Category Archives: Islamic Countries

Keep it out of the guidebooks. Manchea District, Alexandria, EGYPT

If we find a little gem when we travel, we keep returning to it. This is one such gem.

When looking at a map, the district of Manchea is located at the western end of Alexandria, inside the curve of the port. There is little information on the net and it’s marked on few maps. Attempt to pronounce it with an Arabic twang and you’re sure to be pointed in the right direction.

Manchea is far from the shiny shopping centers that dot the eastern parts of this huge city.  We had not read about it, we had not been told about it, we just happened to ‘bump into’ Manchea on one of our rambles across the city, each time during the late afternoon. We always hung around long into the evening, drinking tea, smoking naghila, eating and chatting with the men of the market stalls.

I think the photos convey the almost medieval feel of the place.  It definitely didn’t feel like we were in a city of 6 or 7 million people.

We have been to ‘Alex’ on three separate occasions now and spent many happy hours in the Manchea district. One such visit to Alex involved a 4am landing into Cairo, a taxi straight to the train station and a ‘seat’ on the first lumbering train to Alex.  For us, we could not wait. We had to get to our little gem. Coffee houses, tea houses, backgammon, a sea breeze, colourful markets and the call to prayer. Lovely.

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Foodies in Syria & Lebanon…on a budget

We had the absolute pleasure of visiting Syria and Lebanon for a month at the beginning of a recent 9 month journey. The overwhelming friendliness of the people blew us away. We had heard their hospitality was second to none, but to experience it first hand was something else.

Much of the hospitality we experienced was, more often than not, centered around food. In fact, Middle Eastern food we had grown up eating in Sydney was the main reason we wanted to travel to this often misunderstood part of the world.

We made a pact to try as much of the food as we could. We did just that and all on a budget of approximately $70AUD/day for the two of us. This included copious amounts of food, decent ‘guesthouse’ accommodations, all transport such as buses, trains, the odd taxi & other expenses such as the all important 50 cups of chai & shishas to match!

Here are a selection of the foods we tried during our cheap but very cheerful journey:

Zaatar Pizza. Found on many-a-corner throughout Syria and Lebanon, these little gems are addictive, cheap and very yummy. Zaatar is a middle eastern spice, a combination of Thyme, Oregano, Sesame seeds and other ingredients. It’s smothered onto a fresh hot base and drizzled with olive oil. Easy to hold and munch on while you take in the sites.

Little surprise packets like this one we found in Latakia are found all over the place. Pistachios are ever-present, in savory dishes and most of the sweet ones too. A few of these little morsels only cost a dollar or so. They would have been great as gifts.

We took a little box of these with us on a trip to the coast in Latakia. The gentleman in the sweet shop told us it was similar to a carrot cake but without all of the sugar and fats. From what we could make out, it was made by stewing carrots, spices, nuts and some sort of binding agent together to produce a big block of the stuff. He sliced portions off for us and popped them into a little box. It tasted like a mix between a spiced carrot cake and a muesli bar. Delicious!

Fuul is a breakfast dish of cooked and mashed fava beans. It’s served with olive oil, often a side of fresh veges, pickles and bread. It’s not very beautiful to look at but it is delicious, healthy and very filling. At about $1 to $2 a pop, it got us through to lunchtime, free of tummy grumbles!

The gentleman holding what looks like a stiff pancake was actually making these delicious rounds out the front of the fuul shop in Lattakia. They were similar to a roti but were almost devoid of oil or grease. It served as the perfect edible spoon – just crisp a portion off and dip in!

The beautiful white balls of goodness below are portions of homemade Shankleesh drying in the sun. Shankleesh is a type of cow or sheep’s milk cheese found throughout the region. We had the privilege of being invited to stay with a family who made their own version. It was crumbly and had the consistency of fetta but with a softer taste. It was a perfect mezze dish that partnered well with most things on the family dinner table.

We often find ourselves missing out on some form of vitamin or vegetable when we travel. Green leafy vegetables were hard to come by in Egypt and beer has definitely replaced Vitamin C replenishment during lengthy stays in the UK. Syria and Lebanon has no shortage of fresh fruit and vegetable juice stalls dotted throughout the country. We kept Mum happy by being able to tell her we were having more than our fair share of fruit and veges a day, on the cheap, on the run & through a straw!

Finally, chai and a’hwa (coffee). We learnt how we liked our coffee and how to properly order it. Sweet, not so sweet, with or without cardamon. For me, the cardamon ahwa was a bit too overpowering.

Drinking chai, a’hwa and smoking a pipe is wonderful way to spend time meeting the locals, checking out the locals, viewing the locality and doing as the locals do! It was one of the less expensive ways to enjoy our time in Abu Dhabi, amongst the skyscapers and minarets.

Where to eat like this in Sydney

  • Traditional Lebanese Breakfast is sold at Hijazi’s Falafel in Arncliffe but only on weekeds. This is when you can try Fuul with a very large side of pickles, olives, veges and Lebanese bread. At $5 a pop, it really is like being back in the Mid East.
  • Cardamon Arabic Coffee can be bought in packets in areas such as Auburn, Lakemba and Punchbowl. It needs to be boiled in the traditional method. You can also order it ready made in Arabic coffee pots at Emma’s on Liberty restaurant in Enmore
  • Middle Eastern Sweets can be found in the usual places such as Greenacre,  Bankstown, Punchbowl and Lakemba. There are also places in Marrickville that sells a selection. Often, if your local corner shop is of Lebanese background, there will be a tray of Baklava for sale on the counter.
  • Zaatar Pizza. Everyone seems to have their favourite. Mine is in Lakemba, in a little bakery across from the Railway Station.  Often, what seems to be simply a bread shop run by middle eastern people will also be a Zaatar Pizza shop.
  • Chai and A’hwa can be tried at many Lebanese restaurants however the most ‘authentic’ experience we have had eating, smoking and drinking with the Lebanese community has been at Gebran Restaurant, Mount Lewis (near Bankstown)

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Is this why Aussies travel so much?

It’s a running joke, “What’s the main difference between Australia and Yoghurt?” The answer: Yoghurt has more culture than Australia.”

Australians may laugh at this joke, others may be offended. For me, it’s symbolic of the way I feel living in Australia & how I feel about my country. It’s cheeky, it’s fun and, in my eyes, it’s literally true.

On the one hand, I have grown up alongside friends of Macedonian, Lebanese, Croatian, Vietnamese & Chinese descent. In my adulthood, I have visited these countries as a result of my blessed time with these people. I now cook balkan cabbage rolls and I always have sumac in my pantry. I find their stories about their culture and their religions fascinating and I often acknowledge know how lucky I am.

On the other hand, (and this is difficult for me to acknowledge), I often feel “on the outer”. This sounds harsh but it’s the only way I can describe it. I have felt this way ever since I was the only one without colour-dyed eggs to bring to school during Orthodox Easter! I guess it’s the sense of belonging that accompanies being part of a culture or a nation more than 200 years old.

If I was of aboriginal descent, I would have 40,000 years of rich history and culture to learn about and feel a part of. The culture has had thousands of years to develop. Aside from what has happened in recent times, I would feel ‘part’ of something deep, something special. “Part of” a culture, a history, a people.

If I was Chinese, there would be endless cultural events I would partake in that would ensure I always felt Chinese! If I was Vietnamese, there would be endless extended family gatherings around hotpots and karaoke!

Some people may say that all of these things are tiresome, that it may look rosy from the outside but it’s not all hotpots and festivities. This may be true, but like it or not, if Anglo-Australians like myself have only meatpies, Phar Lap (actually, he was a Kiwi), Pavlova (possibily Kiwi too), Shane Warne & Russle Crowe (Kiwi!) to rely on when someone asks me about my ‘culture,’ then I think I have a valid reason to sometimes feel a little underwhelmed and on the cultural ‘outer.’

This blog celebrates the absorption of the cultures around me, both near by and far away. I make no apologies for my enthusiasm in soaking up all that the people of different nationalities I live with have to offer. I also make no apologies for sometimes wishing my food shopping had to be done at a market in northern Thailand or that I could live in that little village in Syria, where everyone knows everyone’s name and where no one starts eating until Babba sits down.

Ultimately, while I comfortably blog about different cultures & travel to other countries, I know it is a privilege to do so. Most people in the world worry about where their next meal will come from. This is always top of my mind and always puts my feelings of being on the Aussie cultural ‘outer’ into very clear perspective.

Near Homs, SYRIA