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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE