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I'm flabbergasted by today's food discovery. It's got nothing to do with the boring Egyptian restaurant described below. It's got everything to do with a Zimbabwean stall I found in Elephant & Castle. OK, they weren't selling dovi, the ceremonial peanut and chicken stew that will be eaten with a golden ladle in front of the world's media while fireworks explode in the sky at the conclusion of this project, but they could possibly make it on request - and that changes everything.
Knowing Zimbabwean food, the one cuisine I'm not permitted to eat, is available in London has given me a target. All I have to do now is eat every single one of the world's cuisines, including regional cuisines within countries, before the two blokes at Elephant & Castle market realise there's no market for Zimbabwean food in London and close the stall down. At this rate I'll be eating there in 2024.
Like Zimbabwe, Egypt's an African country that's been driven to the ground by an old dictator who just won't fucking die. Ali Baba's a likeable, family-owned place, but the food's as tired as its orientalist cliche of a name would suggest. I went there with a couple of Muslim friends for the iftar meal, the breaking of the fast. I'd eaten a big lunch. The hugely popular Arab TV show Ramadan - Live From Mecca was on the telly. It's such a ratings smash they show it on all the channels at the same time. The Libyan chap sitting next to us was lonely and pretended to have heard us talking about his home country.
"What's happened in Libya?" he asked with a jolt.
"Nothing much," I replied, pausing a few seconds for comic effect. "Although, you know, Colonel Gaddafi has just died."
He looked like a man who's just found out he's out of a well-paid job. He didn't appreciate our sense of humour. But there's so much fun to be had joking about the death of old dictators who just won't fucking die.
A voice from the TV started praying. We ate dates and supermarket flatbread dipped in tahina. We ate the infamous Egyptian carb-fest koshari (rice, lentils, pasta, fried onions, spicy tomato sauce), molokhia (jew's mallow) with chicken, bamia (lamb and okra stew) and ta'amiya (Egyptian falafel). With the exception of the falafel, which was crispily moreish, everything was underflavoured. Everything needed more oil, more garlic, more stock, more spice.
I wanted to like it. It's a no-frills, to-the-point, friendly-owned restaurant - and I've loved some of the local food I've had in Egypt - but Ali Baba just seems so staid. It's unatmospheric to the point of being oppressive and the food is bland. Bring on the dovi.