My extended stay in Alexandria means I have time to mention food, something I have not done since west Africa. Perhaps that the month of Ramadan began the day of my arrival in the city (when eating is forbidden for Muslims in daylight hours) got me thinking of it. Food is still available for those of us who choose still to let anything (including water and cigarettes) pass our lips. Alex is a city used to tourists, and Egypt’s population is 10% Copts – Christians, often identifiable by the cruciform tattoos on their wrists.
The guidebooks will tell you the Egypto-Sudanese staples are fuul (think baked beans untainted by salt, sugar or other flavourings) and tha’amiya (better known to us as falafel). In fact, if you’re a well-to-do Egyptian (to which I claim honorary membership – a week at my hotel with sort of harbour view balcony and en suite has cost me 60 pounds) the restaurant staples are more likely to be western fast-food and scrumptious mini-feasts. These feasts of grilled meats or kofta are served with rice, bread, humous, fresh cucumber/tomato salad, and pickled veg. Ramadan is actually a time of celebration, unlike Lenten fasting. As soon as the sun drops families are dashing their takeaways home or demanding the waiter’s attention. Delivery bikes race around as lost as they do in the UK. In summer, its a long foodless day. Fireworks shake the streets at ground level.
Ethiopia acts as a buffer state between Arab and Anglo Africa. Having its own alphabet and calendar it sees no problem in having food served nowhere else either. I’ve briefly mentioned injera, the greyish sour pancake with rubber crumpet-like texture, before. It doesn’t taste anywhere near as bad as it sounds. In fact, save from the mild sourness that comes from the tef flour its made from, it barely tastes at all. To counter the blandness the large roundrel is covered in sauces of a variety of mild spices, some containing meat or boiled eggs. Another Ethiopian ‘national food’, that I wasn’t brave enough to try with tapeworm foremost in my mind, was tere sega, raw cubes of beef.
Much of southern and east Africa has tepid ‘International-English’ fare to call its own: chicken twice or thrice deep fried with chips, imitations of varying success of beer-battered fish with tartare sauce. South Africa’s offering is snoek, a type of barracuda filled with long needle-like bones (I’m referring to Cleopatra’s needles here). My experiences suggest it to be dry and tasteless. Hungry rationed Britons refused to eat the canned flesh during the war. South Africa’s saving grace is perhaps that it wasn’t an empty land colonised by British alone. As well as a plethora of tasty wildlife to munch through, are concoctions that shouldn’t – but very much do – work. Take bobotie: mince, eggs, apricot jam, and flaked coconut; baked in the oven.
South Africa is also the undisputed dessert king to Africa: milktarts, soussomethings, and Malva puddings (a golden syrup pudding/sticky toffee pudding crossover, depending on who you eat with). Its a wonder South Africans ever managed to come up with anything as barbaric as aparthied with puddings that good.