Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Smoky Noodle Soup

In Edinburgh, the Spring/Summer weather has not really settled in yet. This soup was a perfect warmer quickly made on return from the library. At the last minute, the only fish we could buy was raw smoked salmon, which was less overpowering than I'd thought it would be, and worked well with fennel.

Recipe (serves 4)

4 Spring onions
1 or 2 leeks
2 Fennel bulbs
Vegetable stock
large handful of Spring greens
100g noodles (I used Clearspring's Ramen)
2 smoked salmon fillets, cut in half
1 lemon

Sautee the spring onions and leeks in oil until slightly softened, then add the fennel and cook on a low heat for about 10 minutes. Season to taste, and pour over enough stock to cover (depending on how much broth you'd like). Let this simmer for a while until the vegetables are soft and the broth is flavoursome. Throw in the spring greens. Cook the noodles in the soup until they are ready (normally about 10 minutes) and at the last minute rest the salmon fillets on the surface of the broth so they are lightly steamed. If your fish is fresh, let it cook just until it is warmed through and slightly flaking on the outside, so it is still soft and pink within.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Easter Egg Cookies

After hosting such an Easter Sunday lunch, we were left with too much chocolate to snack on without feeling sick most of the time. In order to diminish the huge pile, we broke it all up into pieces and put it into cookie dough. The result was a tin full of crispy biscuits not to be gorged on but dipped into mugs of tea gracefully.


110g softened unsalted butter
50g caster sugar
55 light muscovado sugar
1 egg
1/2 a pod's worth of vanilla seeds, or a dash of vanilla extract
110g plain flour
1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
150-200g broken up Easter egg chocolate

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees, and grease a few baking sheets. Mix butter and both sugars together until pale and fluffy, then beat in the egg. Add the vanilla before sifting the flour and bicarbonate of soda, and finally incorporate the chunks of chocolate. Spoon the dough out onto baking trays into dollops about 5cm apart, and bake for roughly 10 minutes. The cookies seem far too soft when straight out of the oven, but they will harden soon enough.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Part Five: Fresh Orange

On the last day of our trip, we were once more pounding the streets right up until dusk. Pausing for a rest, we stepped inside an old juice bar for a burst of fresh vitamin C. All over Cairo, these are almost holes in the wall with one man ready to squeeze seasonal fruit usually using an old-fashioned brass press.

In January, oranges were at their best, proudly hanging in clumps from the ceiling. Of course we had to remember to ask for no sugar to be added, or we wouldn't have tasted the juice at all. We stood at the bar until our glasses were empty (no take-away cups to be seen) then continued on our walk.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Part Four: Karkade

Not drinking a great deal of alcohol, and also avoiding the thick, sickly sweet liquor that passed for coffee, we had become accustomed to confidently requesting 'karkade' as our drink of choice. The tea made from an infusion of petals from the hibiscus flower is deep pink, and has a sour flavour similar to cranberry. It is normally (as with most drinks in Egypt) sweetened with lots of sugar, but I preferred it without. You can almost taste the vitamin C in its tartness.

Memorable occasions of drinking it include our night spent in the middle of the Western desert near the border of Libya, where it was brewed in a kettle nestled amongst burning logs. We also sipped from mugs of it overlooking the Mediterranean in a cafe opposite the great library in Alexandria. It seemed to have become such a part of our trip that when we found this spice shop on our route to the train station in Luxor, we couldn't help buying some to take home. The dark petals were strewn at the back of the shop, and scooped up in to plastic bags for us. Incidentally, we also bought some peanuts from the same shop to snack on which were the best peanuts I have ever had. Now back at home, after a long dinner, it makes for a satisfying ritual to soak and boil the petals and decant the viscous liquid into cups to fuel the rest of the evening.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Part Three: Koshari

The first time we ate Koshari was in one of the more fancy dining establishments on Cairo's Zamalek island, a green safe haven between the banks of the Nile, for wealthy ex-pats or ambassadors. There, at Abou-el-Sid restaurant, it was delicious, but from hereafter, we were to find the true experience of it, which I think has a lot to do with the informal, canteen style set up of a classic Koshari house.

With some time to kill before boarding our train from Luxor to Aswan, we found a 'KOSHARI' sign in amongst the string of ahwas, spice shops and (weirdly) lots and lots of chemists on the main drag towards the station. We were greeted with quite a few odd looks, and were apparently very unwelcome sitting in the dark room downstairs so we lugged our big backpacks up to the first floor and took a seat. A waiter soon came to take our order - other than koshari we ordered some lamb shawerma with flatbread. This was good, very juicy and flavoursome however the metal bowl full of carby grains was the highlight. The mixture consists of rice, brown lentils, macaroni and sometimes chickpeas. This is served with a tomato sauce which is to be poured over, and bottles of lemon vinegar and spicier chilli sauce usually adorn tables to add as you like.

On our final day in Egypt, back in Cairo after a week of travelling around the country, we made a koshari pilgrimage to Abou Tarek, one of the most favoured places in the city. At over four storeys high, it seemed that rather than open at multiple locations in the city the building had just grown to accomodate their popularity. The face of Mr. Tarek himself was emblazoned on the sides of the building with a welcoming smile. Even before we entered, we could see the dish being prepared in all its different constituents, having to move out of the way for men carrying huge vats of wobbling pasta from across the street, with piles of pre-crisped onions awaiting being scattered on top.

Each establishment will have its slight variation - here, longer pieces of spaghetti were included making it seem more like a pasta dish than a warm grainy salad. The main dish is usually served in these metal bowls - I liked the flashes of blue on the accompanying crockery. Certainly many Egyptians would call it a national dish, despite its bizarre mixture of elements that make it strikingly multicultural. It is interesting to imagine how the dish came about, other than as the perfect amalgamation of leftovers. The name though relates to the Indian and Pakistani dish Khichri (which gave us our kedgeree), that dates back to the 15th century. Scooping up mouthfuls of it, you can see why the simple combination of seasoned pulses and a variety of bright or spicy additions has crossed continents and stayed popular for so long. Similarly, it is refreshing noticing that despite how cheap it is, the diner-like metal tables of places like Abou Tarek and our Luxor koshari house see a range of customers - families, old men, groups of girls, even well-dressed couples on romantic lunchtime dates. And as we found with our original experience of it, it has even worked its way onto the menus of more up-market locations, perhaps with the same thinking that has brought pork belly, offal and other cheap cuts of meat to the fanciest of London restaurants. Who knows, maybe someone will even open a koshari house there.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Part Two: Sahlab

As dusk approached on our first day in Cairo, we had been pounding the streets, making our way to Khan El-Kalili market. We'd had to ditch the map as the streets we needed were too small to be marked, and therefore got lost in crowds of locals trying to do their weekly shopping. By the time we arrived at El-Fishawi - one of the reasons we were visiting the market - S had been groped by a young boy, we had spent twenty minutes in a traffic jam overlooking the streets, and were very tired. The 'ahwa' was the best place to recover. All over the city, these are simply coffee houses - usually tiny - where tables, chairs, and shisha smoke spill out on to the pavement.

El-Fishawi is perhaps not representative of the typical ahwa, as it is certainly on the tourist trail, but with most streetside examples not welcoming women, we were happy to settle here and ignore market sellers hovering over us with miniature camel toys. We found a couple of free seats, and in our best phrase-book Arabic ordered some mint tea and some 'Sahlab', which we were keen to try as it is a popular drink for winter months. And we soon found out why - it it arrived in a mug, steaming and gloopy. Classically, the drink is made by mixing a flour of ground orchid tuber with sweetened hot milk, often flavoured with orange or rose water. Ours was mixed with dessicated coconut, and had been topped with raisins and peanuts. More of a pudding than a drink, it was incredibly warming and soon became a favourite of mine.

Although sweet, softened by the milk it was one of the few drinks that was not normally rendered ridiculously sugary. The famous 'Egyptian coffee', delivered in small long-handled pots, is concentrated and sweetened so highly that it is hard to think of it as coffee at all. All teas are also customarily sweetened, which was often disappointing if we failed to remember to specify - mint and 'karkade' hibiscus tea are so refreshing without anything added. It seems to be that, contrary to what would probably be the case here, men almost show off with the amount of sugar they add, spooning in heaps one by one as observe the limit of their sweet tooth.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Egypt Highlights - Part One: Pigeon soup?

Before Egypt was thrown into revolution, S and I were there making our way around as much of the country as we could in just under two weeks. Our first morning in Cairo was spent slowly wandering round the Egyptian Museum at the edge of Tahrir Square - now virtually unrecognizable underneath the throng of protesters who have made it home for the last couple of weeks. Staring at mummies and walking from one of Tutankhamun's treasures to the next was hungry work, and after leaving we quickly made our way to Emara Hati al-Geish, a kebab shop that has been open since the 1920s. Back then it was apparently called Hati al-Malek (the King's kebab restaurant) but after the 1052 revolution the name changed to 'the Army's...'

We had some excellent grilled lamb chops, and a plate of stuffed vine leaves, but the most unusual element was the complimentary pigeon soup we received as a starter. We had noticed this as the absolutely cheapest thing on the menu when deciding what to order, and wondered what it would be like. We couldn't imagine wild pigeon being used, and couldn't get the idea of street birds out of our minds especially when considering we had not yet got used to constantly breathing in the black smog of Egypt's capital. The soup was essentially a very lemony stock, a nice appetizer to a meaty meal. It reminded me of the Greek 'avgolemono' which is made with chicken. After forgetting the idea of any old dirty pigeon being chucked into a pan, we found pigeon featured on many menus - especially stuffed with rice and herbs - and in fact saw them being sold in markets. It was interesting to see how the bird which to us in England is often found at high-end restaurants as a result of traditional shooting practices at particular times of year, is here practically a staple.