After language, the next most important thing in defining a country's character is its cuisine. Unfortunately, in Egypt's case this can be a little predictable.
How a trip to Kerala spiced up my life
After language, the next most important thing in defining a country's character is its cuisine. Unfortunately, in Egypt's case this can be a little predictable. In any household you visit - upper, middle or lower class - the fare will be remarkably similar. The dishes that make up the Egyptian table are limited to stuffed vine leaves, molokheya - a green leafy plant that's finely ground up and made into a soup that's eaten with rice - oven-baked chicken, an okra dish and macaroni doused in béchamel sauce.
While some people cook them better than others, you can count the range of recipes on two hands. In addition, the spices used are unadventurous. Cumin is frequently added to take the bland edge off a dish, but there isn't much else to challenge the palate. The most varied Middle Eastern cuisine has to be the Lebanese/Syrian. With its fresh vegetables, mezzes, chick pea dips, fresh bread, grilled meats and lemon juice to add a tartness to the dishes, being invited to a Lebanese household for dinner is always a delight.
But even that pales when one sets foot in India. I have just returned from 10 days in Kerala, a relaxing break brought to life by a phantasmagoria of flavours. Indian food is in any case my favourite kind of cuisine, so the promise of tasting authentic Indian food provided mouth-watering anticipation. We started our day with masala omlettes and fresh fruit; lunch was a potato-filled thin bread called dosa which was dipped into various kind of spicy sauces; out in the streets we bought pineapples sprinkled with masala spice and drank masala or cardamom tea; and dinner was rich, thick curries with giant prawns or floating chunks of chicken.
Each mouthful would explode on my lips, then new tastes would flow from the front of my mouth, over my tongue and hit the back of my mouth. Eating took on a new dimension as my culinary vocabulary multiplied. Needless to say I was shattered to find out on the fifth day of the trip that I am, in fact, a complete spice wimp. My Arab stomach decided to rebel. After four years of living with bland Cairo food, and before that even blander western cooking, my stomach sadly concluded that while the Indian food I had been fond of feeding on before was of the made-for-foreigners kind, the real thing was rather too daunting.
I was heartbroken, and a little embarrassed, at my weakness. So the hotter fare was pushed to one side and I concentrated on enjoying the varied naans, parathas and chapatis made freshly at every meal, together with the biryanis that were layered with flavours and the incredible fresh tropical fruit - papaya, pineapples, small bananas and coconut water. Travelling around Kerala, I was struck by how plentifully the various spices grew in the wild. On a ride up to Munnar to see the tea plantations, our driver would randomly pull over to the side of the road and point out a cinnamon tree, a vanilla tree, a pepper tree.
We eventually stopped at a spice farm, where a woman in a house dress with a machete showed us around her garden. She started by breaking off bits of a leaf from an unsuspecting plant with long green leaves. Putting it to our noses, our eyes widened with recognition as the smell of lemongrass infused our nostrils with its freshness. Next, she bashed her machete against the bark of a tree and made us smell the bits that fell into her hand - cinnamon. In another spot, she showed us small balls of pepper drying in the sun to be sold once they had turned black, and opened up a cocoa fruit to let us eat the slimy seed inside, which tasted fantastically sweet and sour.
A few days later, my stomach relaxed and I was able to go back to ordering real Indian food again, this time asking them to add no spice. But it made no difference. The food always came back with enough spice to tickle my lips and remind me that not only is the culture of dress and religion and music so varied in this small state of India, so too is its everyday food. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo