Desperation Nugget #2: The Food Situation

23 Oct

*For an explanation of desperation nuggets, see here.*

Everyone back home keeps asking me about the food here. What’s it like? Is it any good? Do they have the same things here? What do I cook?

I have one answer to give about the food situation: it makes me cry.

Seriously, most of the little desperation breakdowns I’ve had have been about food. I don’t know why. I think that we all have little comfort triggers and food is mine. Since being married, I have always made sure I had a kitchen well-stocked with the most random and obscure ingredients. I’ve gone through cookbook obsessions, buying them off the bargain desk at Barnes & Noble and tearing recipes out of magazines at the library (sorry St Joseph County Public Library! I’m sure all the fines I’ve paid you over the years have more than made up for it though!). When we moved into our new place, I ignored the suitcases I had been complaining about and went to work setting up the kitchen. Once I had my mixing bowls and baking pans put away, my knife block out, and my trivets artfully placed near the stove, I collapsed on one of the dozens of boxes taking up floor space in the rest of the house and finally felt settled in.

But one thing was missing: food. And it continues to be missing.

There are no supermarkets here. There are several small grocery shops that have shopping carts even though it is physically impossible to push them through the narrow aisles. And when I say aisles, I mean the spaces in between piles of rice bags and randomly placed stacks of milk boxes where people take turns squeezing by each other while carrying heavy little baskets of groceries on their arms. More often than not, one or both of these squeezers ends up knocking things off the shelf, sending up a massive cloud of dust. Yes…dust.

Everything here is covered in dust. EVERYTHING. This I can’t fault the store for, because I’ve learned that its no use fighting the dust and dirt here in Cairo. It’s going to be everywhere, coat everything, basically invade your home and refuse to get out, like a filthy microscopic little squatter. You would need an army to keep the dust off of things. Wait a second! I CAN fault the market for their dusty products, because they do, in fact, have an army! At every entrance stands a swarm of about half a dozen men, waiting to make deliveries. While they’re waiting, they wander in and out of the store, sometimes bagging groceries, sometimes just standing around and watching. Put them to work dusting! Then I wouldn’t have to wash my hands everytime I pulled out the apple juice in the morning, or wouldn’t have to be so careful not to let the lid on the can fall into the tuna when I open it.

But even the dust is a minor annoyance. What really drives me crazy here is not being able to find what I need. I was spoiled by the States, I’ll admit it. I was used to running into Martin’s or Kroger and finding exactly what I needed, in various brands and sizes, clearly marked in my own language, with no fear that it might contain rat poison or some other combination that might kill me or my husband. I was spoiled. I had the food world at my fingertips and I took it for granted.

I knew that grocery stores here wouldn’t be the same and I would have to make concessions. I figured some of the more exotic or complicated ingredients would be out of the question. What I didn’t realize was that I wouldn’t be able to get BASIC ingredients. What I didn’t realize was that there’s no such thing as tomato sauce here, just tomato SOUSE. Ladies and gentlemen, be suspicious of any kind of food that is misspelled on its label. In other words, be suspicious of 90% of the food sold in an Egyptian grocery.

But I thought, oh how quaint, they misspelled sauce, I’ll get it anyway. Tomato sauce is tomato sauce, right? Several hours later, my chicken tikka masala was in a large steaming pile in the garbage can, Patrick was downing a gallon of water to get rid of the taste, and I was hunched over the counter crying. My friends, I was felled by the souse.

And that was only the beginning. To quickly summarize, there are no chocolate chips, American cereals cost the same as a new car, Egyptian cereals taste like cardboard and bean paste to entice you to buy American cereals, most things are well past their due dates, it’s difficult to find decent cheese, the meat counter smells like a slaughterhouse, if something is in the grocery store one day that doesn’t mean it’ll be there the next day, or ever again, and it is nearly impossible to find bacon. (although I may have recently found a dealer, a fellow calling himself “the german butcher.”)

Assuming you can find a random assortment of things disguising themselves as ingredients, you’re facing a total crapshoot when you go to the checkout counter. Because most stores conveniently leave the price labels off of their items. I’m sure there are various nefarious reasons for this, which all have the same outcome…the customer gets screwed. I’ve learned that if I look pissed and skeptical at the checkout line, they are less likely to charge me the equivalent of $40 for a bag of rice, again.

My last little complaint refers to these darling checkout people, specifically one I like to call Piaster Girl. One day I was (un)happily doing my shopping in the local store. I found some items that looked edible and could possibly be manipulated into a dinner so I took them to the checkout counter to pay. I gave the girl my money and she gave me change in large bills. Small bills are hard to come by here because you need them for everything, thus everyone hoardes them. So I asked her to give me change in small bills. She huffed and snatched my money back and gave it back to me in 10s and 20s. Not small enough. I handed her a ten and asked for ones. She gave me a Look of Death and turned and counted out 10LE…in 25 piaster bills. That is a lot of freakin’ piaster bills. It’s the equivalent of the girl at Kroger giving you your change in pennies. She slammed the drawer and turned to the next person. I just grabbed my piasters and left. Since then, anytime I’ve gone to that store, she has given me my change in piasters, with a little smirk on her face. Since I don’t know how to say smartaleck in Arabic, I’ve switched to a different store.

There are good points about food in Egypt. The fruit and veggies sold at stands are fresh and mostly organic. There’s fresh juice to be found everywhere and man is it good. And everyone delivers. Which means I can call up the grocery store anytime I like and ask for some tomato souse and I know a woman with an attitude problem will roll her eyes and arbitrarily assign a price and a half dozen men will clamor to be the one to deliver the souse directly to my door. All this so I can make a recipe from one of my trusty cookbooks, realize that after all my hard work, it tastes like crap, throw it in the trash, cry and shake my fist at this country, and then calmly pull out my pile of restaurant menus, because they all deliver too.

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6 Responses to “Desperation Nugget #2: The Food Situation”

  1. mom October 24, 2007 at 2:56 am #

    Screwed? Pissed? Smartass? Melissa! Desperation is definitely kicking in! I kept gasping reading your words, almost choking on my chicken-(sauteed in tomato souse) filled tacos stuffed with shredded lettuce, tomatoes, olives, and salsa! After a second helping of my Spanish rice (not that jailhouse stuff, but homemade), I had an idea!

    Should I risk Customs taking me aside if I try to smuggle little goodies from Gucci B to my desperately ranting red headed alien stepchild daughter? Knorr consume de tomate for instance? pkgs of sopitas? cans of Pringles?Cheetos Cheese Puffs? Gummy Bears?

    Would I end up in some dingy prison like Bridget Jones? bartering my VS bra for a cigarette? (Oh wait, I don’t smoke) or should I be selfish and let my survivor instinct kick in and use my space in my bags for my granola and power bars and Advanced Immodium gelcaps?

    What’s a mother to do?

  2. Javi October 24, 2007 at 3:34 am #

    I don’t think its worth the risk. Just send me the Gummy Bears…..

    *Goes back to eating the Tacos he made stuffed with (cow) meat* No Rice. Must have forgotten it at the (Super) Walmart just down the street.

    Speaking of which, have you seen a single cow in Cairo?? Hmmmm

  3. Jesse Ormsby October 24, 2007 at 8:57 pm #

    I’m particularly fond of the fact that you called the german butcher your “dealer.” I’ve always fancied finding cozy specialized spots in new areas a kindof fun hobby of mine. Knowing where to get the best greek food or which place most frequently has good second-hand western cut shirts. But, I think that’s because I haven’t had to rely on them. Something unfortunate happens when a hobby turns into a chore… Keep fighting the good fight.

    -Jesse

  4. Melissa October 24, 2007 at 9:02 pm #

    Mom, I did some minor editing and decided to bite my tongue about your shock at my language. 🙂

    and don’t worry, I’m already making a list for you. Luckily Patrick is going to be in the States next week and will be picking up a few things to tide me over. And no worries, we won’t leave you locked up in an Egyptian prison…for too long.

  5. Aunt Yvette October 25, 2007 at 1:12 am #

    Hey, I thought I saw a picture of a Pizza Hut or some sort of US fast food place in one ofhte photo’s on flickr. If you dared try it? I once had pizza from a Pizza Hut in Mexico and it had hotdog slices on it as the pepperoni….yuck!!! I rarely like hotdogs on a bun with lots of mustard, much less on crust, mexican pizza sause, and their version of mozzarella. Good luck! Micky D’s is usually a little more reliable, but not completely the same.

    By the way, if you rinse your food and containers before you put them away, you won’t have the I don’t know where you’ve been dust, but the I landed in a clean spot dust and you can give it the 5 second rule, and not feel so bad.

    Much Love,

    yvette

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  1. Desperation Nugget #3 | State of d'Nile - February 27, 2015

    […] Click for Desperation Nugget #1 and Desperation Nugget #2 […]

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