Appreciating the “gift of the Nile”

Though true to the hype, Egypt is mostly desert–only 3 percent of land is arable–when you open your eyes to it, Cairo has a pretty hopping fruit and veggie scene going back to ancient times.

“Egypt is the gift of the Nile,” is a phrase you might remember from history class, a tour book or even thrown in conversation. Historically, agriculture was Egypt’s greatest economic commodity. In 2000 agriculture accounted for approximately 11 percent of Egypt’s GDP and over 1/3 of the population was employed in agriculture.

The majority of produce is grown in the Delta, an area north of Cairo bordering the Mediterranean Sea. The rest is grown along the Nile, between Cairo and Aswan, just south of the High Dam, which controls the once annual Nile floods and ensures reliable water distribution throughout the year.

Living here temporarily, eating at cafes, restaurants and street vendors, it’s easy to believe the country is largely devoid of all produce except oil drenched eggplants, taamiya (falafel but with fava beans)  salad and plentiful fresh juices.  Adding to the desert theme, population locations i.e. the pyramids, temples, ruins, desert oases and beaches on the north coast and in Sinai are naturally sand-prone

Since settling down in an apartment with a kitchen and spending more time with Egyptians and Iraqis who cook, I have discovered an inspiring world of fruits and veggies throughout the megalopolis.

A market behind Sayidda Zeinab mosque and one surrounding the Saad Zagloul metro stop, both within a five minute walk of my flat, are where I usually shop.

I never had a fresh fig until a couple months ago a coworker bought a bag while taking a walk from work. Sweet, with a unique texture, they have quickly become one of my favorite fruits. Figs in all their glory!

Guavas are another I never had fresh until living here. Though I drank the juice previously, I had pictured Guavas as papayas and thought the guavas on the streets were pares. When Syonara served me a plate of sliced guavas I learned they were something entirely different. Now I cannot quite imagine my life, let alone breakfasts, without them.

Guavas across the street from work (Resettlement Legal Aid Project)

Guavas across the street from work (Resettlement Legal Aid Project)

I first spied a couple lonely pomegranates at a small fruit stand across my street about a month ago. Being one of my all-time favorites, and an apparent anomaly in Egypt, I snatched them up. Though completely unripe, they were a promise of what has come. Since, sweet, juicy, pink pomegranates have matriculated to many fruits stands, living up to pomegranate lovers desires and costing around $1 USD a kilo.

Pomegranates near Saad Zagloul metro

Dried dates are relatively common in my corner of the world, fresh dates however are a novelty. Jess, coworkers and I went on a horse riding adventure over an hour outside Cairo. We drove past the Giza pyramids, through the fertile land upward along the Nile (South because the Nile flows S to N) to an area between the Saqqara and Dashur pyramids. Our guide, Mahmoud, led us through a date grove to his house and horse stable. After a fabulous sunset-horse ride and dinner at Mahmoud’s house, he treated us to some dates from the overhanging trees.

Date trees south of Cairo

Date trees south of Cairo

Though I haven’t found dates as good as Mahmoud’s to date, I’ve been entranced by the many varieties. The traditional way to break fast for Ramadan, dates –dried, fresh, unripe, overripe, yellow, red and purple are profuse.

Fresh dates--they need a couple days to ripen.

These dates are hard and need a couple days to ripen. I like them best before they’re completely ripe–which means buying them like this.
Fresh yellow dates--well on their way to perfection (which in my opinion is the almost ripe stage)

The other day I dashed home from work at 2:00 p.m. to grab a forgotten computer cord.  I was shocked to see my neighborhood market more bustling than ever. Not only was it the hottest part of the day, but most Egyptians are fasting for Ramadan. The hours shift  slightly each day with the sunrise and set–no food, water, cigarettes, sex etc, from approximately 4:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

It seems shopping for food might be one way the fasters distract themselves until the moment of consumption.

Buying pears--they're separated by quality and priced accordingly

Buying pears--they're separated by quality and priced accordingly

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