Monthly Archives: January 2012

Kushari, Fool, and Tameya, Oh my!

Yes, I’m back on food again.

Street food to be exact, and when one gets one’s fill of rice noodles in southern China (and trust me that happens pretty quickly) it’s really welcome and revelatory to be inducted into a whole new slew of gritty, tasty (mostly) hand-held snacks.

We grabbed some fool and tameya on our first morning out in Cairo.

Fool’s kind of like a Middle Eastern bean burrito, and tameya is Egypt’s version of falafel made with broad beans instead of chickpeas.  I mentioned the wonder of watching a guy on the street craft the little balls with lightning speed, dipping his fingers into the mint-colored paste (although the color comes from corriander rather than mint) and plopping them into the fryer.

Well that, my friends, is the birth of crispy, fried-to-perfection tameya.

Apparently another favorite here is none other than the pita french fry sandwich.  Sounds ridiculous, but pretty darn good.

And last but not least, we chowed down on heaping bowls of kushari, the lentil-noodle-chick pea-rice mix topped with tomato sauce, fried onions, and lemon garlic sauce.

Again, sounds like an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink disaster, but it’s some of the heartiest, most satisfying, cheap comfort food you’ll find in these parts.

Oh, how I love eating my way through cities…


When life gives you lemons…

We were under a time crunch this weekend, making a quick 24-hour trip to Mt. Sinai, which was sandwiched in between Ben’s church and coaching responsibilities and Emily’s business trip to Buenos Aires.  But even though we made great time out of Cairo and across the Suez, we were stymied just an hour a way from St. Catherine’s Monastery which lies at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

The police shook their heads at us and told us the Bedouin had been shooting at cars, the roads were bad, and we’d have to make a four-hour detour or so to make it to Sinai.  We didn’t have that kind of time, so we sat their at the checkpoint, befriending the army, and doing our very best, but it wasn’t to be.  Alas, we had to turn all the way around and drive the five hours back to Cairo.

We did stop by the Red Sea, and I stuck my toes in.

And then somewhere on the way back, Ben said, “You know, if we’re having to drive all the way back, we better make the best meal of our life to make up for it.”

And so we did.

We stopped at Gourmet Egypt, where Evan and I drooled with delight over the foreign imports, the cuts of meat, and stuck a vanilla bean in our basket.  Emily and I went out for a jog to stretch our legs, the guys lit up cigars on the porch, and we all got to cooking like that’d been the plan all along.

And even though I’d raved about the pork chops, broccoli, mashed potatoes and beet, goat cheese, and arugala salad earlier in the week, this may have just been one of the best meals I’ve ever had.  Part of it had to be the determination of it all, of course.  Determination that we’d make something of a disappointment so that we’d remember the experience not because we hadn’t made it to our destination, but because we’d re-orchestrated the whole evening to our liking.

And oh yeah, we each had a glass of red and white wine, because it just made sense, and because we could.

Take that stupid police at the checkpoint to Mt. Sinai, rowdy Bedouin, whoever you are!

We finished off the meal of filet mignon, chanterelle parmesan risotto, and braised brussels sprouts with my favorite dark chocolate cake.

Decadent, satisfying–we made our own mountain-top experience, and I’m not looking back.


People travel to wonder at the height of the mountains, at the huge waves of the seas, at the long course of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars, and yet they pass by themselves without wondering. –St. Augustine

A little less than a year ago a very chatty, earnest man read this quote as he gave his story of faith to a group of us Christian Chinese and American brothers and sisters gathering in China.  He talked about the contrast between a time in his young life when he’d been ignorant of God’s work, and led a seemingly blissful existence until his first marriage crumbled, and he gradually found that he did not want to go through life unaware of God’s intent to love and care for him.

His experience of loss led to a sort of awakening, a sense in his late fifties that life now was far richer now than it ever was then.  At times I found his exuberance, his verboseness overbearing, incessant, relentless, but I also remember with fondness the speed at which his eyes darted back and forth, paralleled only by the pace at which his mind bounded from one topic to the next.

His curiosity, his quickness to wonder, was quite simply, like that of a child.

As I opened the bulletin to the contemplative service last night at the small church in Egypt, my eyes rested on this same quote from Augustine, the meditative script for the service.  And as the preacher began to talk of the great mentors, the activists for nonviolence, and those who had suffered greatly who so inspired him, or the element of risk-taking that supposedly separates human beings from animals, I myself, could only think of this man.

I began to wonder if all the experiences in the world, without faith like a child, really mattered, and balked at the seat of wisdom being closest to the seat of humility.  It’s a strange game we play in life, attempting to disarm others with our accolades, experiences, and depth, but it seems a far greater thing to simply realize and receive what God holds out to us–our humanity, in all its dimpled plainness, and the grace to revel within it.


Warning: Cheesiness below.

Yep, I’m in that mood–that giddy, grateful mood for being around friends who just get me, get us.

Friendship is sharing happiness (and food) with people who know all the flaws you have and love you anyway.  And friends?  Companions for the journey.

That’s my definition.

What’s yours?

Cairo notes: from the rooftops

I’m reluctant to start posting, given that my husband hasn’t uploaded any of the illustrious photos he’s been snapping at every second.

But I can’t resist.

There’s too much to tell.  From the haunting, piercing call to prayer that rings out through the dusty alleyways, the taxi rides through the crowded streets, the echoes, the shadows, the beauty of the mosques, and all the street food, bloody sides of meet hanging in the shops, pigeons circling, and peddlers rushing through the streets on donkeys that come with that whole crowded city-territory.

Before we touched down, my husband and I mused that Cairo may be the biggest city we’ve ever visited (apart from Shanghai, that is).  With approximately 14.5 million people, Cairo ranks number 15 among the world’s most populated cities, and friends tell me that estimate might be seriously remiss.

From the tops of the minarets in Islamic Cairo the other day, we peeked in upon the way some of those 14.5 million live, raising pigeons on the rooftops, taking advantage of that extra space for social gathering, gathering garbage, or raising one’s goats.

Sampling the tamia and falafal outside the old city gates, we saw a man skillfully cup the mint-colored paste into is hand and plop it into the wok filled with oil.  Within an old mosque and beside a tomb, we heard a caliph sing praises to Allah.  And we sat in a smoky tea house by the road, where robed men watched the crowds rush by, geese clucked and cats meandered, and we took in sweet peach and cantalope-flavoured gulps of shisha.

It’s altogether another world.  

So far we’ve been in the ancient churches in Coptic Cairo, the old mosques in Islamic Cairo, and gathered for steaks and scripture with the expat community here at the local Episcopalian Church.  Later this week we’ll try to make it to our second of the seven wonders of the new world–those iconic pyramids.

But for now I’m enjoying a cup of tea and the view of Cairo’s rooftops from my friends’ apartment on a quiet day on which a sandstorm approaches, as well as the anniversary of their modern day revolution.

We’re in Cairo Everybody

And this is about how it went.

You fly with an eclectic bunch of folks from Hong Kong into Qatar, whisked into a white-washed airport with women and men whose flowing robes cascade across the shiny tiles.  You sit with a huge cup of coffee, calculating that it’s early morning here, late morning in China, and catch a glimpse of the red sun rising over the sandy, dusty desert.

And then it’s onto another airport in Abu Dhabi, where you hear the call to prayer and see women filing into a room adjacent to the bathroom, dipping their heads to colorful carpets in the direction of Mecca.  The airport has an air of tradition coupled with modern opulence, sparkling purple and green tiles lining the vaulted ceiling.

And then you touch down in Cairo, the sprawling city a sea of honking horns, and beige landscape where the apartments blend with the endless stretch of flat land, construction inseparable from desert, dust, dusk.

You crowd into the minuscule elevator which slowly creeks to your friends’ seventh floor apartment, and when you enter your covet everything you see–from the wood carvings, to the coffee, to the wine, the hummus, the olives, the cheese–everything China has been denying you, Cairo seemingly has.

And you pour glasses of wine and dig into a meal in the company of friends you have known for years and have been missing for over half the last one.  You gab about the trips you will take, to see Coptic and Islamic Cairo, into the desert, hiking Mount Sinai, and as you slip into bed that evening, your head hits the pillow hard, and the despite the fact that you know you’re high on the possibilities, the company, and the delirious jetlag, you feel wonderfully, strangely, impossibly home.

Travel Reading List

Maybe there’s no official reading challenge over here, but since we’re headed out to Egypt and Abu Dhabi for a nice long trip, I just went on a little Kindle spending spree with my Amazon Christmas money!

In between playing in the sand dunes, hiking Mt. Sinai, checking out Cairo’s minarets, hanging out on the beaches in Abu Dhabi, and riding camels (maybe?), I’ll be pouring over these…in no particular order.

Let me know if you’ve read any of these, as there’s quite a couple on my list, and I probably won’t get to them all.  I could use some direction!

Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

My friend, Erin, bought me this one when she saw it on my goodreads list.  She said it might make me cry but it’s worth the read, and overlaps with some of my research interests.

Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri

This one’s also been on my list for awhile, a collection of international stories that have gotten rave reviews.  And I loved the movie, The Namesake, so I’m in!

The Social Animal by David Brooks

Been hearing some good things about this one for awhile, and am fascinated by the mind, so here goes!

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

I mentioned before that I enjoy Rubin’s blog, and a friend recently gave the book a good review.  Will let you know how happiness works out!

What are you reading?  And what do you recommend?

Favorite Books 2011

I noticed the other day on goodreads that they’re challenging people to set reading goals.

I’m not going to do that.  My free reading in 2011 was pitiful- I probably read 5 books.

But I’m also not going to let that get me down.  With a new Kindle in hand, I’m able to get access to English books, and I’m re-discovering the whole free reading, devouring a book experience (check out On my Nighstand for what I’m currently reading).

Despite my pitiful total in 2011, several of that slim count were truly excellent. And if you like to read about food, farming, and family, these three are definitely for you!

So here are my recommendations from 2011…what are yours?

The Language of Baklava: A Memoir by Diana Abu-Jaber

  • MY TAKE:  A light, alluring read sprinkled with recipes and family figures who loom larger than life. Abu-Jaber’s complicated relationship with her idiosyncratic father is a captivating and refreshing one, and her reflections on their mutual existential crisis- caught between their Jordanian homeland and their new American life- are powerful and drip with the nostalgia of a fictional, less-complicated time and the promise of an especially complicated, but ever idealized future.

The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball

  • MY TAKE:  It seems all too highly-rated to be true, but Kimball’s prose really is vivid, tantalizing, seductive.  She makes dirt under your nails, the rough life of farming, and her whirlwind romance with her farmer husband romantic, yet real.  It’s a light, quick read, but one you’ll want to return to, and one that will make you think twice about the value of simple farmfresh produce.

This Life is in Your Hands: One Family, Sixty Acres, and a Family Undone by Melissa Coleman

  • MY TAKE:  This is the heavier side to Kimball’s story, and all the more poignant for it.  Hauntingly beautiful depiction of the thrills and costs of farming. You’ll ache for Melissa and her family, yet feel inspired by their passion for this hard life. Part poetry and part prose, Coleman writes with an earnestness that is both heartbreaking and powerful.

This Week in Food

From the majority of my food posts, you’d probably guess my husband is the main chef in our household.

And that guess would be right.

However, there are times when I like to think I can whip up something delicious on my own.  My husband is certainly a much more involved cook–this week he made chili from the ancho chilis my sister sent along from the states for Christmas–while I like to keep it simple.

To me, delicious, yet simple is spinach, stir-fried with a little garlic, onion, mushroom, and soy sauce, it  was the star of several of my meals this past week.  On the side one night I added some rice with a pinch of salt, oil, lime juice, cilantro, chives, and cumin seeds, all thrown in the rice cooker.

The other night I ate my spinach with a side of sesame noodles, the recipe for which I found on The Cutting Edge of Ordinary (and which she attributes to Pioneer Woman).

These were lovely and simple, and extra tasty with spinach on the side.  I added ginger to the sauce, because I love the spice of some fresh ginger thrown into the mix.

The best part about both of these meals is they probably cost me under 50 cents in China.  

On a recent trip out of the city into the countryside, I bought this unusual condiment, lemon hot pepper sauce, a local favorite, for my husband to try out.

Chinese friends say you usually put it on noodles (could be a good addition in the sesame noodle sauce), but we’re thinking chicken marinade?

The girls, especially, went crazy buying long yan gan, or dried dragon eye fruit.  The fresh ones remind me of the quenapas we ate from the trees in Puerto Rico, but if you haven’t had those, their fresh texture is a bit like lychee.

I figured it had some medicinal properties, because I don’t find the dried raisin-like fruit all that tasty, but then again, Chinese New Year is coming up, and everyone likes to get something special from the countryside!

Finally, since we’re out of the coffee I brought from the states, I’m back to the Vietnamese weasal coffee.  I know it sounds weird, but it’s pretty good.

What did you eat this week?

“I do choose.”

The other night I was pondering two stories in the fifth chapter of Luke, one in which Jesus heals a leper (5:12-16) and the other in which Jesus heals a paralytic (5:17-26).

First, it was Jesus’s words to the man with leprosy who asks to be made clean that struck me.  He says, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.”  And Jesus stretches out his hands to touch him and says simply, “I do choose.  Be made clean.”

And immediately afterward in the gospel of Luke comes the story of the paralytic, the crowds surrounding Jesus to such an extent that the man has to be lowered down through the ceiling of the building to be seen by Jesus.

This story is so powerfully familiar to me–I can remember sitting in the basement room of my church, with its rainbow-painted walls and hearing one of the matriarchs of my church tell this story with its vivid details, so that I swear even now I can see the rattan mat the man lays upon, hear the grumbling of the crowd and the scribes and the Pharisees as they accuse Jesus of blasphemy (5:21), and smell the sweat of the crush of people in that room.

And I guess I take so many aspects of the gospel, and this life of faith for granted.  Jesus didn’t have to choose to heal the leper, to reach out and touch him.  With all the questions we raise in our hearts, the doubting voices, those who’d begun to whisper about him (5:22), why should he do such a thing?

But he chose to.  He chose each one of us, when we were too weak many times to choose him, to reach out to him as the leper did, to believe to be made clean, to find a way to lower that paralyzed man into the crowd.

And it was those wonderful women in my church who took the time to tell these stories, even when they weren’t sure we were listening.  But I remember them, I remember today the power of the story from the first time it was told, just as profoundly as in this moment in China when I read it again.

Older women and young child in church in Ninglang, China.

And so I praise you, God.  I ask you, humbly, to keep on choosing us, even when we’re too weak, too unwise, too questioning, to choose you.  Because your love is everlasting, your stories true, your power healing, totalizing, life-changing.  Let me never take for granted what you do for me everyday, how you have chosen me.  I thank you, I thank you for that.  Amen.