Anyone who travels a lot soon realizes, that hotels belonging to the same chain are pretty much the same all over the world. The Holiday Inn in Marrakesh Hill has much more in common with the one in Sao Paulo than you would think, given geographical and cultural distances. A Marriott is a Marriott in Jamaica or in Salt Lake City, and the Hilton is pretty much like any other -- well, except maybe for two. The two I mean are the Isis and Osiris, Hilton sister ships that cruise the Nile and as different from other Hiltons as a cruise on the Nile is from any other trip anywhere.
It was on such a cruise that I watched how Egyptians assemble a meal from the buffet table. They lined up at one end with half a pita bread in one hand, and, using the tip of the thumb and index finger, they began to fill the pocket in the bread. They walked through the line picking up succulent little pieces of lamb, vegetables, salad, egg, cheese, whatever, dropping everthing into the pocket. Then they pressed on the edge of the pocket and ate as we would eat a sandwich. But because of the clever shape and the enclosed edge, eating from the pita bread was much eaiser, neater and more graceful than our eating a sandwich of the same proportion. I was impressed.
I began to notice that in street corners in small Egyptian towns, and at village markets, practically all food was served these pockets of pita bread. It was facinating to see how these tiny, smokey, rundown, one-person fast-food places worked.
Once I watched as the owner arrived, started his fire, put little pieces of terrible-looking lamb over the coals, and began to chop the fragrant greens. oHe sliced a couple of miserable tomatoes and a pile of onions so strong that even the several-thousand-year-old statues had tears in their eyes. A heap of fresh garlic buds was neatly piled next to the onions. Then an old and beaten pint-size copper pot, with questionable water and overroasted coffee, was placed over the hottest coals. A 5-year-old boy stopped by with a dozen flat pita breads, and in about 45 minutes from the time the owner arrived he was ready to serve.
How customers flocked to his stand! They picked up a char-broiled lamb fragment, and the man, with his only knife, cut the little piece into a heap of slivers, sprinkeled on some spices from little paper bags, warmed a pita bread for a minute on both sides, opened it, and filled it with real wizardry. Faster than the eye could follow, he put parlsey and coriander, scallion greens and lamb and onions and more onions, sliced garlic and again some lamb and paper-thin wedges of tomato into the pita, until it smelled to remarkable proportions.
Lately, doing some summer entertaining on my days off, and being invited to outdor parties and barbecues, I find myself thinking of how excellent, versatile and useful pita bread can be at party time, not only with Near Eastern food but with practically anything you care to serve at a party. It's good with hot Sichuan or Hunan dishes, with Mexican food, with all kinds of leftovers cut into thin pieces, and it makes some of the great old American sandwich standbys perfect for outdoor barbecue. Here is a pita viriation on an eternal theme. SICHUAN PORK WITH BOILED PEANUTS (4 servings) 8 ounces well-trimmed pork 1 cup salted peanuts 2 cups water 2 talbespoons peanut oil or corn oil 3 tablespoons light soy sauce 1/2 teaspoon salt 3 tablespoons sugar 1 clove garlic mashed to a pulp with the flat surface of a knife 1 tablespoon vinegar 1 tablespoon molasses 1/3 cup water 1 cup oil 1 tablespoon sesame oil 2 to 3 dried red pepper rods (dried chili peppers)
Trim pork of all fat and bones. Cut 1/4 inch cubes.
Bring to a boil salted peanuts in 2 cups water. Discard water. Rinse peanuts with cold water through a strainer and pat dry.
In a small bowl, mix 2 tablespoons peanut or corn oil with 1 tablespoon soy sauce. Marinate pork in mixture. Mix remaining 2 talbespoons soy sauce with salt, sugar, garlic, vinegar, molasses, and 1/3 cup water until well blended and smooth.
Heat 1 cup oil in a skillet. Stir-fry pork in hot oil until done, remove to absorbent paper, and keep warm. Discard oil and wipe skillet with paper towels.
Heat sesame oil over medium heat. Add dried red peppers and cook until they turn black. Add pork, peanuts, and vinegar-molasses mixture. Mix well and cook 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Spoon into bread pockets.
If you wish, add scallions with green and white parts; or offer thin-sliced raw scallions, lettuce or Chinese cabbage.