Usually when I choose a holiday destination, I’m thinking about the food first and the sights second. But for Egypt, I reversed these priorities, and only after we’d booked our flights did I start looking into what Egyptian cuisine had to offer.
When Jon and I first arrived in Cairo, we were bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed and excited to eat all that Egypt had to offer. So we started out strong, eating at both divey and high-end Egyptian places during our first four days in Cairo. But I must confess that as we made our way south to Luxor and Aswan, I increasingly craved light, fresh vegetables that were “safe” to eat, as well as dishes that did not involve deep fried fava beans or grilled lamb. We are so lucky to have the variety of cuisines we do in London.
On our first day in Cairo, walking towards the sprawling souk of Khan el-Khalili, we tried out koshari, which I’d read much about in our three guidebooks (Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, and DK Eyewitness). If said books are to be believed, it’s the quintessential comfort food in Egypt, comprised of pasta, chickpeas, lentils, a tomato sauce and fried onions. Having googled it, I learned that debating where to find the best koshari was the Cairene equivalent of New Yorkers arguing over the best slice in town.
In the end, rather than making our way to some much-touted location (Abou Tarek comes up a lot on-line), we just stopped by one of many koshari shops, settling on one that looked busy.
For 2 LE (24p!), we got an enormous plastic takeaway container filled with koshari. On price alone I can see why the dish is so popular. I enjoyed it, but I can’t say I got too excited about eating over-cooked noodles with a protein-heavy topping. I did, however, greatly enjoy the fried onions, which did its fried onion thing and added an appealing sweet crunch.
On more than one occasion, looking for a late-afternoon snack/quick lunch, we sought out tamiyya, the Egyptian falafel. Tamiyya uses fava beans instead of chick peas, so they look a bit greenish and the texture didn’t seem quite as fluffy as chickpea-based falafels, but overall it’s hard to find fault with tamiyya if it’s fresh. Like koshari, tamiyya is everywhere in Cairo, so just look around for tamiyya coming straight out of the fryer.
The tamiyya place we liked best was right on Sayyida Zeinab square, about 90 degrees clockwise from the Sayyida Zeinab mosque. I have no idea what this place was called, but the friendly fellow standing outside frying up the tamiyya in his white rubber wellies is a good way to spot this joint. He happily gave us a tamiyya for free to taste (and let me tell you – getting something for free in Cairo is a rare thing), and Jon and I loved how these tamiyya were cumin-dusted. Folded into a flatbread with some potato (so it’s more filling?) and costing about 3 LE (36 p) a sandwich, these were brilliant.
While we’re on the subject of tamiyya — after going to see the many pyramids in and around Cairo from 8 am to 4 pm one day, we stopped by an Egyptian fast-food place (as in, it’s located inside the run-down Arkadia shopping mall) for a snack. On the menu was something called “tomaya,” which we assumed was the falafel we had come to love. What arrived at our table was essentially mayonnaise on a hotdog bun. We’re not sure what happened, but if our server is to be believed, tomaya is mayonnaise and so a tomaya sandwich is a mayonnaise sandwich. But why offer a mayo sandwich on the menu? We were still charged in full for this bit of grossness, but luckily 10 LE (£1) isn’t too harsh a penalty. But really – annoying.
To try some more elaborate (not streetfood) Egyptian food, we ate at a few “nicer” places that were recommended in our guidebooks and on-line (largely the same restaurants, really). Abu al-Sid, located on the leafy island of Zemalek, is described by guidebooks as the “best” upscale place to try Egyptian food. Our server there told us the molokhiya and the stuffed pigeon were his two favorites on the menu, and I tried them both.
I’ve concluded that molokhiya, a soup/sauce of boiled mallow leaves, is an acquired taste. I found it slimy and too salty, and I was skeptical that the menu described it as “Egypt’s National Dish.”
Stuffed pigeon with rice (55 LE/£6) wasn’t bad, but the pigeon was all skin and no meat, so really it was rice stuffed in a poultry skin — flavorsome and moist, but not very complex or memorable.
Bessara is fava bean and coriander dip. Abu al-Sid’s version tasted kind of sour and seemed to have developed a film on the top, which was unappetizing. Fuul is a thick soup-like dish comprised mostly of boiled fava beans, and normally eaten at breakfast, according to our guidebook. Abu al-Sid’s version tasted like a creamy black bean soup that had gone sour. We weren’t big fans, and the kobeba (fried cracked wheat and lamb) weren’t bad, but I’m not dying to eat them again.
And since I’m on the topic of Abu al-Sid: the service was bad. We placed our orders and then waited over half an hour for the starters to arrive. And presumably they weren’t making the bessara (fava bean dip) or fuul (fava bean stew) from scratch back there. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if Abu al-Sid really is a shining example of Egyptian dining in Cairo.
While in Cairo, we also ate a lot of kebabs, but of course not all kebabs are created equal. I’ll contrast the much-written about Al Dahan, just off the Midan al-Hussein in the middle of tourist Cairo with the hidden-away El Refay near Sayyida Zeinab mosque.
Al Dahan: No one should be forced to eat these kebabs. Recommended by both our DK and Rough Guides as one of the best kebab places in Cairo, Al Dahan’s primary strength apparently seems to be that they grill the meat only after you order it, so it’s “fresh.” But the kebab meat was tough and at least 1/4 of the the pieces were gristle or fat, and there was little seasoning or spicing. It may have been cheap (28 LE/£3.30) for a quarter kilo, but it wasn’t good value.
El Refay was the exact opposite of Al Dahan, though listed in our Rough Guide. It’s down an alley that’s across the street from Sayyida Zeinab mosque. There’s no menu (not in English, anyway), and you just tell your server how many kilos you want, specifying if you want plain kofte or “wrapped” kofte, too. Turns out the wrapped kofte is wrapped in fat before going on the grill. So in case the kofte meat wasn’t fatty and moist enough, you’re doubly sure of a good outcome with the “wrap.” Our tab for a half kilo of kofte, bottomless bowls of tahini, and two bottles of water totaled 75 LE (£8.80). El Rifay is on Sayyida Zeinab square (midan Sayyida Zeinab), across the street from the Sayyida Zeinab mosque. To know which alley to walk down, look for the sign that says “Mongy Destrict.”
At the end of our fourth day in Cairo, we were dying for uncooked, water-filled vegetables. So we abandoned the idea of seeking out cheap “local” places and ended up at an Oberoi-operated restaurant listed in every Cairo guidebook: the Naguib Mahfouz restaurant/Khan El Khalili Cafe. As the name suggests, the restaurant is inside the Khan El-Khalili souk, so you really run the gauntlet of touts to reach the restaurant. Inside, it’s an oasis of calm, but everyone in there was a tourist. The grilled meats were less than stellar, but we loved being able to eat fresh vegetables (the assumption being that at these prices and given the Oberoi’s luxurious reputation, the veg were “safe” to eat). Our total for three salads and a mixed grill came to the relatively-princely sum of 202 LE (£24).
After loading up on tomatoes and cucumbers at Naguib Mahfouz, we left Cairo and headed south to Luxor and Aswan. More on those dining options in my next post.