Troy Hightower

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A Bazaar Way to Buy Spices

One of my favorite lines of all times was uttered by a rug merchant in Istanbul--as we were walking to dinner in the purple-sky dusk, a slick-hair, shiny-suited fellow sidled up next to me and said in thickly accented English "May I rrrrip you off, my frrriend?" I damn near choked with laughter. A line nearly as good was recently voiced by a young hawker as we were entering the bazaar in Cairo: "How may I take your money?" I laughed, and patted him on the back--but he got no money.

Kahn el Kalilil, Cairo's bazaar, is a colorful and chaotic maze of pedestrian streets and narrow alleys, some almost covered by overhanging balconies. This warren, dating to 1382, is packed with people and merchants' wares of all sorts spilling into the lanes. It can't be said that it's unchanged in all that time, as there are many modern goods, and in the outer bits that give off the entry streets, lots of tourist junk. But as you wind into the heart of the souk there are shops, stalls and wares that are much as they were a hundred years ago.

The streets of the bazaar are a sideshow in themselves: A tea-seller in a colorful costume and crimson sash with a handful of tin cups in one hand, and a metal tank of mint tea on his back that he dispenses over his shoulder; white-shirted waiters that weave through the crowds balancing trays of tea and Arabic coffee above their heads; head-to-toe Burkha-clad young women ogling the jewelry in a goldsmiths window; black-robed women carrying enormous bundles of cloth atop their heads; a tall fellow rushing with a huge steaming tray of the puffed Egyptian flatbread known as eesh baladi from a bakery to some nearby shop or restaurant; a Fez-topped food seller in striped gallabiya serving the local dish of beans, lentils and pasta called Koshari from his battered cart; another pushing a blackened pushcart belching coal smoke from it's brazier-oven used to cook the hot, charred yams piled on top; sidewalk cafes with wizened fellows sitting over tiny thimbles of thick coffee and puffing on hookah water pipes. Off one side street is the café El Fishawi: this is the Kahn el Kallili of Nobel laureate Nagib Mahfouz, who sat in the cafe for hours and days gathering stories and ideas for his Nobel-winning Cairo trilogy.

And the further into the bazaar you go, the older and more authentic the shops become, with tourist baubles giving way to stalls of intricately worked leather, finely woven rugs, richly detailed gold jewelry, beautiful hammered brass and copper pots and plates, enormous tin cooking pots and platters, and, finally, spices. The aroma from the venerable shop our guide Mona leads us to literally wafts into the street to bring passers-by inside.  This spice merchant has been doling out bags and bundles of herbs, spices, roots, berries and potions for decades. Yellow wooden barrels and rolled-top burlap bags line the entry, spilling over with shredded bark, twisted dried roots, gnarled twigs and blackened lumps of things unknown and perhaps unknowable to us. Divided wooden bins line the back wall, full of brown, black, green and ochre powders, and seeds of all shapes. The atmosphere smells richly of curry, of Kofta, of India, Mexico and Morocco. We inquire of any unique local blends, such as Ras al Hanout is to Morocco, and have scoops wafted under our nose of mixtures for chicken and vegetables, and for lamb, that we finally understand are called mecalef and baharat. I ask about ground chili, and a scoop appears heaped with a brick red-brown coarsely ground powder, and the one word admonition "Hot!"--and it is--a tiny finger-taste has my mouth singing for minutes. My wife pops a lurid blue-green pepper-berry (from the bin between the ones filled with white and pink grains) and her eyes widen and she fans her mouth, blowing raggedly.

The shop’s clientele is an eclectic mix.  Large, Burkha clad women from Saudi or Irag come in to buy bags of chilies (Egyptian women cover their heads, but do not wear the full robe and veil); a venerable gentleman, red and round of face, wearing an elaborate embroidery-edged loden-green wool robe and red Fez stumps in for a couple-hundred grams of something unknown to us, followed by a small wizened man--perhaps a cook--who dashes in for a bag of dukkah, the ground nut and seed mixture that Egyptians sprinkle on their flatbread.  

We settle down to buy. Anything at all will be scooped out to sample its smell or taste. There are a tremendous number of very strange things that we'll never understand or use--those twisted black roots and dusty shredded twigs--but there is much that we use all the time. We sample cumin and coriander seed, turmeric powder, saffron from Turkey, and the best stuff (at three times the price) from Spain, black and white peppercorns, beautiful star anise pods, green cardamom pods from Kerala, and finally some of the mescalef for grilling chicken. Our haul of plastic bags lined up, the counterman tallies the cost, and shouts a number to the cashier, pointing for us to head over there. The moneyman rings up 38 pounds Egyptian (about 8 dollars) on an ancient cash till, and hands us change, and a receipt to take back to the counterman to recover our wares. We leave the heady world and return to the din of the lanes happily laden with spice and with anticipation of piquant skewers of lamb shawarma with that baharat and eggplant aromatic with the mecalef.  

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