The man placed a chipped plate with slices of red onions next to the bowl of fried fish. No dressing. Since man (and woman) cannot live on fish alone, I shrugged and ate a slice of onion.
Then I ate another. And another.
The onion had …. taste. Not just whatever makes your eyes water, but real flavours that come from slow traditional farming. It was peppery sharp, a bit sweet (it would have made the best caramelised onion), and what I can only describe as a concentrated savoury onion-ness that made each slice a thing to savour.
Sitting by the shores of Lake Nasser, in Abu Simbel, Egypt we had one of the simplest meals on our six week trip around the Middle East, but we still remember the onions today. Its sharpness cut the slightly muddy lake fish (the fish was so fresh, it could have jumped right out of the lake onto our plate, or at least, into the frying pan). It livened up the wholemeal flat bread. The flavours were bright, like the colours of the sun, the lake and the desert.
I looked around the large, dusty backyard of the house that was our eatery, and wondered if the onions were grown there. The kitchen, just inside the darkened doorway, looked like a domestic kitchen. Another corner of the yard had a large-ish thing that looked like a barbecue to my Australian eye. As I watched, a few men began to gather around and light a fire. Maybe there was going to be a roast of some kind tonight? The faded metal sign over the entrance to the eatery, Queen Nefertari (I think? It was definitely Queen something) will probably be lit up, and dimly vie with the Abu Simbel light show a long-ish walk away.
Most people come to Abu Simbel as part of a day trip, in a bus convoy, on a plane, or as the beginning or end of their Lake cruise.
We gave ourselves two days in this town, and after the cruises and convoys left in the afternoon, we felt as though we were the only tourists in the place. (It wasn’t true, but most of the other tourists were probably back in the hotel complex. As far as we could see, the four star sprawling complex was also Abu Simbel’s only hotel. Its jungle style sumptuous decor is a world away from the dry, dusty, hut-houses and concrete in the rest of the town.)
After lunch, we walked around the dusty streets. It was winter, the temperature was about 30°C, and some of the men wore thick jumpers or puffy jackets. I guess it was a lot colder than the summer temperatures of 50°C. Some kids and men were tall, long limbed and walked with a jazzy kind of step. Their faces and clothes somehow said Africa rather than lower Nile/Egypt. And no wonder, the sleepy little town of Abu Simbel is a bare 40 kms from the Sudan border.
Out of sheer laziness we ate our pre paid dinner in the hotel that evening. We had one of those inevitable buffets in the over-ornamented restaurant. Even though I managed to talk to the pastry chef about basboussa, dinner couldn’t hold a candle to the simple dish of onions and fried lake fish.
Back in the comforts of middle class Sydney, we buy organic onions from the markets, but somehow it is not quite the same. A colleague is traveling to Abu Simbel in December, maybe he can take time out from his convoy and find the Queen Nefertari eatery for me, and ask for that plate of onions and the bowl of lake fish.