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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Living in Cairo: Meat

Once while given an option of dinner choices, I was asked whether I would like "meat" or "chicken."  I had always thought that chicken counted as "meat," but here in Cairo it must only count as a quasi-meat.  Despite the distinction, this post is about all forms of animal protein.

Most Cairenes buy their meat from a vendor who deals in animal protein and nothing else.  Technically, they could be called a butcher, but what kind of meat you want dictates who you go to for the said meat.  If you're looking for beef, you go to the beef man, and if you're looking for poultry (or rabbit), you go to the poultry man.

The poultry man lives a very noisy existence.  They're very easy to spot because the front of the store is filled with palm-frond rib cages containing various forms of poultry.  I've seen chickens, geese, ducks, a few turkeys, and pigeons.  Some also have rabbits.  Chickens often time will be tied to the top of a cage, and pigeons also can be found milling about atop another cage.  All are alive.

If I were looking for a chicken, I would go and pick out the one I wanted, and the poultry man would grab the bird by the wings (a very effective way to carry them as they can't peck you or try and fly away), take it in the back and kill it.  After killing the bird, he would plunge it into a pot of boiling water, and then pluck off the feathers.  The unwanted insides would go next after the carcass was drained of blood, and the useful ones would be stuck, along the rest of the chicken, into a plastic grocery bag.  After 10-15 minutes, I would have a chicken ready for cooking that had been alive a quarter of an hour ago.  Can't beat that for fresh.

If I wanted beef, I would go to a man that had a beef carcass hanging out in front of his store.  Some wrap them in wet cloth to keep the flies off, and some don't.  I've heard tales of cows (in more local areas than Maadi) being led live to the butcher shop and slaughtered right on the spot.  Evidently local children think it's great fun to stick their hands in the blood and smack red handprints over any hard surface available, including cars.

The beef man would ask me how much beef I wanted, and then go over to the cow and cut off the requested amount of beef from wherever they had gotten to for the last cut.  Egyptians have no roasting of meat in their cooking repertoire, and so cuts of meat are irrelevant.  Meat is either minced up for kofta and meat pastry, or boiled in a pot.  Filet mignon is not an option.  At some of the butchers in Maadi that cater to ex-pats, they have approximations of cuts, although they can be a little dicey.  A friend of mine told me once of a butcher who carefully cut the meat he had hacked off into the shape of the requested tenderloins.  

If I wanted lamb, I would go to a butcher that had lamb, and the lamb would get the same treatment - however many kilos of the stuff that you want, and the same price regardless of where it came from.  For Easter I sent Rere out for a nice leg of lamb for dinner.  She came back with something in a black bag, pleased with herself for the price, and I stuck it in the freezer.  Only after I had defrosted it, did I realize the reason for the bargain price - she had gotten the front leg of the lamb, not the big meaty back leg.  Fine for stewing, not so fine for roasting.

Thankfully for any adherent to Julia Child's, there is a final option: the Commissary.  They may not have as many cuts as your local grocer, but at least they're labeled and they're in the list provided by Julia.  All I have to do then is choose top or bottom round, find a vacuum-packed plastic covered chunk of frozen beef of the right weight, and have the check-out lady beep it along with the RitterSport chocolate and Lurpack butter.  Oh Commissary, how I love thee.


PaulaJean said...

Gives new meaning to 'fresh.'

UnkaDave said...

Nothing 'mystery' about that meat, baby! Probably not the worst thing for kids to know from whence their hamburger arises.