Eating different food is one of the joys of being somewhere foreign. As I write this, I have a round, aluminium tray to my right. Sitting on it is a blue enamelled teapot, two diminutive glasses, one teaspoon and a plastic sugar dispenser with Chinese writing on it. The tea is strong and black and here in Egypt I take it with a little sugar.
A phenomenon of being abroad – for me, at least – seems to be that age-old habits, and the reasons for them, feel less ingrained, less relevant and less appealing in countries where customs, as well as the menu, differ from those I’m familiar with back home.
The taste of this tea, and its presentation, is enhanced by being drunk al fresco and by the view here. Sand stretches in front of me for three or four metres to the Red Sea. The water is almost still, as if undisturbed by a single ripple between here and the coastline opposite. Over there, I can see misty red mountains, just like those behind me, and, at night, the lights of the Saudi Arabian city Haql.
Admittedly, this is a particularly exotic view, although I’m a big fan of eating outdoors at home too. But when I’m away, whatever new dish I’m eating tastes perhaps even better, due to the fact that I’m eating it outside, making the most of a warmer climate.
During the olive harvest in Palestine recently, one of the highlights was taking a break from picking to sit down under the trees for lunch. There were various rituals that accompanied this. The first was when someone in the group, often the farmer himself, stopped work to find a good spot to make a fire to boil water and for any other bits of the meal that needed to be prepared over heat, like eggs fried with herbs or, in some cases, even chips.
After a little while, the rest of us would be called to eat. We’d step away from the tree we were working on, make for the shade and, before sitting down, wash with the help of someone pouring a little water from a bottle over our hands. Small plates would be spread on the ground and we’d create a circle around them. Mountains of pita bread would appear and we’d tear off small strips to make into a tiny, edible shovel. This would be soaked in the farmer’s own olive oil before scooping up some hummus or mashed potatoes or salad and steering the bread and its small load into our mouths.
At the end of a day of picking another ritual, typically, was to engage in a lighthearted but important competition back at the house with group members who’d been out picking with different farmers, to see who’d had the best picnic lunch. I never got to eat what we dubbed ‘field-cooked chips’, but one day I was offered slabs of cheese I’d never had before. It was goats’ cheese, but saltier and less crumbly than feta. The cheese is only freshly available at certain times of the year but some families buy a great big mound and store it to eat gradually over the months till the next lot is produced.
In Egypt, or at least where we currently are in South Sinai, every meal is served with flat bread rather than the pita that is typical in Israel and Palestine. I like the large, thin, round bread, especially when it arrives at the table warm after being heated over charcoal. Presentation of food seems to be a big deal here. However simple the dish, care is taken to arrange it nicely with garnish decorating every plate. Seating is on great big cushions on the floor with low tables. This means that the appearance of every meal is preceded by the sound of shuffling footsteps of someone wearing loose sandals, then a pause as they stop to take them off before entering the low walled area, strewn with rugs, where we are lounging on our piles of cushions.
During the week we were in Istanbul, we frequented one particular cafe-restaurant as often as we could. It was close to where we were staying, was recommended by our AirBnB host and, we soon found, served consistently good home-cooked style food. The place was run by Hüseyin who managed to talk politics, tell wonderful if, possibly, tall historical tales, cook cheese-stuffed meat balls and catch up with his regulars all at once. The place felt like a hub for the community and we’d settle down happily at our table and tuck in to the pickled vegetables that would soon appear as an antipasto while waiting for our lentil soup – mercimek corbasi – and other dishes to arrive.
In Greece it was hard to resist ordering the ubiquitous Greek salad. It was a reliable dish in that the salad vegetables were always fresh and full of flavour and it always seemed to be a good-sized portion so was great value for money. Over the weeks we were there, we never took the quality of the feta for granted: it was on a level far above anything I’ve ever come across in the UK. One trick we learnt during our stay in Greece was to mention at the beginning of a meal that we didn’t want any bread. Otherwise, it was brought as a matter of course, was charged on our bill and was more often than not a waste of money and food as we usually couldn’t eat it much of it.
I’ve written before about Greek coffee. The Turkish and Arabic coffee has proved to be a similar treat. Whether served in a cafe, out in the olive groves, or made by ourselves where we’ve been staying, it delivers a moment of sharp pleasure as the strong smell hits the nostrils, just before the first sip is taken. In Deir Istiya in Palestine we made sure to buy a couple of bags of the locally roasted, cardamon-infused coffee before leaving. It packs an aromatic punch that is hard to beat. Drinking it back home, indoors or outside, will provoke fond, evocative memories, as well as being a delight for the taste buds.