Nasser approaches holding a tray with freshly-baked, still-steaming lebbah bread and a bowl of Bedouin-style baba ganoush, placing them in the middle of the rug on which we are already relaxing for our lunch break. We quickly move closer to the center, reaching out for a piece of bread which we use to scoop a bit of salad or cheese spread.
“Wow, the food is delicious!” we invariably comment.
“Yes, wow bread and wow-wow-wow eggplant!” Nasser laughs and recedes to enjoy lunch with his Bedouin friends.
Meals on the Sinai trail were always unexpectedly yummy, and we were pleasantly surprised to discover the chef within each of our Bedouins companions. “I cook with my heart,” Faraj, one of our best cooks from the Jebelaya tribe, confessed, “how could the food not be tasty?”
Foul, eggs, and cheese were quite common for breakfast. Lunches were light: a couple of salads, tuna, cheese, and bread. And dinners were the feast of the day including some combination of lentil or vegetable soup (we were advised that adding a bit of pasta into the lentil soup does not cause any bloating), molokhia, grilled chicken with rice, green beans with potatoes, or pasta with veggies. And, although everything was delightful, some of the recipes stole our heart and are worth noting here.
Bread baked in the ashes (lebbah bread)
Most of us would never believe we would devour so wholeheartedly bread baked in the ashes. And, yet, this was our favorite, and we were lucky enough to enjoy it with almost every breakfast and lunch.
Mix Bedouin flour (which may already contain some yeast, although this was not clarified to me) with water and a bit of salt and knead gently until the mixture can separate from the fingers. Leave the dough to rest for a few minutes, and then, on a flat surface, spread it into a circular shape, 2-3 centimeters thick. Move it to the hearth, placing it on a layer of ash, and pull over coals until it is fully covered. After around ten minutes, lightly tap with a stick the upper surface of the bread to check whether this side has been baked. When ready, remove the coals, flip the bread, and repeat the process, so that the second side gets cooked. In the end, remove the bread from the hearth, robustly shake it with the hands or stick to clear away the ashes – a small cloud hovers in the air for a while – and, finally, with a knife, scratch off any remaining dust.
Farashi is a bread variation which is not very easy to cook in the mountains as it requires a longer process – and yet, our beloved Faraj made it for us.
Prepare the dough in the usual way, and then divide it into small balls, allowing it to rest for a while. Then, spread each ball into a thin layer – our cook used an empty bottle as a tool to make the dough as lean as possible – and place it on a metallic curved utensil which has already been warmed up and under which fire is continually burning to keep the temperature high. It takes only a few minutes to bake the bread, flipping it a couple of times. It is served warm with salad, cheese, or honey.
Goat cooked in the sand
On a whim, we decided to buy a small goat from a Bedouin settlement and asked our guides to cook it in the sand, the “Bedouin way.” For 1500 EGP (around 90 USD), we bought enough meat to feed us for two days.
Our local leaders dug a hole in the sand, around half a meter deep, and lit a fire, leaving the wood to burn into coals, warming the walls of the pit. Then, they put the meat on the coals, covered it with a pot placed upside down, and filled the hole again with sand. On top of it, they lit a new fire and kept feeding it for three hours – the time needed for the meat to cook. Once done, the fire is extinguished, and the sand is removed from the pit, cooled down with a bit of water. Finally, the pot is withdrawn and the meat – cooked to perfection – is transferred to a tray. It is indicative to say that, with just a soft shake of the hand, the meat would slide off the bones: this is how soft and tender it had become!
Alternative recipes on a similar motif (as shared by our guides, though we did not try them):
(a) Fill the stomach of a goat with chopped livers, sweetbreads, hearts, lungs, and kidneys, and add potatoes, carrots, onions cut in cubes; place the stuffed stomach into the goat, and then cook it into the sand as described above.
(b) Choose a pot with a thick bottom and put inside a layer of sand (at least 3-4 cm thick), and, then, add the same amount of salt. On top of the salt, place the meat and cook on the fire till the flesh can separate from the bones. The meat will absorb only the amount of salt it needs, the rest just slows down the cooking process.
Bedouin baba ganoush
Bake next to the fire (or, at home, in the grill function of the oven) half a kilo of large eggplants. Once the skin is burnt and the vegetable feels soft, take them out of the fire and peel them, putting the flesh into a bowl. Add about half a jar of tahini, virgin olive oil (we were using the one from Mt Katherine that has a very pure taste), fresh oregano (chopped directly from the bush), salt, pepper, and dill. Mix with a fork so that, in the end, the mixture is homogeneous and somewhat creamy, while you can still taste small pieces of aubergine. Instead of tahini, you can add chopped tomatoes, onion, and green bell pepper, which is the typical baba ganoush of the Levant area, and similar to the Greek agioritiki salad.
The Bedouins like so much to cook that they were keen to share recipes and cooking secrets along the hike. I found their suggestions quite interesting, so I wrote them down, hoping to experiment with them sometime soon.
Take a few quinces, peel them like an apple, cut them and remove the pits, and, in the hollows add dark chocolate. Put them back together in one piece and wrap in foil, then place close to the fire and leave them to cook slowly, till the fruit is soft enough to be easily cut with a fork. (We have been using a similar recipe with bananas and chocolate in our camping trips, where we cut the banana along its length – without splitting it entirely – adding pieces of chocolate in the middle, wrapping in foil, and cooking in the coals).
- Prepare your own camping dried food
Cook ½ kg of chicken breasts, then add a lot of spices and hang the meat in a dry area; boil potatoes, cut and put them in a dry area, adding salt; cut tomatoes in slices, add salt, hang to dry. When all the food has thoroughly dried up, mix with crumbs of bread (not too small) and turn everything into powder. It is easy to carry to a camping trip, where you just add hot water to the mix and enjoy a healthy meal of chicken puree.
- Impress your guests
Take a whole chicken, remove the bones, and open it flat like a fillet. Spread on one side a sauce of your choice (for instance, tomato sauce), roll, wrap in foil and boil for a few minutes until the meat tightens up a bit. Then roast in the oven. When ready, cut in slices, and serve with baked potatoes and boiled vegetables.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou
To read more stories on my hiking adventure along the Sinai trail, check also the articles on Human Portraits Carved in Sand, Storytelling around the campfire, an amateur’s botanical notebook, ghost stories under the sun, or the mysterious Nawamis.