Some of my favorite memories are of food, and some of my favorite food-memories are of fish.
My favorite fish memory is this: One day in Puerto Rico my father and I followed our tingling taste buds towards a restaurant we’d heard served delicious fresh fish. The place was not so much a restaurant as a shack with some picnic tables that served as a direct flight for fish from hook to fork. Next to a pier where fisherman combed calm waves was a closet sized hole with three counters, where the latest catch was laid. Puerto Ricans in loud colors and loud accents lined up to choose their favorite fish, and the delicacy of choice would then be grilled in the open ocean air and flipped onto a paper plate. The entire process, from choice to consumption, took about three hours. My father and I ate at a picnic table shaded by a roof of thatched palm branches, watching the fisherman and trying not to mind our fish’s grilled eyeball. The fish was cooked with skin and bones and butter. It was delicious.
Food related memories are often more concerned with the circumstance in which the food was eaten than the food itself; the people with whom the food was eaten, the particularly punchy presentation, the trying journey to reach the site of the meal, a very good, or perhaps a very bad reaction to something eaten. Details of flavor and texture may drown in the soup of memory without of a firm foundation of circumstance to cling to. I once ate a fish in a restaurant that was entirely white: walls and floors and ceilings and rugs and tables and cutlery and waiters’ uniforms, all was white except for the flamboyant paintings that besmirched the walls. But I remember that the fish was a dark, gravelly black, because it was entirely covered in pepper, “blackened,” if you will. Eating such a dark food in such a white restaurant felt like trespassing. But eat it I did. And it was delicious.
In my humble culinary experience meals involving fish have been some of the most memorable. Perhaps this is why fish is one of my favorite food groups. (It was also the only “meat” I continued to eat after becoming a “vegetarian” or a “pesce-tarian” or whatever.) And this is all very well because I am now, (wait, here comes the point of all this lead up), located in a city whose culinary specialty is maritime.
In my family it is generally believed that when abroad one should always take the advice of “the locals,” in terms of food. If one finds oneself in a restaurant with lots of people who are not carrying maps and cameras, this is an initial indication of success. Fortunately I did not have to wait to turn up in such a restaurant, as my roommate Haidy took me to one. On one of my first nights here she turned to me with bright eyes and said, “Do you like fish?” (in arabic, of course), and I obviously replied enthusiastically that I did. “Well then I have to take you to this restaurant, it’s so good, my friend and I are going next week and you have to come.” We went that week, and again with the same friend and a cousin the following week. At 40 to 50 LE a meal, about 8 or 10 dollars, I am not loathe to make this a tradition.
“Urs al-bahr,” the bride of the sea, fills its tables with locals several times a day, and, if they are lucky, a few camera toting tourists as well. The fringes of the restaurant are prowled by a host of cats, who occasionally penetrate the barriers and slither through table legs to search for scraps of dropped fish. Incidentally, cats here prefer fish to mice, and who can blame them? Everywhere there are fish there are cats, perched on shingles ready to pounce or mewing with noses upturned.
Cats always seem to head seaward, which is where Urs al-Bahr, fittingly, is located. Then again, that is true of the entire city, which is literally spread like a necklace along the coast. As with many informal restaurants here, at Urs al-Bahr you choose and pay for your food before you receive and eat it. By the cash register there is a literal boat filled with ice and iced with fish. Neat rows of Buri and shrimp stare blankly at you from their beds, offering up their meat. You grin back at them, reveling in your power to choose the finest, then order the manner of their murder; will they be grilled (mashwi), fried (maqli), or in a broth with tomatoes and onions (tagen)? And then choose side dishes. In a short time your table with groan under the weight of countless salads, stacks of fresh pita, tureens of tahini, cakes of rice and of course, fish. You waiter may have to stack some of the dishes for lack of space. You will squeeze a lemon over the charred flesh and eat it with the bones, skin, and head as witnesses. You will become a carnivorous beast and sniff out any morsel left clinging to the skeleton, tearing at it with your knife, fork and hands. You will wipe up the remains with pita. You will pat your stomach and feel incredibly satiated and at peace.
This is the stuff of good memories.