this article was done by a Singaporean acquaintance of mine about a week ago (published in the Sunday Times).  i don’t really agree with all that he posted below but then hey, its a free country (here)!  …

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SINGAPOREAN ABROAD
IN CAIRO WITH…Hermes Lin Yichao
 

Age: 24 

Occupation: Trainee manager 

Length of stay: One year 


 

Cairo is a city that thrills, in every sense of the word, says Hermes Lin Yichao, a trainee hotel manager with Hilton Hotels Worldwide, who has been in the Egyptian capital for a year. 

While Cairo literally means The Conqueror in Arabic, it is also known to many as Um ad-Dunya (Mother of the World), a reference to its antiquity. 

Established in the 10th century, the city is a big tourist draw with the Sphinx and pyramids of Giza about 20km away. 

Like many ancient cities, Cairo has been occupied by invaders from the Mamluks and Ottomans to the British. 

Today, it is one of the world’s most densely populated cities, with nearly seven million inhabitants. It is also an educational and cultural hub. 

GETTING AROUND  

The best way to explore the city is… 

By white metered taxis. The meter starts at 2.50 Egyptian pounds (S$0.60)) and generally increases by 0.25 Egyptian pounds a kilometre. However, meters are sometimes rigged and drivers may spend the entire trip haggling for a higher fare. 

Be assertive and never pay more than 25 Egyptian pounds (S$6) for any trip within Cairo, regardless of the distance. 

The city is often classified as one of the most dangerous cities in the world to drive in. 

Public transport consists of a limited underground train network, charging 1 Egyptian pound for trips to any station and a sprawling bus network, with fares costing 0.5 to 2 Egyptian pounds, depending on the distance. However, both are not recommended if you do not speak Arabic as they are poorly maintained and do not have proper signage. 

The best time to visit is…  

During winter between November and March, when the temperature is about 25 deg C in the day and 10 deg C at night. Cairo usually has a very brief spring and autumn and it almost never rains. 

Summer temperatures can be searing, going up to 40 deg C, and the discomfort is often worsened by the pollution. 

Which places in the city excite you? 

Wander in Islamic Cairo in the city centre, known for its historic mosques and Islamic monuments, and you will be transported back to a bygone mediaeval era. 

The Cairo Citadel, a fortification built in the 12th century, is the most prominent landmark. 

Notable buildings in the district include the Mosque of Ibn Tulun, the oldest and largest mosque in Cairo, and Al-Azhar University, the oldest university in the world with a history dating back to AD970. 

The Egyptian Museum, the city’s main museum, is bursting at the seams with the priceless trove of Egypt’s antiquities. It is open from 9am to 5pm daily, and the entrance fee for adults is 60 Egyptian pounds (30 Egyptian pounds for students). But the real heart of Cairo lies in the quiet moments you steal in between: sipping a sugary chai (tea) or puffing leisurely on a sheesha (water pipe) by the Nile during the evenings while watching people go by. 

Do you need to know the language to get around? 

Most of the residents generally do not speak much English. Picking up basic Arabic phrases will go a long way in building some rapport with them. 

For example, ‘maharba’ means hello, while ‘shukran’ means thank you. A smile will be appreciated by most Egyptians too. 
 

FOOD AND WINE  

Where can you find food that is close to Singaporean fare? 

Asian food is not common in Cairo and there are only a few restaurants which serve authentic Asian fare. 

The best Asian restaurant that I frequent is Kamala (Conrad Cairo, 1191 Corniche El Nil, tel: +202 2580 8430) which features cuisine from South-east Asian countries such as Thailand and Vietnam. 

The restaurant has attracted a large number of loyal Singaporean diners, including the Singapore ambassador to Egypt. 

Dishes on the menu include favourites such as Indonesian ikan pepes (steamed fish in banana leaves) and ayam bakar (flame-broiled chicken), and Thai green curry and stir-fried basil jumbo prawns. 

Prices are surprisingly moderate, considering the well-appointed interiors, food quality and service. 

It costs about 120 Egyptian pounds for lunch and 150 Egyptian pounds for dinner, depending on how much you order. 

Your favourite eating place is… 

GAD restaurant (13 Fouad St, Downtown Cairo, tel: +202 2576 3353), which specialises in traditional delicacies such as shawarma (a wrap with different meats), kibda (Alexandrian-style liver with chilli) and some of the best fatir (flat bread) in town. 

While you can get a sit-down meal at the air-conditioned area upstairs, the restaurant also has a very popular takeaway section downstairs, which is always crowded. You will be able to eat to your heart’s content for 20 to 30 Egyptian pounds. 

Do not leave the place without trying…  

Koshery, a vegetarian dish that was originally popular with the Coptic Christians who adhered to a meatless diet during their fast. Ingredients include rice, lentils and macaroni, with a spicy tomato sauce topped with caramelised onions. It costs 5 Egyptian pounds, and is an Egyptian staple. 

The coolest place to chill out in is… 

Sequoia Restaurant (53 Abou El Feda Street, tel: +202 2735 6050/51), which has gained popularity as an upmarket venue offering exotic Mediterranean cuisine in a laid-back atmosphere with a sweeping view of the Nile. Sequoia has a minimum charge of 100 Egyptian pounds. 
 

CULTURE FIX  

What do you think Singaporeans will like most about your city? 

The ancient history, the rich culture and the friendly inhabitants. 

What is one place you always take your friends to when they visit you? 

Al-Azhar Park (Salah Salem Street, tel: +202 5103868). Listed as one of the world’s 60 greatest public spaces, this 30ha green haven offers a place for locals and foreigners to escape from the cacophony of the city. There is also an open-air observation deck on a hill in the park that provides a breathtaking view of Old Cairo and its citadel. 

What is the one thing you must do in your city? 

Catch the whirling Sufi dervishes from the Al Tannoura Troupe (Wekalet Al-Ghoury Arts Center, Al Azhar Street, Cairo Egypt, tel: +201 2590 3737). Performances are held twice a week – on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 8pm – and admission is free. Show up early as tickets are given out on a first-come-first-served basis. 

For believers, Sufism is the inner, mystical dimension of Islam, while Sufi whirling is a unique form of physical, active meditation. 

The spinning of one’s body is seen as mirroring the movement of the planets orbiting the sun and is believed to help one surrender the ego and personal desires on the path to spirituality. 

The hypnotic music allows the dancer to attain ecstasy and is a symbolic attempt to approach heaven and the Source of All Perfection, Allah. It is quite a mesmerising spectacle to watch, including the beautiful multicoloured skirts which the performers detach during a performance and twirl above their heads and torsos. 

Sufi dancers must train from a very young age, before their bodies’ inner ear is fully developed, which regulates their sense of balance. This is the only way they can spin continuously for an hour or more without becoming dizzy or ill. 

What do you do on your weekends?  

Travelling. Cairo is a massive city and you almost never run out of things to see and do. When the crowds and the intensity of the city get too much for me, I check out nearby Egyptian cities that are close to the coast such as Alexandria, Port Said, Ismailia and El Ain Sokhna for their beautiful beaches and let the refreshing sea breezes set my mind at ease. 
 

SHOPPING  

Where is the best place to go on a shopping spree?  

Khan el Khalili market (bordered by al-Azhar Street and Muski Market). It is easy to lose a day shopping and wandering in this sprawling souk in the heart of Cairo. Most of the shopfronts conceal cramped workshops, where craftsmen produce lanterns, hookah (sheesha) pipes and brassware using traditional techniques. 

But be ready for a good haggle. The merchants are masters in the art of haggling, and even Egyptians joke that they can never buy at local prices. 

After all the walking, give your feet a rest at the famous El Fishawy teahouse (5 Sikkit Khan al-Khalili, Islamic Cairo North). This cafe is the Grand Dame of Cairo’s coffeehouses, at 250 years of age. A drink there costs 10 Egyptian pounds. 
 

FESTIVALS  

Are there any festivals that travellers should look out for?  

At the El-Korba Festival, which usually takes place in May, entertainment and cultural activities are the order of the day. Peace and diversity meet in one place and people indulge in the beauty of the ancient Heliopolitan district. 

Are there things to see or do outside the city?  

Apart from the usual haunts for the Singaporean tourist on the typical Cairo-Alexandria-Luxor-Aswan-Abu Simbel tours along the Nile, I would highly recommend diving in the Red Sea at the seaside resorts of Sharm El-Shiekh ( www.sharmelsheikh.com ) or Hurghada (141 Kotas Mall Hurghada Red Sea, tel: +2 0100-0633030, www.hurghada.com ). 

If time allows, include desert adventures at the beautiful Siwa Oasis, one of Egypt’s most isolated settlements, or the stunning black and white deserts at Bahariya Oasis.

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cant belive that i havent blog for five months … work’s hell so havent had the mood nor enthusiasm to pursue this although there are a couple of materials in my head … perhaps i will pen something down soon

anyway, interestingly enough, this site has seen a small but steady flood of visitors despite me not putting up any new material, mostly strangers keen to read on my features about Egyptian food …  whereby i should offer myself some self-congratulations that the blog had, besides serving to help me cope when i first arrived to Cairo about 2.5 years ago, also been a kind of info-guide to those about to come to this very fascinating country for the very first time …

so there, at least ive been a good guest and helped in my own small way to ‘sell’ this country to the many visitors … yup, after two plus years, its still a difficult love-hate relationship … but like i always tell my friends here – i do suspect Cairo  really really loves me

And now i know why im a fast food addict ……..

admit it – if you have driven via the N-S highway before, you will have been tempted to stop at the rest point with the A&W restaurant to savour the root beer float, coney dog and curly fries, rite? …

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Feb 14, 2010

I’m loving a bite of nostalgia

By Teo Cheng Wee

Ah, Chinese New Year. My favourite culinary time of the year. A month of indulging in delicious pineapple tarts, bak kwa, love letters and… the McDonald’s Prosperity Burger.

Yes, amazingly this McDonald’s burger has become as much a part of my Chinese New Year diet as the traditional snacks.

In case you missed the advertisements that are liberally splashed in all the papers, the Prosperity Burger is a seasonal McDonald’s burger which comes around this time of the year.

It is, as its advertisement says, a burger that delivers ‘juicy beef patties spiced with black pepper sauce and onions’ – and invariably photographed against a joyous red backdrop and auspicious Chinese characters.

I know what you’re thinking, so let me stop you right there.

If you think I have suddenly become a paid spokesman for McDonald’s, allow me to clarify.

Firstly, McDonald’s doesn’t hire no-name columnists as spokesmen.

Secondly, I hate fast food.

Thirdly, I especially hate McDonald’s. I’m, to paraphrase its own tagline, not loving it.

In fact, I make a face whenever someone suggests eating there.

‘McDonald’s? What are you, a teenager?’ I’ll always ask in a disdainful tone.

‘But I am a teenager,’ my young cousin would usually reply. ‘And stop making a face. You’re not a child.’

Whatever. You can’t reason with kids these days.

Just like I can’t reason why I have already eaten the Prosperity Burger meal five times in the past month, when I haven’t even stepped into McDonald’s five times in the past year.

But then I’ve come to realise that I have a love-hate relationship with fast food, if you can call a relationship that is 99 per cent hate a love-hate relationship.

My reason for disliking fast food is not uncommon: It’s unhealthy, gimmicky, not particularly delicious and often promoted by ghastly mascots (I mean, a creepy clown and a dead colonel? Seriously, it’s amazing kids don’t run away screaming).

Yet, fast food restaurants, with their Disney movie tie-ins, cheery layouts and sprawling playgrounds, have an amazing hold on the young ones.

What’s even more amazing is the hold they continue to have after people have supposedly outgrown fast food.

Therein lies the 1 per cent love.

Take the Prosperity Burger, for example. It’s fairly tasty – I think more so than its regular burgers – but a big part of its appeal for me is its nostalgia.

I still remember the first time the Prosperity Burger was introduced when I was young, as well as the Samurai Burger, which came with teriyaki sauce.

Now these were not exactly the best burgers in the world, but they were the burgers I ate when I was a kid.

Which is why I’m not surprised that Wendy’s is attracting all sorts of queues since it reopened at Lau Pa Sat. Wendy’s had first come here in the 1980s, when people my age were discovering the magical world of french fries and Coca-Cola.

It’s not hard to imagine why fast food restaurants would hold fond memories for people of my generation.

Fast food was still considered a luxury when I was a kid. As such, it was a place my parents took me to only if I did well in school or if I was celebrating my birthday.

Even when I was older, it was a place where I could treat myself only once in a while because meals there cost so much more than at the school canteen.

Nostalgia is the same reason that drives many of my friends to A&W whenever they visit me in Malaysia, where I travel to for work sometimes.

The main draw? Waffles and root beer float.

Never mind that Malaysia is overrun with delightful street food. Or that even I, a culinary idiot, can take out a glass mug from a fridge, pour root beer into it and add a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

The point was that while we were eating, all we were reminiscing about was how we would rush to A&W on Tuesdays because it was Coney Day, when the Coney Dog went for just $1.50.

We would also pop into Malaysia’s KFC because it still has chilli and ketchup bottles, rather than packets.

‘Just like the old days,’ we would say with a silly grin on our face.

Fast food can never compare to mum’s cooking, but from these experiences, it can sometimes evoke the same memories.

And for those fleeting moments, we would forget that this stuff is way too greasy or sweet or overcooked and – like we did all those years ago – just tuck in.

i knew something was wrong when it did not squeak as much as it used to when I was last back home.  a  sure sign of aging ?  perhaps. though it was still quick off the blocks when i fed it.  and how quickly within 24 hours it went to pet-heaven (or wherever dead animals go to) … such is life and that is why i detest keeping pets as much as i lurve pets – the emotional attachment hurts.

well, u had lived a vegetable-filled and fruit-ful five years or so in our household.  may where u are right now continue to be filled with cavy feed, newspapers (which u liked to chew on), fresh veggies (esp. tao-gays) and apples ! … rest in peace dear cavy (we never really named u), ur already missed by us …

It has been a while since I last blogged.  Not just because I was home for the holidays but also it has been difficult to do anything outside of office given the current work situation.  Perhaps im too harsh with myself and should learn to take more deep breaths.  Or maybe its just because i never learnt how to relax.  In any case, i dont like or want the status quo.  hopefully there will be change.  im not holding my breath on this though …

… will be back soon (i hope) …

Ramadan Dates

Ramadan Cupcakes

Bak Chang

Onigiri (with a coating of plum shavings)

egypt vs algeria

copyrite: amun_79 @ photobucket

the insults have been thrown.  the media had done its best to rub it in on the opposing side’s face.  the fans from both sides have been trying their best to deride the other team.  the leaders of both countries had to step in to soothe the unbridled nationalism which could boil over into violence.

yes, it is Egypt’s last qualifying match for World Cup 2010 tomorrow – 14 November 2009.  a last chance for Egypt to reach the pinnacle of international football following a 20-plus year absence.  the Pharaohs will need to win by three clear goals to leapfrog over group leaders, the Desert Foxes, and qualify.  the stadium, thankfully located far from where I live, will be a cauldron of mainly young, male football-obssessed fans baying for Algerian blood.  it could get ugly.

the stage is almost set.  flags of Egypt are being displayed all over people’s homes.  Egyptians are waving them too on the streets.  some even hang the flags on the cars and honking in delight.  all these acts of patriotism a full two days before the match!  woe to those who choose to wear or carry anything that bears a remote resemblance to the Algerian emblems tomorrow evening.

the Egyptians love for football is so great that Cairo’s notorious traffic jams will literally cease to exist as the entire country come to a standstill from 7-9 pm tomorrow, where the match is telecast live over the open-air tv.   victory will surely set off wild dances, more honking of car horns (i.e. noise pollution), waving of flags and an entire night of celebration in the streets.  hopefully, defeat will not result in any violent incidents.

not merely for the love of the sport, football is also a welcome distraction for the difficult lives of the majority of the Egyptians.  perhaps the national team’s achievements bring a sense of accomplishment to the ordinary folks who know that they may never achieve that much under their present difficult circumstances?  hopefully, it will be a pleasant hangover for all come Sunday morning when the work week begins.

as for me, I will be rooting for my ‘adopted’ country since I know nuts about the Algerian team! … so come on Aboul Troika, Mido, Ghaly, Amr Zaki and Shehata (coach)!