Most of us from outside of Egypt, may be used to buying and eating fish in our home countries. Where you come from, it might be:
- neatly compacted into fish fingers, frozen and stored in attractive cartons
- filleted, frozen in packets (looking very un-fish-like)
- battered and fried and sold over the counter wrapped in newspaper
- unrecognizably hidden in a bread roll, and called a fish-burger!
In Egypt, the culture places a high value on sharing food together…. and the people love meal times, feasts, celebrations, which involve food of a variety of kinds. But generally what makes Egyptians eyes sparkle in anticipation is the idea of having fish for dinner!
WITH OR WITHOUT SALT!
With Egypt being placed where it is, with the Mediterranean Sea on the North, the Nile running right through the country and of course the Red Sea to the East, there is a wide range of fish readily available: fresh-water and from the sea. Where we are, in Alexandria, the fishermen unload their nets early in the day, and then proceed to try and sell their catch in the markets on in the streets, with loud shouts and tempting prices!
WHERE TO BUY SOME FISH?
You can buy direct from the boats as the fishermen come in (but you will get a price that is as good or bad as your arabic) or make your way to the main fish market (but we suggest you take a local friend to be your negotiator). In most suburbs you will find a small fish shop or 2 in the street markets (souqs) and there you will find a wide range of fresh fish to buy from.
DONT BE ALARMED!
The fish here looks like…. well…. fish… really!! It does not come neatly packaged or unthreateningly compacted! The fish will be laid out in all their glorious fishy-ness:
- with eyes,
- and pincers!
In fact, if you arrive very early, the odd fish or 2 will give the occasional jump: that is how fresh they are! But take courage, point to the fish you would like: it is sold by weight, so all you need to say is 1 kilo or 2 kilo! Our favourite fish from the sea is: “Aroos” or “Denise”, but many of our local friends love fish from the Nile: “Bolty” or “Boorie”. Our hint is: the bigger the fish, the easier (and more expensive) it is to eat! So place your order, and you usually have the option for them to clean and cook it for you: take the grilled option. They place onions, garlic, peppers, salt and spices and cook it whole, on the grill (charcoal BBQ!)
So when delivery time comes, you open this neatly wrapped bundle, and there lying in a polystyrene tray will be your fish: whole, blackened with cooking, but with a delicious aroma of spices and herbs. You host will be proudly encouraging you to take and eat, or will even pile your plate with 1, 2 or even 3 of these fish.
Most of us from afar are at this stage feeling a little uncomfortable, and usually try and feebly poke at the fish, attempting to ignore the black eyes, tail and head.. and timidly trying to get a mouthful that has no bones… usually to no avail! Then we have to try and extract the bones from our mouths in a non-offensive manner, leaving our hosts wondering why we do not like their food!!
If you watch the average Egyptian, without much thought or effort, and usually accompanied by excited and animated discussions (as they are about to eat fish) they will have removed the head, tail, skin and have all the edible fish filleted and ready to eat within a minute… leaving a wonderful fish bone skeleton behind!!!
HOW DO THEY DO THIS???
We must understand that this is a way of life for these people, part of their culture: Most Egyptians have grown up alongside the Nile, near the Sea… or both! Children grow up watching their parents extricate fish flesh for them, and then usually around the age of 7 or 8 they are allowed to try themselves. There is teaching, heritage, skills and indeed specific family techniques involved in this process. Watch them, ask them to teach you and learn…. it is a valuable skill. They will happily show you their way of doing it: it is all with fingers, not a knife or fork in sight. But don’t be put off: the fish is fresh, delicious and with be eaten with rice, bread and salads. ….and to top it all off (like the lid on a bottle, they say) you will be given tea.
After you have eaten, rinse you hands and then squeeze your fingers inside a piece of lemon (this will remove the fish smell from them) and then wash your hands with soap…. your hosts will guide you!
And finally, lean back on your chair, feeling full and satisfied!!! And your hosts will be smiling with happiness, and very proud that you have shared in this, their favourite meal, with them…
Practice with friends, and hosts and when you are feeling confident enough, go out into public and choose the nicest fish restaurant ….
and eat with pride that you have triumphed over the whole grilled fish dilemma!