry garlic and onions… which means that most of our food was almost vegetarian like “Molokhiya”, “Khobbieza”, “Regla”, Okra, Squash, or eggplant… we used to eat them during the summer time as they used to grow on the edge of fields; Molokhiya, Khobbieza, and Regla used to sprout naturally… the best of these leafy vegetables were the ones taken from Sharaki land – Sharaki is the Arabic word meaning not irrigated for a long time and that has slits due to parching – I am not sure about it but it looks like the plant sap was very concentrated in the leaves and stalk because it was not irrigated for a long time, which made the plants pudding in such kind of land tastier when cooked.
Appetizers served with these “de-meat” meals used to differ depending on the skillfulness of the house lady, as some of them used to serve some rice with Khobbieza or Regal, or serve some salty eggplants after frying them in oil and stuffing them with garlic and red chili… they were also keen to serve soft bread along so that one can turn the bread piece into a “cat’s ear” or a cone shape in order to carry more stewed vegetables, specially of the viscous Molokhiya that slips over the bread if it is not held in a “cat’s ear-shaped” piece of bread.
Before moving to the point of our article today, and on the occasion of food and its traditions, I have to tell you about this incident when Mr. Mohammed Hassanien Heikal invited us; Mr. Mohammed Salmawi, Parliamentarian Kamal Ahmed, and me, in the summer of 1976 to have lunch with him in his apartment in Stanley neighborhood in Alexandria… it was in a side street next to the Corniche and “Cote d’Azure” restaurant; that restaurant whose remains are still there until now.
We were supposed to be there at three PM, but due to traffic jam, we made it on four… Mr. Haikal was terribly angry because of this uncivilized behavior… he accepted our apology and ordered the table to be set… we sat to the table and A’m Abdo the butler, the relatively fat and also relatively short, started to lay plates down and take the ones we ate in… at a certain dish, Mr. butler was ladling out into our plates when I asked him: “what is this?”… the man’s hand froze with the ladle and looked silently to the man of the house Mr. Heikal who immediately said to me: “what, X?... why don’t you eat silently?... if you want to know what this is, then taste it and you will know”… then he laughed… indeed I stretched my hand with the fork to the first piece of the several ones mixed in a sauce I do not know and started to chew it slowly while Mr. Heikal and of course the rest of the guests were looking at that ignorant asker who knows nothing about table manners of elite people and who does not know how to address Mr. butler.
With his abundant and inherent sense of humor, Mr. Heikal asked me once again: “ha?... what did you find, Ahmed?”… I immediately said: “it’s very delicious… these are very well cooked chicken livers and gizzards”… then Mr. Heikal took off the napkin, put his cutlery down, and burst into laughter… he asked me: “why chicken livers and gizzards in particular?”… I answered: “because I always liked them and almost was deprived of eating them… as there were only one liver and one gizzard for the one chicken distributed among us… and so, every one of us used to take a nibble or almost nothing in order for someone in specific – whom I will not tell about his name – to take the whole piece for himself.
Mr. Heikal replied immediately to save me from the situation lest I turn into attacking anyone that may think of mocking me. He said “no… this is called mushroom… it contains protein just like chicken livers and gizzards”.
After lunch, he continued talking about planting mushrooms when another funny story took place… that was when A’m Abdo the butler put a crystal bowl containing fruits; figs, pears, grapes, and plums… then he started to put down in front of us small dishes carried by his aide on a tray… the dish was more like a small bowl with a soup in it… in the beginning, I was confused and kept looking for a spoon other than the one the butler took, but found nothing… it looked like Mr. Heikal liked this game… and so he asked me before touching this bowl: “why don’t you eat?”… I asked: “where is the spoon?”… again, he shrieked with laughter… then he took a plum and ate it… afterwards, he stretched his fingers into the bowl that turned out to be the container of the water used to wash the fingertips after eating fruits.
I apologize… I missed talking about our point today… we shall postpone it to the next week.
Translated into English by: Dalia Elnaggar
This article was published in Almasry alyoum newspaper on August 16, 2017.
To see the original article, go to:
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