Monday, March 4, 2013

When the REAL home descends on the new home...albeit briefly!

Fishing for home status! 
It was just so recently that I had remarked to Purushu that Kochi was really starting to feel more and more like home, as I felt my nomadic roots digging deeper into this strange reclaimed soil that marked the birthplace of both my boys. We discussed how, unlike the two of us, our boys at least could answer a simple question like, "Where are you from?" with an answer as simple as Kochi. And I sat back, as we drove around our home city, late in the night, feeling mighty pleased and settled for the first time in a long long time.

Kitschy Cairo!

And then BAM! We go for the wonderfully organized Egyptian Food Festival today at the Trident Kochi and amidst all the typical Ancient Egyptian kitsch - like the giant golden pyramid in the middle of the buffet, King Tut masks pasted on every window and the brightly coloured sheeshas/hookahs, I suddenly didn't feel so Kitschy Kochi any more!!! Instead, I found myself aching for my original hometown Cairo like never before! Yes, definitely the type of yearning that brings tears to the eyes!

Seeking out the Masri! With Mr Camel as witness!
This deep homesickness took root with the very first glimpse of the waiters bobbing around the Trident's Travancore restaurant, decked in black waistcoats, red waistbands and matching red tarbooshes on their heads. Before even looking at the buffet spread, I sought out the Chef, who I knew had been flown in from Egypt, eager to meet somebody from the homeland. Upon being introduced to the gentle Chef Ibrahem, who has been working with the Oberoi Hotels in Egypt for more than twenty years, Arabic words started tumbling from my mouth, sometimes getting mixed up with Hindi words that kept jostling their way through, as if to remind me of my new existence. Uff, totally annoying! And hello,  when did this alien Hindi even become a part of my lingo anyway?!! The Chef, probably upon sensing my lack of fluency in Arabic, tried replying to me in English at first. But a part of me wanted to keep on speaking in this language that had been dormant for so long. I gave two hoots for my lousy grammar, inadequate range of words and nosy interferences of Hindi wannabes. I just wanted to feel at home by speaking a language that I had been surrounded with while growing up. A language I had been surrounded with in a homeland which only has memories that include my father in them. Chef Ibrahem must have sensed this wistful craving of mine, for he soon obliged and slipped into Arabic with me as well.

Koshary-a complete meal in itself!
Chef Ibrahem was extremely courteous and as all Egyptians go, extremely generous, spoiling us with his hospitality. When we asked him if the favourite street meal, Koshary, was available, he said it was not on the menu that day. But in ten minutes, we found two bowlfuls of the delicious rice-macaroni-chickpeas-lentils-fried onions bonanza, arriving at our table, complete with tomato salsa, shata (chilli sauce) and garlic oil, specially made by him for us. Along with it came freshly baked whole wheat Aish Balady (pita bread) and a platter of Egyptian sweets, including Konafa. This of course was all in addition to the lovely delicacies that were already part of the buffet.

The enticing salad bar.
As for the about forgotten tastes taking center stage again. I was thrilled to find the dark olive green bundles of the exquisite Wara'Enab gleaming at me from the salad counter. Basically vine leaves stuffed with a special rice preparation, this has always been one of my favourite Egyptian salad items. In addition, there were many other salad favourites, including fattoush, in which a regular green salad is tossed with pieces of hardened pita bread. Oh and let me not forget the olives!! Its an annoying feeling when you eat something you had always eaten and realize, damn, these were so good, what is this crap I am eating in the name of olives these days! The piquant silkiness of its rich flesh, married with the spicy brine, brought a whole new, or should I say old, joy to the experience of even just eating an olive!

My mom with her dear old friend Tut.
There were also many of the famous Arab dips on offer. While Hummus has become pretty common in restaurants in India, my dip of preference has always been Tahina, made of sesame paste, yoghurt, garlic, lemon and olive oil; which is difficult to find even in the metros. One of our ultimate childhood joys were the grilled burgers that we used to eat at the Gezira Sporting Club after our swimming sessions in the summer. There was nothing fancy to these burgers, just a freshly grilled burger patty slapped inside a white bun, slathered with tahina. Consumed on the ravenous appetite that comes after swimming, nothing could taste more sublime.  It was the Tahina that did the trick! So imagine this girl's joy upon savouring the perfect Tahina, here in Kochi, of all places. Teamed with the paprika sprinkled Egyptian buns, the Tahina was  just heaven as far as I was concerned and could have made an entire meal for me!

Needless to say, after the gorging of the koshary and salad items, the tummy was already full. The glass of beer that came with the meal was very welcome at this point, as were the few puffs of the sheesha that I indulged in, in between. It had been almost ten years since I last had a sheesha. Those days, it was still "harmless" and not addictive or unhealthy like cigarettes. Of course, since then, research has proven this pacifying theory wrong, so it's probably better that I don't have it at my easy disposal any more! To think I even had my own sheesha in my apartment in Seattle, where friends from all over the world used to gather late in the night, post parties, and just hang out around it! Yes taking those few puffs, which I incidentally coughed through this time, did conjure up some lovely memories.

Karan is most amused!
The kids were also very thrilled on discovering this new facet of their mom. While our mischievous Karan, who had once before categorically stated to Purushu upon seeing a man smoking a cigarette that he would do that too when he became big(!), egged us on to puff more at the sheesha, Rehan found his interest in Egypt and its history swelling. I then realized how much the place we grew up in shaped our knowledge. Especially when Rehan asked me what a "Pha-raa-ohh" was. As I explained to him that it was the name given to the kings in Ancient Egypt, it occurred to me that at his age of 9, not only did I know what a pharaoh was, but I even knew the names of most of the Egyptian Gods by heart and even a lot of the letters in hieroglyphics, thanks to our concentration on Ancient Egypt in Mr Miller's class. But then, Rehan would beat me hands down even now when it comes to knowing even the basic rules of cricket!! Yes, we definitely are working with different parameters!

Golden Pyramid Buffet Centerpiece
After a while I almost forgot that we were in Kochi, and it was only when I found it strange that Purushu was talking to one of the tarbooshed waiters in Malayalam did I land back in Kochi with a thud and headed back to the main course to complete the meal!

Coming back to the main course, I didn't think I would eat anything, but the Beef Kebbeh, a stewed meat dish, Chicken in Coriander Sauce with Chickpeas  and Baked Fish were hard to resist. And wait, they had Egyptian style rice too, with vermicelli, and Bamia, and I can just go on and on. Frankly, by the time I got to my Bamia, I could not eat any more. I was that stuffed!
A super special platter of Egyptian sweets,just for us!

But how was I to leave the dessert table. Especially with the decadent semolina goodness of Basboosa looking out at me so lovingly. And whats an Egyptian meal without a final topping of Om Ali? Okay enough now Nandini. You have eaten enough for the whole week!  We actually ended up packing up most of the sweets that Chef Ibrahem had so graciously given us, along with the freshly baked Aish Balady he had made for us to take home!

All in all, it was an out of the world, surreal experience. And the irony of it all was that it took place in the Trident, the new fancy name for the age old Indian hotel chain, The Oberois. Actually, not many people in India know that some of the prime Oberoi properties in the world are in Egypt, the key one being of course, the Mena House Oberoi. Located at the foot of the Great Pyramids, this erstwhile palace was where we were carted to as children on special occasions to eat Indian food. The famous Mughal Room restaurant there was a special treat for all of us.

The Mena House Oberoi at dusk. Yes its real!
In retrospect, even getting there was an exotic experience. First a drive through the city, crossing the majestic Nile, past all the farmland with the giant pyramids looming in the distance. We kids used to compete to be the one who saw the pyramids first. In the beginning from a long distance away and then increasingly, with the urban sprawl, it took getting right to the entrance gates right beside the Mena House Oberoi to see even one towering above us! And then we would enter the precincts of the Mena House Oberoi, walking up carpeted stairs, through the gilded halls, exotic metal lanterns hanging everywhere and mirrors extending the hallways with their gaudy reflections. It was a maze just reaching the Mughal Room, the final corridor almost like a secret hideaway, tucked away in the back, opening out into the restaurant that suddenly reverberated with the lilting melodies being performed live by the in house Indian orchestra. There, with Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar's famous songs playing in the background, we would tuck into the flavours of India in Egypt !
A thoroughly heartwarming and satisfying lunch out.

So imagine this new scenario. Albeit a little less exotic, here we were, in great anticipation, making our way through Kochi city to Willingdon Island, passing the great Vembanad Lake and the Sanjivani hospital in which the children were born (incidentally, when Rehan was younger, he used to play a similar game of finding Sanjivani in the horizon, just like we searched out the pyramids!). But this time, with Amr Diab and Umm Kolthum playing in the background  as we dug into long lost Egyptian flavours in India!!

Its been six years since I last stepped foot in Egypt. And that realization dawned on me today like a pile of bricks. How does one stay away from home that long? A trip back is long over due! Thank you to the folks at Trident for opening my eyes...and my soul.

We ain't in Egypt any more! Why?!!!
*For those Kochiites interested, this food festival at Trident Hilton is on till March 09. They have both lunch and dinner buffets. The cost per person is Rs800, inclusive of all taxes. This also includes the complimentary glass of beer and usage of the hookah counter. I for one, totally recommend the experience! And if you are in Mumbai, Chef Ibrahem will be there next, at the Trident Mumbai from March 11th onwards*