Egyptian cooking

My readers are probably aware that when I travel to new locales, I love being able to take cooking classes.  Not only do I enjoy trying new foods, but I think learning about local cuisines gives you insight into the local culture you wouldn’t otherwise get.

When I heard that the Community Services Association (CSA) offered Egyptian cooking classes I signed up immediately.

After arriving at my class I found out that the other couple who signed up had just called to cancel, so it looked like I’d have myself another private lesson.

First off let me say that this wasn’t so much a cooking class as it was a cooking demonstration – no hands on work for me.  Generally, I prefer being able to do more cooking myself, but the dishes were all relatively simple, so I didn’t feel like I was missing much by not participating directly this time.

My instructor was Amira, an Egyptian lady who actually does several different cooking classes at the CSA.  She patiently answered all my questions, which made for a very enjoyable experience overall.  I really felt like this class gave me the basics of Egyptian cooking.

Onto the dishes we made….

We began the class by making a dessert called Mohalabia – a simple pudding made with milk, sugar and corn starch.  We added rose water and rose syrup for flavouring, which as you might imagine made for a very floral tasting dish.  Amira said that vanilla can also be substituted if you prefer.

The next dish we worked on was Mosakaa, which is very similar to Greek Moussaka, minus the bechamel sauce on top.  When I was in Greece recently I’d had Moussaka several times, so I was curioius how it would compare.  It turned out to be my favorite dish of the day.

The first step was frying the eggplant and chilies, which would make the base of our Mosakka.  We then layered slices of fresh red and yellow peppers and finally added a ground beef, tomato sauce mixture, seasoned with cinnamon and ginger on top.  After that we popped it in the oven to bake for about 20 minutes.

frying the eggplants and chilies for our Mosakaa

Cooking up our ground beef after having fried our eggplants and chilies for our Mosakaa

The finished Mosakaa dish

The finished Mosakaa dish

Amira served the Mosakaa with a rice/pasta side dish, which reminded me a little of an unseasoned version of “Rice-A-Roni”!

The second meat dish we made was a very traditional Egyptian dish called Molokhaia.  We made our Molokhaia by boiling our meat (in this case beef, but it could be lamb or veal) and adding it to a mixture of finely chopped molokhia, which is a green leafy vegetable (looks similar to mint leaves), beef broth, garlic and a few other spices.  The end result is something similar to a thick soup that is traditionally eaten with Egyptian flat bread.

finished Molokhaia

Molokhaia

We finished off our meal by making a couple of appetizers – hummus and Baladi salad.  If you have made hummus before, this recipe was pretty standard.  Amira served it with Egyptian flat bread that she toasted in the oven to make chips.  The salad was made up of arugula, tomatoes, onions, cucumber and had a light lime, olive oil dressing.  Both very simple to make and really delicious.

Hummus

Hummus

Baladi Salad

Baladi Salad

So that was my first foray into Egyptian cooking.  I’ve already made the Mosakaa at home and it turned out pretty well.  Thank you again Amira for making this a great experience.  I expect that I’ll be taking a few more cooking classes at the CSA before our time in Egypt is done!

My Egyptian meal

My Egyptian meal

Me and my cooking instructor, Amira

Me and my cooking instructor, Amira

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The job hunt begins

career

The day after we arrived in Egypt, we were in the hotel getting to know the other new teacher’s at my wife’s school and the principal mentioned due to the recent political instability a few of the teachers that they had hired would no longer be coming.  They asked me if they were unable to fill them, if I would consider teaching one of the grades.

At first I thought she was joking.  She knew I was a dietitian and had no teaching training.

She was serious.

Apparently they’d done this sort of thing in the past.  I told them I’d be open to it if they were in a jam, but realistically I was hoping they’d be able to find someone else.  While the notion of having a job immediately after arriving here, not to mention a well-paying one at that, was certainly appealing, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to competently do the job.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and fortunately the school was able to fill all of their teaching jobs.  Whew!  That said, I have been added to the substitute teacher list, so I may end up taking a few shifts here and there.  I suppose we’ll see how that goes.  At least I won’t have to worry about planning lessons, evaluation and all that other good teaching stuff.

But now that that’s settled and we’ve started to acclimatize to our new life here in Maadi, I think its time for me to try to find a job – that is a nutrition-related job.

When I first told people that I’d be moving to Egypt, people inevitably asked what I would be doing for work.  My response was always the same.  I wanted to accomplish two things career-wise while over here – 1) I wanted to find something nutrition-related and 2) I wanted to contribute financially at least in some way.  If I could meet both criteria with one position all the better, but if I needed to do a combination of things to make it work, I was open to that too.  I also wasn’t all that keen on finding something full time.  One of the biggest reasons we moved here was so that we could take time to explore the country and do some international travelling.  The last thing I wanted was to not have the flexibility to travel while my wife was on one of her (many) breaks from school.

So where to start?  When my wife accepted her teaching position, she asked the school for advice on where I might be able to look for employment.  The principal suggested the Community Services Association (CSA) in Maadi.  The CSA is an english speaking community centre for expatriates in Cairo.  They have all sorts of programming to help people adjust to their new lives in Egypt.  After a quick internet search back in May, I was able to find that they had a fitness centre, but no nutrition services.

So I sent them my CV.

I thought that perhaps I could offer some group classes, one-on-one counselling sessions or even I could write articles for their monthly magazine.  I heard back after a couple of days and they expressed interest in meeting to discuss things further when I got settled in Cairo.  Yesterday, I sent the manager a message to inquire if they are still interested in working with me.  I’ve yet to hear back, but I’m optimistic that something will come of this.  I really believe I can nicely complement the other services the CSA already offers.

If nothing comes from this CSA opportunity, I plan to touch base with one of the local NGO’s.  I’ve found that Plan International has offices not too far from our apartment.  CARE international also appears to be doing some health & wellness program work, so that might also be an option.  The only small downside of working with these organizations are that the positions will almost certainly be volunteer.  But like I said, as long as I’m able to contribute financially in some other way (ie. substitute teaching), it’s by no means a deal breaker.

Networking is probably going to be key to me finding a job here – even more so than back in Canada.  Very few potential employers seem to post anything online (or even have websites for that matter!).  In fact, even just speaking with other teachers and their spouses, I’ve gotten a few other leads.  One of the teacher’s husbands pointed me to a couple of websites that may have local dietitian jobs (UN jobs and Relief Web) – nothing nutrition-related in Cairo yet, but they both constantly post new positions, so something may come up there.

Language may be an issue for me finding work quickly, which is why I signed up to take Arabic classes soon.  Unfortunately they are not starting until mid-October, so I’ll try to learn a little on my own until then (basics like the alphabet, phonetics and numbers).  My wife and I have studied Spanish in the past, but Arabic is on a whole other level.  The script and pronunciations are so different than English, it’s going to take a lot of work, but seeing as we’ll be here for at least two years, it will be worth it.

That’s where I’m at so far.  I’m hoping the next post I make about my job situation will be announcing my new position!

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Greek food – a backpacker’s perspective

As backpackers, when my wife and I travel we aim for three things with our food choices: 1) to experience as much of the local cuisine as possible, 2) to eat as healthy as realistically possible and 3) low cost.  We found that Greece was a little more challenging with the “low cost” objective than other countries, however, for the most part I think we managed pretty well as we were able to buy a lot of our food at markets and from street vendors.

Breakfasts

When booking hotel/hostel accommodations I always try to find places that offer free breakfasts.  In some countries, breakfast is virtually always included in the price, whereas with others this is rarely the case.  Keep in mind that as backpackers we’re always staying at the most budget friendly accommodations we can find, so we’re not expecting fancy meals.  That said, when we visited Turkey last year, the hotels always came with incredible continental breakfasts, including spreads of fresh bread, yogurt, fruit, tomatoes, cucumbers, cheese, olives, juices and tea.

Unfortunately in Greece the hotel breakfasts were pretty basic.  The few hotels we stayed at that offered free continental breakfasts only included bread, watermelon, tea and maybe hard-boiled eggs.  As such, we often went to a bakery and/or market to pick up our own.  The hotel we stayed at in Perissa, Santorini was right across the street from a great 24 hr bakery and supermarket where we were able to pick up a pastry, cheese pie or spanakopita, fruit and pomegranate juice/tea for only a few euros each.  This pattern would be a recurring theme throughout the trip.

Typical breakfast - Santorini-style

Typical breakfast – Santorini-style

Cheese pie for breakfast on ferry to Santorini

Cheese pie for breakfast on ferry to Santorini

Lunches

In order to stay within our budget and to eat as healthy as possible, we tried our best to avoid restaurant meals at lunch as well.  We found this was a little trickier here than in our previous travels because of the heat (makes it tougher to pack a lunch in the morning and it still be good by the time you’re ready to eat it) and the fact that we seemed to move around quite a bit on this trip, often only staying in one town for a 1-2 days.  Whenever possible though we would pick up foods for lunch at the supermarket (things like bread, cheese, lunch meat, fruit, olives, nuts or other snacks) to eat while we were out.  Other times we would rely on gyros or souvlaki on a pita (1.50 to 3 euros each) and supplement that with fruit and water.  These gyros certainly weren’t the healthiest of options, but they sure were delicious.

Standard gyro - complete with shaved pork, tomatoes, onions, tzatziki & "fried potatoes" aka french fries

Standard gyro – complete with shaved pork, tomatoes, onions, tzatziki & “fried potatoes” (aka french fries)

Sandwich I bought from street vendor in Athens for 1.50 euros - french baguette, with meat, feta and tomatoes

Sandwich I bought from street vendor in Athens for 1.50 euros – french baguette, with meat, feta and tomatoes.

Hania Saturday street market

Hania Saturday street market on Crete

Dinners

Dinner is where we often splurged.  In addition to our rather extravagant dinner/cooking class at Nichteri restaurant on Santorini, dinner time was our opportunity to really try the local cuisine.  And to do this we had to eat at restaurants.  I was able to sample many traditional greek dishes including – greek salad, fried saganaki cheese, moussaka, briam (potatoes, zucchini, eggplant and cheese baked as a casserole), stuffed tomatoes, pastitsio (baked pasta dish), grilled lamb and souvlaki.  Of course these meals were a little more expensive, but we tried to alternate cheaper and more upscale restaurants, so we didn’t completely blow our food budget.  We also often had wine with our meals, as it was so cheap (and good) – only 3 euros for half a litre in some places!

Aside from Nichteri, our other favorite restaurants on this trip were, Ntomatini (Perissa, Santorini), Portes (Hania Crete) and Taverna To Paramithi (Kalampaka).  All highly recommended if you are in the area.

Here are a few pics of the foods that we sampled:

Fried saganaki

Fried saganaki

Santorini Salad - similar to Greek salad, except also comes with crutons, capers, caper berries and caper leaves

Santorini Salad – similar to Greek salad, except also comes with crutons, capers, caper berries and caper leaves

Cold meze plate, with stuffed vine leaves, and various spreads, veggies & olives

Cold meze plate, with stuffed vine leaves, and various spreads, veggies & olives

Stuffed tomatoes & zucchini

Stuffed tomatoes & zucchini

Briam

Briam

Pork Cutlets with Vinsanto sauce and Fava Bean puree

Pork Cutlets with Vinsanto sauce and Fava Bean puree

Most dinners also came with complementary ouzo or desert wine and sometimes even a small desert afterwards.  With our first meal, I mistakenly did the ouzo as a shot, rather than sip it, which is custom.  The server got a kick out of that!  It did seem that the further we got from Athens, the stronger the ouzo got.  I’ve never been that big on straight liquor, but there were a couple of places where we found the ouzo to be undrinkable – it must me an acquired taste!

After dinner ouzo with small custard tart

After dinner ouzo with small custard tart

….And of course, you can’t visit a new country without trying the local brews, in this case Alfa, Mythos & Fix.

AlfaMythosFix

Overall impressions

So I think we ate pretty well on this trip.  Aside from the gyros, which we both tired of by the end of the trip, we never got sick of eating the food in Greece as we have in some other countries we’ve visited.  A few things that surprised me was how common french fries were (basically served with every meat or fish dish + on gyros) and the lack of beans and fish/seafood (although perhaps this was because these were often the priciest options on the menus, so I ended up chosing other foods).

Food ended up costing us about 30-40 euros/day on most days.  Definitely not what I’d consider cheap (more expensive than Egypt anyways!), but about the best we could have done.

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Cooking on Santorini

Last Sunday we found out that my wife’s school had delayed opening for 2 weeks.  Apparently such is life at an international school in Cairo.  This is the fourth time in five years that something like this has happened for various reasons.

So suddenly we had some time on our hands.  Given the issues in Egypt right now, rather than travel around the country (which we very much hope to do sometime soon), we thought it might be better to head somewhere else for our newly found break.  This is definitely one of the perks about living in Egypt.  There are so many destinations that we’ve always wanted to visit that are literally on our doorstep.

For this trip, we decided on Greece.

We’re now halfway through our trip and so far I’m pretty happy with our choice.  Beaches, ancient ruins, sunshine everyday and amazing food.   Not a bad life I tell you.

In recent years one of the things we’ve started doing on our travels is to take cooking classes.  Both my wife and I really enjoy learning about local cuisines from the locals themselves and taking recipes back with us so that we can add them to our regular menus at home.

For a country that has such distinct and popular food, I had a surprisingly difficult time finding a cooking class for us to take.  As the popularity of culinary tourism continues to grow, I hope that this becomes less of an issue because the food here is fantastic.  It relies largely on fresh ingredients and is relatively simple to prepare, which makes it great for cooks of all skill levels.

At the last minute I ended up finding a class on the island of Santorini.  We had planned to be on Santorini for three days, so it actually worked out perfectly.  The class was offered by the head chef at Nichteri restaurant in the town of Kamari.  It cost 50 euros/person, which was a little pricey, but it did include a three-course dinner and drinks.  We were also the only two people in the class, so it felt a little like a private lesson, which was cool.

On the menu were two appetizers – Tomato Fritters and Santorini Salad – and one main course – Pork Cutlets in Vinsanto Sauce with Fava Bean puree.  As you might imagine it was all delicious.

Frying up the Tomato Fritters

Lindsay frying up the Tomato Fritters

Tomato Fritters served with a yogurt & mint dipping sauce.

Tomato Fritters served with a yogurt & mint dipping sauce.

Ingredients for Santorini Salad - minus the tomatoes & cucumber

Ingredients for Santorini Salad – minus the feta, tomatoes & cucumber

Plating the Santorini Salad

Plating the Santorini Salad

Santorini Salad

Santorini Salad

Pork Cutlets with Vinsanto sauce and Fava Bean puree

Pork Cutlets with Vinsanto sauce and Fava Bean puree.

Since pork may be a bit of a challenge to find in Cairo, the chef said we could easily substitute chicken or lamb for this dish.

And in addition to the foods we had prepared for ourselves, dinner also included grilled calamari and dessert.

Grilled Calamari with Quinoa salad and eggplant puree

Grilled Calamari with Quinoa salad and eggplant puree

All and all a pretty great experience!

Dinner on the beach

Dinner on the beach

Photo op with the chef

Photo with the chef of Nichteri

My only complaint, and it’s a relatively minor one, is that the class isn’t fully hands on.  There were a few steps that the chef just took over and did himself.  We’ve found this is fairly consistent with other classes we’ve taken at restaurants in other countries.  It’s almost as if the chefs are afraid we won’t do certain things quite right, so they feel they need to step in at times.  That said, I’d still recommend the class for anyone visiting Santorini.  It was a bit pricey, but definitely worth it.

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