20 million souls hustling and crowding, thronging grand avenues and shady alleys, buying and selling in slick modern shopping centers and ancient covered markets, honking and shouting, cutting business deals by cell phone and hauling furniture in donkey carts… Cairo is a busy place. To keep this massive and voracious population going, the city boasts a spectacular array of street food.

In working class neighborhoods, like here in Old Cairo, it is common to see kushari sold from carts wheeling through the streets and alleys.

Without a doubt, the queen of Cairo street foods is kushari, a steaming bowl of rice, lentils, garbanzos and a mish-mash of diverse shapes of pasta, sprinkled with crispy fried onions, doused with a spicy tomato sauce and eaten at any time of day or night for about 30 cents a pop.

Gleaming aluminum bowls wait for “eat in” clients, who eat standing up beside the cart or seated at the café on the corner; plastic ones stand ready for take out.

Fast, cheap, and nourishing, it was clearly born as a staple for the working urban masses. But so intensely addictive are its charms that as night falls in downtown Cairo one is likely to find well heeled businessmen and packs of trendy adolescents as well as taxi drivers and construction workers all eagerly wolfing down their kushari under glaring flourescent lights.

Downtown kushari establishments run more overhead. Lux is an chain with locations all over the city; this one is on the busy Qasr al Aini Street, surrounded by government buildings.

While Lux was once the cutting edge in kushari service, it has been outdone by snazzier new places like Abu Tarek. The kushari is still great, and I confess a preference for Lux's sawdust floors over Abu Tarek's aquarium-and-fountain bonanza.

Where does kushari come from? Political theorist and food enthusiast Sami Zubaida makes the interesting proposal that Cairo’s kushari is derived from the similar Indian kitchri, brought by British troupes to Egypt in the beginning of the 20th century. As Zubaida points out, the globalization of fast food goes back to way before Mr.Kroc fashioned the golden arches, and has often followed unsuspected routes.

First, you order at the cash register: kushari in the 20 cent, 30 cent or 40 cent sizes, take out or eat in. The management is extremely gracious.

The server stands ready at his great aluminum vats: one contains rice, one pasta, one garbanzos and one lentils. These are scooped one by one (in that order) into your bowl. The kitchen assistant then deftly scatters fried onions on top.

If initially the food itself followed British colonial efforts from India to Egypt, the more recent American empire has made its influence felt in how it is served. Instead of disappearing before the onslaught of hamburgers and fried chicken, local street foods are updating their image and presentation, and competing with international fast food on its own terms. While in the older neighborhoods kushari is still ladled out from wooden street carts and in tiny hole-in-the-wall eateries, in the swankier parts of town you can get your fix at a gleaming new kushari restaurant franchise with formica banquette seating and waiters in uniforms with baseball caps.

The bowl is served with a small dish of tomato sauce perched on top, which you pour over the kushari just before eating so the onions stay crisp. Spicy sauce and garlicky vinegar are provided on the table, to add at will. So simple, so magnificent.

Of course in Egypt fast food – even fast food as humble as kushari – is for the relatively well-off, those who have cash salaries like the legions of civil servants which largely comprise Cairo’s urban middle class. For a majority of the population which lives on under 2 dollars a day, the bright lights and glamour of a kushari restaurant belong to another world.

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On Food and Cooking in Gaza

If all goes well, this month Laila El-Haddad and I will begin research for a book on food and cooking in Gaza. Part cookbook, part oral history, part documentation of the present. Please have a look here.

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Kitchen Anthropology

What better way to know a place than though its inhabitants? And what better way to know people than through their kitchens?

Recently I’ve been working on what I call kitchen anthropology. It started out as practice for a project I hope to do this summer, but has taken on a life of its own.

For the last couple of months in my articles for the Atlantic I have been introducing folks from all walks of life and various parts of the country, who invite us into their homes, show us how to prepare some favorite recipe, and share a little of their stories. The idea of these articles is to make a rough portrait of Spain as seen from the kitchen. I know that when traveling I always look forward to the opportunity to hang around in kitchens, both because I like the intimate atmosphere and because I always learn something about food, culture, life. I thought perhaps you, dear reader, would get a kick out of it too.

Paella with Elena in Madrid
Bacalao with Alvaro in Alava
Olla Podrida with Amaia in Burgos

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Anything Good and Bright

The second in the series of videos about Gaza, this one about the American International School there:

Anything Good and Bright: The American International School in Gaza – better version from maggie schmitt on Vimeo.

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Fishing in Gaza

Finally finished the first of the Gaza videos! This one should be up on the webpage of The Nation in the next few days.

Fishing in Gaza from maggie schmitt on Vimeo.

What is it like to live in Gaza? On the TV we only see the bombs falling. And yet every day, day in and day out, the 1.5 million residents of the Gaza Strip must continue their daily lives and try to eke out a living, despite the blockade which since 2006 has smothered Gaza’s economy and isolated it from the world, despite the massive destruction caused by last winter’s bombing, and despite all the political turmoil and uncertainty.

This video is the first of a series about life in Gaza now.

Not so long ago, the fishermen of Gaza brought in rich hauls, and fishing was one of the pillars of the Gazan economy. But one of the many unseen consequences of the Israeli blockade has been to restrict Gazan access to shared Mediterranean waters, crippling the fishing industry. This video takes us to the port of Gaza City to talk to fishermen about the personal, economic and ecological consequences of the blockade.

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when sheep take the streets

Another article recently published in The Atlantic Food Channel.

Nomadic pastoralists take the town!
Maggie Schmitt

Last Sunday five hundred sheep passed through the center of Madrid. Sheep, and with them several oxen, lots of horses, and a bunch of mules: around the cathedral, up the historic main street, into the central square. It happens every year, though many urbanites aren’t aware of it and step out of the metro and into the flock with some alarm.

This is the Fiesta de la Transhumancia, a peculiar tradition which mixes slightly creepy official folklore with a vigorous defense of the cultural and ecological importance of transhumance, that is, the seasonal migration of livestock from summer to winter pastures and back. And one of the rare moments in which the rural world invades the city center.
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Eating under siege

An article originally published in The Atlantic in two parts.

Eating Under Siege
Maggie Schmitt

Once upon a time, Gaza was known for its citrus trees and its extraordinary seafood, the smell of jasmine in the evening. No longer: now it is hard to find any image of Gaza which does not reek of death, destruction and deprivation. And yet despite the seige, the bombings and the political turmoil which surrounds them, the people of Gaza continue to live and to create their small share of beauty and grace wherever they can. One of these places is in the kitchen.

What I want to tell you about is the kitchen, with women’s bright eyes flashing as they roll out the dough, and the herb garden religiously tended, and the delicate meal eaten in the shade of a fig tree. But alas, we are in Gaza, and I can’t talk about the kitchen without talking about everything else.
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