|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
22 - 28 November 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Vegetables to goThe day is short and the recipes complex. Amira El-Noshokaty finds a short cut to Ramadan cooking -- and a new social phenomenon
The month of fasting is also the month of eating. Every Iftar, members of the extended family gather around elaborate tables invariably groaning with too much food. The pre-Iftar preparation in the kitchen is a ritual taking hours; but with many women now working full-time outside the home, the custom is tricky to sustain.
All in a day's work: the process of preparing vegetables starts with the choice of the freshest produce photo: Randa Shaath
Hence the vital role played by three women found in front of Al-Bostan Garage, downtown. Sitting in a shady spot, leaning against a wall, the women's hands are constantly busy filling plastic bags with all kind of cut vegetables: taro, peas with carrots, potatoes, gutted zucchini for stuffing, and spinach. You can buy everything washed, peeled, chopped and ready to cook for a mere 50 piasters extra per kilo. All you need to do is pass by on your way to work and make your order: their Ramadan hours are 9am to 3pm.
The three women's enterprise is so successful, that it is spreading. As I bought a kilo of mulukhia (Egyptian green soup), one of the women told me to await the opening of their "branch" near my home in Heliopolis.
The women have found a market niche. In the past couple of years, as more and more housewives have jobs, the vegetable-preparing women have suddenly appeared all over town. At Midan Al- Gami' market in Heliopolis, where vegetable vendors have colonised the sidewalks, you will find the same women, filling their plastic bags, amidst stacked crates of tomatoes, onions and cabbage.
Umm Adel has been preparing vegetables for 20 years. "Mostly working women who have no time to prepare food are my clients," she explained. Umm Adel either prepares or cooks food directly for clients, who order one or two days in advance. When she first started, she had few competitors. But today, and particularly during Ramadan, the ranks of the vegetable-preparers have swelled, as more women look to boost their income.
Sanaa is one recent entrant. Taking her cue from women she saw "selling prepared vegetables on the streets in areas with a high concentration of employees," she began preparing vegetables for working women two months ago. "My clients phone me a day in advance and order whatever they want to cook. I prepare it and send the food to them, wherever they are," Sanaa explained. In two months, her number of regular clients has jumped from two to 10.
Wissam El-Beih is a doctor. A woman vegetable-preparer has installed herself right across the street from El-Beih's house, drastically reducing her cooking hours. "She is right outside my building and I ask her to send up the vegetables peeled and chopped. I wash them once and then I am ready to cook," said El- Beih, adding, "I would not even consider the complicated procedure of stuffing vegetables without someone to help me."
In bygone days women may have been reluctant to trust the health of their family to food prepared outside the home. But in today's world of frozen vegetables, the argument runs that at least the wares sold by Umm Adel and Sanaa and their like has the benefit of being fresh.
Some are still wary, though. As one housewife put it, "With the streets as dusty as they are, how can these vegetables be clean? How can you compare between food bought on Fouad Street and that prepared in the home?" As more and more women find work outside the home and have less time to cook, though, fewer than ever care to make that comparison.
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