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A local market in Cairo

A local market in Cairo

Africa, Cairo Chronicles, Egypt, Expat Life, Outside India, Photo Essays, Travel Extras

Every time Tarek and I visit a new country, we never miss going to a local market. Being naturally curious, we love to get a glimpse of what life is like for the people living there. The best way to experience that is to visit the local market and food speaks volumes about the prevalent culture. We also love the jumble of colours, textures, smells, and sounds of local markets and photographing one in its candid form gives us great pleasure. Needless to say, since last few weeks we have been visiting a local market in Cairo near us and our trip consisted of fresh produce, culture shocks, and amazing pictures. In our little glass bubble of expat life in Cairo, in Egypt it is very easy to spend a lot of money on food and the supermarkets here are not the best place to buy fresh produce. Overpriced and often dated, they come packed in masses of plastic and the products are generally wilted, gone bad, or simply too old for consumption.

visit a local market in cairo
Local market in Cairo is a riot of colours

 Imbabah, our local market in Cairo

 Being born and brought up in Calcutta, where buying fresh produce from the local market is a happy morning ritual, I hated the supermarket visits and thus started our weekly affair of going to a local market in Cairo. It is located in an area called Imbabah on the other side of the Nile across our Gezira island and except for the market visits, we avoid the place completely. On usual days, a big established souq bustles there from morning till night and on the weekends, it becomes a sprawling crowded giant of a community market. Farmers, small-time growers, and buyers come from all over the surrounding villages to buy, sell, haggle, and go back home with either bags full of shopping or money. Traffic is a chaos at that time, garbage heaps topple over, and it is a pickpocket’s heaven. We visited the market once during the weekend and it was a messy productive time. I shopped, while Tarek bargained in Arabic, took pictures, and Akash smiled at whoever gave him treats to enjoy.

You may also like: Rialto Market in Venice

visit a local market in cairo
The meat lane is not for the weak stomach

 The culture shock called local market in Cairo

The first time I visited Imbabah market, a whole camel was being skinned right in front of me. The flesh, blood, and primitive way, the carcass was being skinned made me throw up and it was my first culture shock in Egypt. After that, I avoided that lane entirely and even stayed away from the butcher section. The market is divided into zones based on the commodity of sale, and the butcher’s lane is not for the weak stomach. Apart from meat hung from hooks, there were also entails, hooves, heads complete with frozen eyeballs, skins, tongues, and strings of sausages on display. Hens, roosters, pigeons, ducks, rabbits, and turkeys cluck nervously from wire coops and crowds of fluffy yellow chicks cheep from plastic tubs. There is a certain odour in that is constantly there in that zone and it smells of fresh meat, fear, and death.

Suggested Read: Flower market of Da Lat in Vietnam

Visit local market in Cairo for cheap buys
Egypt is a fruit lovers’ delight

Pomegranates, dates, nectarines, and bananas

The fruit market in contrast to the meat zone is a visual delight and sheer amount of colours make the eyes pop. Think piles of jewel-coloured fruits heaped in wicker baskets, arranged in mounds, and spread out on sheets for sale. Vivid orange, red, green, yellow and browns dazzle from everywhere and the air smells sweet from their juices. It mingles with the dust rising from the constant footfall of the crowd and sing-song voices of the sellers catch the ears. The prices are marked in Arabic in placards and if I do not speak,  and get known as a foreigner, then a bag full of fresh fruits come home with me at a quarter of the supermarket rates. Egypt has a bountiful fruit farming industry and there are cantaloupes, bananas, mangoes, strawberries, watermelons, dates, pomegranates, grapes, and custard apple available straight from the farms.

You may also like: The Varanasi markets

vegetables for sale at a local market in cairo
Taro or Colacasia is a popular Egyptian vegetable

The colour burst of the vegetable section

Locally grown vegetables in Egypt lack in variety and in summer, I have been told, that they are positively dismal. In winter, however, the greens do not wilt and colours pop from every corner of the vegetable section. The staples of the Egyptian cuisine are potatoes, yams, onions, garlic, green onion, lots of herbs like parsley, coriander, mint, ginger, dill, aubergine, cauliflower, cabbage, tomatoes, pumpkin, okra, peas, carrots, bell peppers, and zucchini. There are certain indigenous leafy vegetables like molokhia or the Jews Mallow, Gargir or the Ruccola which are very popular among the locals and women sell glistening bunches of them for less than a dollar. Grape leaves are considered as a local delicacy and are kept separately in stacks for sale. The Egyptian housewives buy small stacks of vine leaves every time to soak them in oil and vinegar to bring about a velvety texture before turning them into meals.

Recommended Read: Food market of Girona in Spain

cheese seller at local market in cairo
Woman selling Egyptian white cheese called Domiati

Legumes, cheese, and spices

Traditionally Egyptian cuisine is a very vegetarian-friendly diet. It relies heavily on legumes, lentils, cheese, and grains. The local market in Cairo is a potpourri of different pulses, a variety of cheese, and legumes which are sold from barrels. It is believed that cheese originated in the Middle East and the two alabaster jars found at Saqqara, dating from the first dynasty of Egypt contained cheese. Egyptian love their local cheese and the white cheese with tomato is a delicious starter. The spice section of the market completely resembles one in India and sometimes I get disoriented due to the familiarity. Dried red chili, cumin, turmeric, coriander, bay leaves, onion seeds, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, aniseed, cinnamon, cloves..the list is endless. The unique item is the dried red karkadeh or the hibiscus petals and it is used in making a drink, which can be consumed hot or cold.

egyptian bread seller at a local market in Cairo
The Egyptian bread or Aish Baladi seller

The good Egyptian bread and a fishy affair

Bread is the backbone of the Egyptian cuisine. It is consumed by one and all and no local market in Cairo is complete without a bakery tossing out big platters of Egyptian bread fresh from the oven. A hearty thick pita, the Egyptian bread is known as aish baladi and it literally means ‘living or a way of life’. The bread shops are scattered all over the market and at every time of the day has a crowd of customers. They are centers of a lot of action and there is always, kneading, baking, selling, counting money, and balancing platters of bread on cycle riding sellers heads going on. The seafood market is located at one end and it is the least crowded places on the market. Fish and seafood do not come cheap even at local prices and the squids, tilapia, prawns, and mussels glisten for a long time before they get buyers.

Suggested for you: The pretty Agora market of Crete in Greece

Fish shop at local market in Cairo
The coastal areas of Egypt love fish

Why we love the local market in Cairo?

Tarek and I are very earthbound people and nothing makes us happier than connecting with our environment. That is why have decided to integrate into the local life as much as possible and enjoy activities like going to the local market in Cairo, eating local produce, and supporting small businesses of that area. We even save a lot of money with this and according to the timeless adage, ‘money saved is money earned’. Our kitchen is stocked with gorgeous produce from the local market, which we choose ourselves and the food we eat is fresh, nourishing, and wholesome.

Poultry shop at local market in Cairo
The local experience cannot get better than this

The love of local connection

There are also some beautiful insights gained during those visits and in a highly class-segregated Egyptian society, we have met the some of the nicest people in this supposed ‘have-not’ part of the town. They laugh, smile, argue, bargain, joke, and at the end of the day, accept us within their folds, without any prejudice or purpose. Owing to our background, we are unique to them and we learn the local way of life from our weekly visits to the local market in Cairo. Someone has rightly said, ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes’ and the best way to do that is to head straight to a local market on your next trip.

Do you like visiting the local markets too? Tell me about it.

visit a local market in cairo
Strawberries are in season now
Shop women of local market in Cairo
The hard-working peas seller

P.S – This blog post is part of the weekly series called the Cairo Chronicles. Every week, Maverickbird will take on a new theme, emotion, and beauty of an expat life in the exciting, maddening city of Cairo.

Lady selling ducks at local market in Cairo
The duck seller at local market in Cairo
Fish market in Cairo
These small fishes are local delicacy
Salad leaves for sale at local market in Cairo
Egyptian diet includes a lot of salad, herbs, and leafy vegetables
Winter vegetables in Cairo
These turnips were so freshly plucked from the farm that they had sweet smelling earth stuck to them
Lemons being sold in local market in Cairo
Lemon is heavily used in Egypt and lemonade is a very popular drink
Chilies for sale in Cairo local market
There is a wide variety of chilies to be found in Egypt.
Poultry shop in local market in Cairo
The lonesome rooster at the poultry shop
garlic seller at a local market in Cairo
Locally produce pungent garlic of Egypt is often sold as air-dried bunches like these
Eggplants is a yearly vegetable in Egypt
Made into baba ghanoush, eggplants are big and purple in Egypt
Tomato is heavily used in Egyptian food
Egyptian gravies are all tomato based
Mandarin is a winter fruit in Egypt
Mandarins are sold in big orange heaps all over Cairo at the moment
Lemon seller at a local market in Cairo
A local market is a photographer’s delight

Disclaimer – All photo credits and copyrights belong to Tarek Abulzahab. Any kind of use or reproduction of the images is not permitted without the photographer’s consent.

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4 Comments

  1. Sandeepa
    January 18, 2018 at 8:46 am
    Reply

    Oh, I am loving your Cairo chronicles. So much so that just this morning I was looking at ticket prices to Egypt.
    We’ve experienced such a “home connect” in the local markets everywhere. It’s amazing how just walking down the isles of local produce with the local people help you belong to a place.

    • maverickbird
      January 18, 2018 at 9:08 am

      Please do visit Egypt and you guys can always stay with us. The prices are cheap on Emirates at the moment (wink wink). We love visiting local markets at every place we visit. The energy, the local slice of life, and then the universal connection of food, make them very appealing.

  2. Prasad Np
    January 18, 2018 at 9:01 am
    Reply

    Love those vibrant colors and the energy the vendors bring to the experience. These are the kind of blog posts that one rarely encounters. Kind of a true window into thousands of year old culture

    • maverickbird
      January 18, 2018 at 9:06 am

      Wow. Thank you very much. The Egyptian markets indeed reflect the soul of Egypt..loud, boisterous, colourful, and full of lively energy. They are so familiar to India, that I always get homesick when visiting the local market.

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