Shopping Tales: Commissaries and vegetable souks

I’m learning how lucky we are to have access to the commissary here. Not that we couldn’t fulfill all our needs on the local economy, but it’s a great comfort to be able to buy Kelloggs cereals, Prego, Wheat Thins, and Oodles of Noodles, not to mention tofu pups, Amy’s frozen vegetarian dinners, Morningstar soy-meat crumbles and burgers, and Silk soy milk. On top of that, the prices at the commissary are actually better than what we spend at home: Kelloggs’ cereals for $2.50 each (I can’t remember the last time they were that low back home); a jar of minced garlic for $0.85; a liter of EVOO for $5.00. Great benefit!

The sign out front says “Cairo Commissary, Where your dreams come true.” We joke about that, but I can guarantee you that almost everybody has done a little happy-dance when they spotted their own personal “Morningstar Crumbles” and had that internal squeal of delight.

On the local economy, we have some chain grocery stores, like Metro and Alfa Market, and we’ve found that they certainly carry a wide variety of products, have relatively good vegetable and fruit selections, and as a plus include a lot of products from Europe and, to my utter delight, a lot of English chocolates and biscuits. If I so chose, I could now relive my childhood glee at receiving a box of Quality Street or Rose’s assorted chocolates from my British Nana at Christmas, every day! I have not done so, though there have been days I’ve seriously considered it.

The stores get smaller as we go down from the Metros and Alfa Markets (which are very westernized, including Amy Grant and Phil Collins blaring from the sound system), to the local Egyptian groceries which tend to be smaller, and remind me of groceries in NYC, with their narrow aisles, boxes stacked to the ceiling and colorful local characters, to the individual stores and stalls selling fruit and veg, or bread goods, or the local butcher with carcasses hanging out to “lure” you in, I guess. Finally, we have the vegetable markets, or souks, with their carts and wares spread out for all to pick and choose from.

I ventured over to the vegetable souk on Road 7 in Maadi a few weeks ago. I’d had great luck at buying a delicious watermelon from Metro the week before, and thought I’d try it even more locally, and include some veggies for a stir-fry I wanted to try. Possibly moreso than any other place I’ve visited so far, walking into this market was like entering another world. The market I’d seen was set up under the fly-over bridge, but as I walked through I saw that it continued down around the street and up a narrower street/alley. Each cart or booth was selling relatively the same things, with stacks of onions, lemons (they’re often green here, and are the size of golf balls), potatoes, green beans, peppers, tomatoes, cabbage, some things I didn’t recognize, and watermelons, apples, mangos, kiwis, and grapes (covered in very happy flies and bees, I might add), to merely mention some. I thought it best to wander for a while before making my purchases, plus I’d heard there was a spice store down here somewhere. I came upon a small, dark store that I thought sold spices due to the smell, but part of my desire to buy spices is to see them piled high in their containers, displaying all their vibrant colors and scents to the world, and this was just dark and dingy, so I moved on. It was definitely becoming an alley at this point, narrow, sometimes crowded, and then I came upon a group of men sitting around small tables drinking tea and relaxing. And just behind them wuffling around in the dirt was a little herd of beautiful long-haired goats. I paused for half-a-second when I saw them as my alarm bells went off and I looked around to also see stacks of tiny wooden crates crammed with live chickens (just like the battery cages in the states) and pigeons sitting on stops of cages (I know they eat them here and I’m sure their wings have been clipped to prevent them flying away). Having a flash of a headline in the local paper, “Crazed expat attempts to liberate animals from 200-year-old souk, while wearing Safari hat,” I opted instead to promptly turn around and head back to the fruits and vegetables and try to forget what I’d seen.

My attempt at buying a watermelon was unsuccessful, but mainly because I wanted a small watermelon (it is only me and Ron, after all) and all she had was large ones weighing about 10 kilos (everything here is in kilos, so I simply must learn what that means in relation to buying a kilo of potatoes or peppers, as currently I use the number method, “3 potatoes, please”). At one point when I was trying to communicate with her, I was holding a 20-pound note, but really only wanted to spend 10-pounds. Suddenly I noticed that she was holding the 20-pound note so I casually pulled it out of her hand and tried to dig up the word for ‘small’ in my Arabic. I realized later than I was not asking for a small watermelon, I was asking for a short watermelon, but I figure my hand gesture of something shrinking got my intent across, despite my words. During this belabored impromptu language class, the brown blanket that looked like it was draped over a pile of watermelons in the back shifted, and a man emerged who spoke some English. At this point, I realized that they didn’t really have any smaller ones, as I could see what was there, so I thanked them both and slunk off.

I next attempted to buy a few vegetables. I think most people tend to buy kilos or half kilos (pr. “noss kilo”) of items, so my interest in three green peppers, four little zucchini, and one lemon, was merely an annoyance to the seller. But I took his bag and chose my items, paid my LE 3 ($0.60) and walked home feeling that I’d at least accomplished something. I would like to get to the point where we’re buying a lot of stuff locally, but we’ll see what my explorations of Zamalek uncover.

Aside from the live animals, I loved the experience of the vegetable market. The flurry of activity, buyers perusing, sellers hawking, young boys trying to get you to come to another stall, noisy and active, with the smells of fresh fruit and vegetables assaulting you at every turn. It’s obviously a good place for me to practice my Arabic too, although my watermelon failure was not my only blunder for the day, although I didn’t know it at the time.

My walk home, back over the pedestrian fly-over was hampered slightly by the verbal assaults of a very insistent two-year-old who would not leave me alone. I had seen him and his mother sitting on the stairs when I came over, but returning I was right in his sights and he just followed and chattered away. Cute as he was, I had my veggies, didn’t want to purchase a child at the time, and really don’t want to encourage the begging (though I really haven’t figured out how to handle these interactions to my moral/ethical satisfaction, as they are frequent), so I just ignored him and walked faster.

A few days later when I made my stir-fry (first attempt, I might add, too), I found that when I tasted one of the waterchestnuts from the stir-fry it made my lips a little tingly. I thought it was odd, but continued on. I stir-fried together tofu, waterchestnuts, canned mushrooms, fresh green peppers, zucchini and onion. As Ron and I were eating we both found something to be very hot and spicy. It took a little testing, but we figured out it was the green peppers, which we promptly removed. Apparently I’d purchased either large jalapenos or small (new-to-me) spicy green peppers. So now I will go to the souk armed with the Arabic word for spicy, to ensure that doesn’t happen again.