7:19 am - Wednesday November 4, 2015

An Egyptian feast in Kolkata

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Theirs are traditions as rich and old as ours and their love for peppy Bollywood numbers is as Indian as it gets. And not only that, Cairo girls Hannah Sameh, 20, Lobna Hatem, 20, and Marise Assad, 23, who are in town for a month, just love tandoori parathas, biryani and chicken rolls and are looking forward to tasting puchkas and attending a colourful Indian wedding.

We, on the other hand, were looking forward to something equally exciting — tasting Egyptian food. After all, you can easily get Lebanese, Mexican, Italian, Chinese and even Japanese food in this city, but Egyptian? Nah! So, when the big day arrived, laden with the aroma of fried onions and eggplants, we were just as excited as the girls are about puchkas. The feast began with the host for the evening, city girl Mariam Zaki, introducing us to the sumptuous spread on the table that included delicacies like Samboosak, Kushary, Mesakaa, Betengan Mekhalel and Roz Bi Laban.

While the starter, Samboosak, turned out to be a meat-filled shingara, the main course included Kushary — a rich dish made with rice, brown lentils, pasta, chick peas, fried onion, garlic and vegetables, Mesakaa — brinjals with minced meat in onion, tomato sauce and chillies, and Betengan Mekhalel — a delicious combination of pickled onions and brinjals. The dessert comprised a mouth-watering rice pudding with vanilla — Roz Bi Laban. It was a feast in the truest sense, as even the helpings were pretty large; in fact, too large for most of the guests.

“We eat huge portions in Egypt, because we have just two heavy meals — breakfast and lunch, which is had around 6 pm. There is no concept of cooking dinner. If you are hungry, you just grab a sandwich or tea-biscuits,” Lubna explained. The girls told us that the brinjal was one of their main ingredients. “Brinjals are to Egyptians what potatoes are to Indians,” Marise explained.

The guests, on the other hand, were delighted. One of them, Firdaus, who had visited Egypt last year, said, “We had the same dishes in restaurants there last year, but they didn’t taste half as good.” No wonder the girls got 10-on-10 from all the guests.
The hosts, the Zakis, were equally impressed by the girls’ culinary skills. “We’ve had Lebanese, Mexican, Italian, Chinese and even Japanese food here, but not many Kolkatans have tasted Egyptian food. So, when these three girls came to stay with us as part of an exchange programme, we planned to host a dinner cooked by them. And trust me they have worked very hard on it since two days. The only thing they wanted to do while in India was attend an Indian wedding, but last night, they declined an invitation so that they could prepare the dishes. Also, it was a good opportunity for me as well as my guests to know about their culture,” Mother Farah Zaki said, adding, “It was tough to prepare some items, as the ingredients they wanted weren’t available. For instance, they wanted food starch, which isn’t available here. Then we all got together to make it from scratch.”

The girls, who are in Kolkata for a month to teach underprivileged children as part of AIESEC’s community service programme, were beside themselves with joy post dinner. And amidst the chit-chat that followed, they told us they had tried all kinds of food in India, but loved tandoori parathas, biryani and chicken rolls. “We can’t tolerate too much spice, but we are looking forward to having puchkas here,” Lobna said.

All three also turned out to be avid Bollywood fans. “We have a dedicated Bollywood channel there. Though we don’t understand a word, we love the dancing and singing in the movies. I especially love the coordination and colourful costumes,” said Lobna, whose favourite Bolly flick is Jodha Akbar. Hannah and Marise both chose My Name is Khan as their favourite. “I like Katrina Kaif. Not only is she beautiful, but is also a good dancer. I also like Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan,” Marise added. When asked about the difference between Egyptian and Bollywood movies, they said Egyptian flicks looked similar to Indian ones and had similar storylines, but their movies weren’t that artistic.

They added they felt totally at home here. “India looks very familiar to Egypt. We have the same kind of trees, same amount of traffic. People look similar and are friendly just like our country. Even the temperature is the same, though the humidity here is high. We also have a henna night during weddings just like here. I also love the architecture here,” said Marise.

Then the girls treated the guests to some belly dancing to Egyptian music playing on their phones. “There can’t be an Egyptian who can’t belly dance. But it’s not taught there. The music is such that you will end up doing the dance yourself. Again, we feel Egyptian belly dance is very distinctive from other forms,” said Marise.

Finally, when asked about their funniest Kolkata memory, Lubna said, “Once it started raining heavily while we were outside. We panicked because we are not used to torrential downpours in Egypt. So, we crouched in fear, while all around us went about work normally. The stares we got! It’s really funny when we think back.”

All of us had a good laugh, realizing that we had struck a chord somewhere. Maybe that’s why it’s said that travel is best measured in friends you make, and not the distance you cover.

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