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"No Reservations" season 4, episode 18: Egypt

Location: This week Tony finds himself in Egypt, home to the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx and plenty of other tourist stereotypes. Egypt is one of the world's great cradles of civilization as well as a crossroads of many cultures (and great cuisine) from all points north, south, east and west.

Episode Rating: Three bloody meat cleavers out of five. Bourdain indeed delivers the unexpected when it comes to Egypt. Some interesting culinary discoveries but also some "snoozefest" segments that could have been left on the editing table. Also, I must say...you came all that way and didn't go to the Great Pyramids? I don't care how jaded you are towards tourists - how do you skip that?

Summary: Egypt is the kind of place most of us know at least a little something about. Whether you've already been, or it's the trip of your dreams. most of us with an urge for exploration and discovery reasonably know what to expect. Ancient pharaohs, the Nile, papyrus, mummies. But then again, we are talking about Anthony Bourdain here...

Bourdain sets a manifesto from this episode's outset - he's going to skip the prototypical Egyptian tourist spots. Why you might ask? He doesn't want the view to be cluttered by all of those tourists. But still, one has to admit the man has a unique method to his madness. Much like a Egyptologist cracking open a pharaoh's tomb for the very first time, Tony's urge to push his boundaries leads us into some interesting culinary crevices. Was Tony attacked by mummies? Does he eat more camel like in the Saudi Arabia episode? Read on to get the full story.
There seems no more obvious place to start an Egyptian visit than in Cairo, the country's largest city and one of the biggest of any across the Middle East. Of course, upon getting off the aircraft in a foreign country, my usual first instinct is to find something to eat. And Tony is no different. He heads straight to his element - the backstreets of Cairo for a breakfast of the local favorite, fuul. Basically a mix of mashed fava beans, simmered slowly with oil, garlic, chili pepper and a few other spices, fuul is typically served with the ubiquitous flatbread. It's a filling meal, especially for the many poor Egyptians who will not have another meal until dinnertime.

Having satiated his post-deplaning hunger, Tony heads to the famous Khan el-Khalili marketplace. It is just as you might picture the many vast bazaars that dot the cities of the Muslim world - tiny shops selling all manner of handicrafts, tiny curios, antiques, clothing and of course, spices.

It is precisely these spices that have brought Tony here, and he meets up with Dr. Sayeed of the American University of Cairo to tell him more about this ancient and venerable industry. Egypt was conveniently placed at the crossroads of the ancient world, between medieval Europe and the spice plantations of India and Far East. As these many spices came through Egypt, they revolutionized the country's cuisine. Dishes like stuffed pigeon are a direct outgrowth of this fact. Tony takes his history lesson to heart and sits down for a stuffed pigeon lunch with his teacher. The bird is stuffed with (what else?) spices then simmered until tender, rolled in more spices and then seared in a pan until carmelized. Is pigeon good? Absolutely yes, says Tony. All you city dwellers, go grab that bag of feathers sitting on your windowsill and throw it in the broiler. Tony says it's good!

Ok, we're "stuffed" now with pigeon. Is it too soon to mention dinner? Why no in fact, and Tony has linked up a with a local Egyptian businessman to make sure the gluttony train keeps on moving. They visit fast food chain Abou Tarek to get a taste of local specialty kushari. Kushari is practically the Egyptian national dish - as Tony points out, to not try it while in Egypt would be like going to New York and not eating at a deli. The simple meal is composed of a starchy mix of rice, spaghetti, black lentils, chickpeas and then topped with fried onions. The choice of topping sauce is a matter of personal taste - a tomato-cumin, vinegar-garlic and hot sauce are all on offer.

To wrap up his night, Bourdain and his Egyptian companion go to a traditional Egyptian cafe to drink tea and smoke from hookahs. Though Tony has given up smoking, he can't resist a pull off the old hookah pipe. The editors got a little too cute here - was the Bob Marley-style reggae music in this scene really necessary? He's smoking flavored tobacco, not ganja!

Too much urban living can make anybody anxious, so Tony takes his cue to get outta town for some Egyptian-style R&R. The Bourdain crew stops at a small farming village along the Nile River Valley. The town is emblematic of the narrow slice of land which runs along this fabled body of water - the fertile silt of the river provides the perfect soil for all manner of agricultural products.

Tony visits the home of a local family to eat. To get the meal ready, they head to the roof, where they keep their livestock. Tonight's menu includes duck, freshly made bread, freshly made cheese and freshly made butter and a local soup made with a plant called Melokhia. It is a warm and friendly outing - the food delicious, the people friendly, the setting - majestic. All is right with the world in Anthony-Bourdainland.

The final portion of Tony's Egypt trip is a visit with a group of Bedouins. Though the word "bedouin" frequently conjures visions of robe-clad peoples riding on camels, modern-day bedouins defy easy categorization. For one, their transportation of choice is now Toyota Land Cruisers. To celebrate his visit (when isn't a visit by Anthony Bourdain cause for celebration???) the bedouins prepare a feast of lamb.

The animal is killed according to proper principles - they dispatch it with the head facing southeast towards Mecca and all blood is drained before dressing the carcass. While the animal cooks, Tony spends an inordinate amount of time waxing philosophical about the desert - its emptiness and solitude and stark beauty and blah blah blah. If he didn't have so many tattoos, I think I might have mistaken him for a desert-bound version of Thoreau. Tony, it's quiet, empty and picturesque, we get it! When it's time to eat the lamb, they accompany it with rice and some "sun bread" - hardened bread that travels well and is softened in water for consumption. Mmmm mmmm!

That's it. No visit to the Pyramids. No visit to the Sphinx. For some tourists, that's a failure. But then again, for Anthony Bourdain, famous landmarks are not really his narrative and a famous place like Egypt was really no exception. Instead, we find an unexpected side of Egypt. A place where cuisine is dictated as much by thousands of years of precedent as it is by the country's remarkable crossroads of cultures and influences.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Food and Drink, Egypt, Middle East

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