Getting By: A Slice of Egypt in Peru

Business,Community February 12, 2013 5:09 pm

sliceofegypt1

This is an installment of our Getting By column, profiles of street vendors and other informal economy occupations around the world.

Daily Income: 25 to 125 soles (approximately USD 10 – 45)
Hours Worked: 10 (13-23h)
Name: Mohammed
City: Lima
Neighbourhood: San Miguel
Occupation Title: Gastronomic entrepreneur

Mohammed’s stainless steel food cart can be found on Avenida Universitaria nearly every evening of the week. Wrapped in the automobile and pedestrian chaos that concentrates between La Mar and La Marina avenues on this long street, Tayepp (‘delicious’ in Arabic) is an ambulatory gastronomic operation that serves up classic  Middle-Eastern chicken and beef shawarmas. With its vertical gas grills and meat spits, the operation draws stares — international food culture is still very much a nascent phenomenon in the Peruvian capital, especially when rolling on the sidewalk. Those in the know however, march up and directly join the queue: Tayepp is a both a destination and a moving target.

Three to four men work the stations: making bread, cutting meat, maintaining the grills, assembling sandwiches, taking orders and handling money. Waiting and already-eating patrons often block the sidewalk at peak hours, drawing crowds.

Operating in the street requires Mohammed to maintain a constant dialogue with other vendors, the nearby shopping mall’s security squad, and the police, while keeping an eye open for troublemakers. Until 4pm, the locked stall is watched by a man who monitors the routes of local bus transit.

sliceofegypt2Mohammed came to Peru from Egypt six years ago. Tayepp is his latest venture, and this street configuration is its second iteration. He used to run the business from a market stall in the Magdalena district. But when the rent suddenly jumped and relations with his partners soured, he downsized and took to the streets. In addition to the autonomy and lack of commercial rent (though he has to have a permit), he enjoys the opportunity to share a little piece of his home culture with an expanded public.

Mohammed’s support team comes from several Muslim nations. One man from Sudan boarded what he thought was a Dutch shipping vessel in Cape Town as a stowaway and emerged in Chile. A Kurdish man from Iraq and two Egyptian staff arrived in normal fashion and have developed a life in Peru behind the glowing roasters.

Each chicken breast and cut of beef is individually washed and cured in a rooftop kitchen. With prep done, they hail a station-wagon taxi for around 8 soles (USD 3) and ride to their block in San Miguel. Sandwiches sell for either 7 or 8 soles (USD 2.75-3) – a premium price in a city where those 7 soles purchase a full two-course lunch. But the hungry crowds are undeterred by the unique fare.

Mohammed attributes his success to the quality of the food, his team’s efforts and God’s help. He confesses to me that he thinks of returning to Egypt, but the move will take time to plan.

One evening Mohammed and the crew arrived an hour behind schedule. As anxious patrons gathered at the cart, waiting for the meat to roast, Mohammed offered out some fresh slices. A few minutes later, he took the first order: “One chicken and one mixto for this gentleman, please.” As the production line revved into action, his assistant Hamid handed him the first sandwich. “Your order’s coming right up, sir,” Mohammed reassured his first-in-line customer as he walked over to offer the first shawarma to the emoliente (a potent herb and fruit infusion) vendor next door. The humble middle-aged man – a veteran of the street corner – gratefully accepted and offered him a cup of his brew in return. So started the shift, with a tribute to the street and those who collectively make their living on it.

Falco Mueller studies geography in Stockholm, and travels as a photographer when possible. You can check out his portfolio at falcomueller.com/blog.