Of food and faith

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 19 Apr 2022

South and Southeast Asian students at Al-Azhar University in Cairo have been introducing a new taste to the city’s Ramadan Iftars, with Al-Azhar sending out delegations across the World to help other Muslim communities gain a flavour of the holy month, writes Dina Ezzat

Sherif Sonbol
photos: Sherif Sonbol

 

A taste of Asia in Ramadan

Cairo’s Nasr City has become a centre of Malaysian, Indonesian, and Thai cuisine

Some five years ago, Rahim and his wife Julia came from Malaysia to Cairo with the plan to spend eight years in Egypt while their daughter Aisha studied medicine at Assiut University. The family’s move was designed to spare separations and to economise on travel fares that would otherwise have been necessary for family gatherings.

Having left behind their small businesses in Malaysia, Rahim and Julia decided they needed a stable income to help eke out their savings. Cooking and selling inexpensive meals to the large community of Malaysian students attending Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Rahim said, seemed an obvious choice. His wife is an excellent cook, and he is skilled in business management.

Nasr City already had many stalls or small shops offering simple, low-budget meals for Southeast Asian students clustering in the dorms of their university or in small apartments across the neighbourhood. However, Rahim said that having taken a walk around Al-Hayy Al-Sabei (the Seventh District) he decided that the already existing restaurants or stalls were busy enough to allow for a new operation to be introduced.

Finding the ingredients for traditional Malaysian dishes was not always easy or affordable. It is hard to find the pandan leaves required for the Nasi Lamak dish, for example, which is made of rice soaked in coconut oil and steamed with pandan leaves and then wrapped in banana leaves with cucumbers, hardboiled eggs, fried anchovies, and shrimp paste, all with chili sauce.

Coconut oil and Malaysian spices are not easy to find in Cairo either. Rahim had to count on visits from friends and acquaintances to bring him essential ingredients for his small store for a couple of years. But then he and Julia got more acquainted with the range of vegetables and spices available in Egypt and started improvising with what was available, “something that all people do with all recipes,” he said.

Whatever he offered tasted authentic enough to please the palates of the young Malaysian men and women who sought a taste of home in Egypt. The dishes he made caused him to be in demand as the permanent cook at an inhouse restaurant in an apartment building dedicated to Malaysian students in Nasr City.