By Sarah Khanna
For years, my phone would not ring. It would rest beside me, disturbing nothing, a simple prop in the room. To Cairo, Kuala Lumpur was at the farthest corner of our Earth and needed no attention paid except for the dreamy package deal honeymoon of a once in a lifetime experience, “Malaysia, truly Asia.” The fact that I had moved there meant nothing to those Cairenes surrounding me other than that I had chosen to trade my tiring job for a fantasy four years away.
During my first few months back in Cairo, I spotted a new pattern that scattered the retelling of my day into tidbits of “before I spoke to” and “after I spoke to”; my phone learned to catch its breath briefly before making way for another long call. Finally finding time to sit with a saucy plate of moussaka, a Cairene would interrupt as with every meal, because there is never enough time to drop by in the flesh.
I have managed to maintain discussing matters with friends on the phone for months, never catching a glimpse of their shapes, their changed body language, the newly-formed rings around their fatigue-filled eyes; that is until Cairo forced me up and out of my shell, gently nudging me with business opportunities as a reminder to connect with other like-minded ones.
This week, I was invited to a small get-together of online acquaintances and in between bites of deep-colored beetroot, felt for the first time like an outsider, unable to grasp the number of new changes that have taken place in my Cairo, that have shifted in between the openings of new restaurants I had never been to. I couldn’t recognize the new friendships that had already been formed, alliances I didn’t know were there. I was officially thrust into Egypt’s “food business” and was gradually gaining recognition, but will food take away my peace of mind? Will it also become the job that consumes me, that ravages my nerves?
Cairo has an ability to suck you into the giant machine it has become, turning you into one of its wheels, spinning to find a way to flaunt your individuality. Despite my loyalty to the city, I cannot help but compare it to the calm that surrounded me for so long, which I can now only remember as the light-handed tinkering of chopsticks and quiet families sinking into their white bowls of rice, not the buzz of Cairo, of boisterous conversation that encircles a table lined with forgotten crispy pigeon and cunningly arranged fruit desserts.
Our palates are changing and our restaurant scene is at last growing positively, Cairo; this pleases me and allows me to agree with destiny that I could not have chosen a better time to come back and get involved. So for now, I shall follow through with my current deadline but shall find some calm in my kitchen, away from the restaurants, away from the job that food has become and make salmon.
An exceedingly popular fish in upper crust Cairo, this trembling pink meat has steadily gained in popularity throughout history. It pleases the palates of those that enjoy their food untouched by heat while equally exciting the mouths of those that require their food to meet a scorching flame and a temperature to guarantee thorough cooking. It needs no fuss and this is why I chose it for a much needed quiet night with my companion for life, my husband.
Pan-seared salmon with sumac-tossed zucchini and chilli tomatoes
2 salmon fillets
1 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce
2 slices of lemon
25 grams of butter
The zest of half a lemon
Salt and pepper to season
For the chilli tomatoes:
1 large tomato
1 tablespoon of olive oil
¼ teaspoon of chilli powder
¼ teaspoon of cumin
Salt and pepper to taste
For the summac-tossed zucchini:
4 small zucchini, halved lengthwise
¼ teaspoon of ground black pepper
1½ teaspoons of summac
1½ tablespoon of olive oil
Salt to taste
With each salmon fillet, score the skin about one half inch deep. Score down the entire length of the fillet. In each score, sprinkle a little salt. In a small bowl, mix together the lemon zest, Worcestershire sauce, lemon zest and pepper. Place the salmon on a plate and glaze it with the mixture on both sides; top each fillet with lemon slices and leave to rest in the fridge for 20 minutes.
Place a pan over medium heat and melt the butter until it gets frothy. Allow the pan to get hot before adding the salmon fillets skin-side down. Don’t fiddle with it and don’t turn it over for approximately 7-8 minutes. The skin will crisp up and the flesh will have cooked through except for the top. Turn the fish over carefully and baste it with the pan juices as it continues to cook for 1 minute. Turn the heat off but leave the salmon in the pan to remain warm as you plate.
For the tomato: Cut the tomato into thick even slices. Sprinkle the tomato slices with spices and seasonings on both sides. In a large pan, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil on medium heat. Once the oil is hot, arrange the tomatoes in the pan and leave them for a minute and a half before flipping them over to the other side. Cook for another minute or two until the tomatoes are tender to the touch and have started to color. Take them off the heat and reserve for plating.
For the zucchini: Coat the halved zucchini in olive oil then dust with sumac and black pepper. Finish off with salt and place in a hot pan on medium-high heat. Cook for 3-5 minutes and toss frequently. Remove from the heat when fork-tender. Reserve for plating.