A nostalgic cook recalls the picnic salads of her Egyptian childhood.
Some of my happiest childhood memories are of picnics in Egypt, where I grew up. For my family a picnic was never about the silent enjoyment of nature. We were too busy and too noisy for that. Life in Egypt was always full of people, and at picnics we were always a crowd. Everyone--relatives, friends and neighbors--was invited to join.
My favorite picnics were on the dunes of Agami near Alexandria, timed to coincide with the arrival of migrating quails on the beaches. The birds fell exhausted from their flight across the Mediterranean, only to be caught in large nets and collected in baskets. We cleaned and marinated them, then grilled them on the beach over small fires. We ate them rapturously with the flat breads and salads we had brought. At other times we hired sailboats for the evening and took our feast on board. As night fell we sang old French songs at the top of our voices.
Every now and then we carried our picnic to a small dam we called le barrage. The area was green and lush and smelled of jasmine, and the water was a peaceful presence. We also sometimes went to an oasis in the desert or to the pyramids, where we took donkey and camel rides.
The food we packed had to meet a few simple criteria. It couldn't have a sauce; it had to be transportable in containers that would not break; and it had to be eaten cold or be easily reheated on a primus stove. Each family announced what it would contribute to the meal. Some spent hours preparing sanbusak (little pies filled with meat or cheese), meatballs or meat loaves with hard-cooked eggs inside, stuffed vegetables. Some brought simpler dishes that were no less delicious: marinated fried fish, all kinds of salads and vegetables cooked in olive oil and served cold. For dessert we ate fresh fruit and pastries filled with nuts. When we were finished, the parents told jokes, gossiped and played backgammon and cards. Sometimes a galagala (magician) would appear and pull chicks out of silver goblets and handkerchiefs out of ears and noses.
The special charm of those Egyptian picnics was that, with little effort, we could be at the same time generous hosts and joyous guests, an ideal situation in our convivial world.
Claudia Roden is the author of many cookbooks, including The New Book of Middle Eastern Food (Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House Inc.). These recipes have been adapted from that book, which will be published in October.