It was sofagirl who noticed the footnote at the bottom of a page of a Lonely Planet guide to Egypt. Some Bedouin encampment in the Sinai that offered accommodation on the beach and organic vegetables. This, in 1995, when organic vegetables were still a fad of the future and vacationing in the Sinai Peninsula didn’t require a bulletproof vest and a helmet.
Why we thought it was a good idea, it is not quite clear to this day. It sounded remote (it was); different (ditto); relaxing and exotic. It was certainly more low-budget that we had bargained for. After a few days in Tel Aviv, the last stop of an REM tour sofagirl had been working on, we flew to Eilat and, baggage in tow, we crossed the border into Egypt on foot. Suddenly, we went from Eilat’s skyscrapers to a tin hut that proclaimed itself a bank, where the teller kept the cash in a briefcase. Confronted with forty male taxi drivers begging for our business, sofagirl pushed me forward “You go negotiate a ride”. Not that I speak Arabic but her thinking was that I was the darker of the two and I blended in more – maybe I could get a better deal. The things we tell ourselves.
At any rate, we did reach the Bedouin camp where a tiny beach hut with two mattresses, a miniature mirror and a small table awaited us, rugs the only divider between our feet and the sand and a rug functioning as a makeshift door. No electricity, communal bathrooms and a communal kitchen we were welcome to use, not that there were any stores anywhere in the vicinity where we could buy our own food. Meals were consumed sitting cross-legged at low tables and consisted of simple grilled fish and some tomatoes – the organic veggies in question – that grew on sickly plants in the sand. Sandwiched between the mountains of the Sinai and the Mediterranean, this remote corner of Egypt, not terribly far from Sharm-el-Sheik, felt forlorn but spectacular. Hotter than hell in August, spending time there meant taking refuge from the sun during the hottest hours: we slept a lot, we swam, we ate what the flies didn’t get to, never once feeling as if that world was in any danger. The place was popular with Israeli and Egyptian youth alike, mingling as if getting to the standstill the Middle East has reached today could never happen.
One thing I experienced on that trip was the riot of flavors of Middle Eastern food, probably my very first taste: the street food at the Haifa market, which I kept on buying and bringing back to the hotel as if needing to feed a family of six; the sweetness of lemons; the bread the small and blackened old man baked fresh every day at the camp in a small and blackened oven that looked like an archeological artifact.
I am glad we went when we did. I am glad I saw the sun rise and set amidst such intense pinks and oranges. I am glad I swam at midnight, on a moonless night, with a Cairene by the improbable name of Alain, with a more improbable mop of blond hair. I even remember fondly the cold showers, the stranger who entered our hut one night sending us screaming like banshees, the mattress perpetually covered in sand. Most of all, I am glad I took the time to savor the food (no falafel will ever taste better than that first falafel in Jerusalem) on both sides of the border: it was my first foray into a love affair with Middle Eastern food that continues to this day.
As I am always looking for healthy snacks that will keep my paws away from cookies and that won’t remind me of cardboard, when I came across a recipe for crunchy chickpeas on the NYT Cooking App, I gave it a go. What caught my eye was the simplicity and the use of za’tar, a combination of dried spices and sesame seeds that is popular both in Israel and Egypt, with variations used all over the Middle East and North Africa. A spice that unites at a time of such great divide.
You can buy za’atar already prepared at any Middle Eastern market and at many supermarkets but I made it at home by grinding a tablespoon of roasted sesame seeds with two teaspoons of sumac, two teaspoons of dried thyme and a pinch of salt. Some recipes call for oregano too. Since Egyptian times, I suspect Za’atar has been made with whatever herbs were available.
Then open a can of chickpeas, drain them and spread them over a paper towel. Dry them well. Roast them in a 400F oven on a parchment covered baking sheet for about 30 minutes, until dried up and golden. While still hot, put them in a bowl, add a little bit of olive oil to coat them with, sprinkle some za’tar and some salt and toss. Then start eating. You won’t be able to stop.
But should you have some left over, store them for up to a week in an airtight container (although they are at their crunchiest on the day they are baked).