FoodLife & Style

The batata man

Mo'men is a sweet potato vendor – he has an “arabeyet al-batata," as it is known in Egypt. His shabby wooden cart stands in front of land that will soon be Festival City in New Cairo. On his cart, a big pile of sweet potatoes surrounds an old, burnt portable tin oven with a small chimney that has white smoke perpetually escaping from it.

Sweet potatoes are considered one of the healthiest foods in the world. They are rich in Vitamin A and C, which are strong antioxidants. They are healthy for diabetics because they act as a good stabilizer of blood sugar. They have an abundance of important nutrients such as iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese and potassium. 
Despite this amount of nutrition and an affordable price (LE2), the “batata” cart poses a small but visually noticeable environmental hazard, burning wood until it turns into coal and thus emitting harmful gases that affect the atmosphere. Mo’men believes the carbon dioxide emitted from the cart nourishes the trees and is therefore environmentally friendly, but Moataz Abdel Fattah, an environmental education specialist, says, “One cart won’t do anything but if you put 20 carts next to each other, the amount of emissions would be hazardous.”
Mo’men is a second generation vendor. His father started the business of selling sweet potatoes in Nasr City before he was born. 
Mo’men saw the opportunity to make money when he grew up and nine years ago built his own tin oven.
“I started selling potatoes on this hill before it became this populated,” he says with great pride. Mo’men chose this place because there weren’t any other vendors around for competition but now he is one of six scattered around Road 90. “I was one of the first people to stand on Road 90 itself, now I found I sell better here [on a road off of 90],” he explains.
Mo’men builds a new tin oven ever year. Every morning, he leaves his home in Hay al-Asher and buys his supply of sweet potatoes from Obour Market, where it is washed and ready. Then he takes a microbus to his spot off Road 90, where he parks his cart overnight. He has a cart parking arrangement with a friend of his who works as a doorman at one of the villas in the area.
At first he seems reluctant to speak about his job. It becomes apparent later that his reluctance is due to the insecurity that comes with his job.
Before the 25 January revolution, his cart was repeatedly taken by the municipality.
“It was a process,” he says, “where they would come take the cart and I go pay LE110 and take it back.” 
Since the revolution, the number of vendors has increased and competition rose, but they are no longer bothered by the authorities as long as they don't cause traffic. 
His main clientele are construction workers, but in the five minutes he was speaking about his work, a pickup truck, a private Nissan and a company car all passed by from different directions, greeting Mo’men with apparent familiarity and buying sweet potatoes as a midday snack.
His work is not restricted to the street. He also attends cultural events in schools, clubs and companies.
His cart is at a crossroad right after the Downtown Mall, known for its high end restaurants. Besides multinational companies, gas and petroleum companies, and luxurious private villas, the area is known for its international schools.
On the cart he also has a notebook with papers ripped out of it, an open bag of salt and a small knife. A client buys a sweet potato, which Mo’men takes out of the old tin oven. He wraps it in a piece of paper he rips out of the notebook, then with the knife he cuts a slit in the potato and again crossways. Then with his bare, sooty hands – if the client wants – he sprays salt on it to give it a sweet and salty mix.
Normally a winter snack for its warmth, its benefits and cost effectiveness make it a year-round treat. 
Mo’men says he would not trade his profession for anything else. Content with the income – as long as the authorities continue to leave them at peace – he will continue to sell.

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