Due to the ‘superficial’ nature of this post, we wish to let readers know that this report was written prior to the current turmoil that has besieged the Egyptian capital… our foreign correspondent was in fact 2 days shy of witnessing the first protest! Which is why this post’s focus – as with the other reviews – is on food and culture rather than politics. We wish by no means to belittle the political upheaval that is taking place, and admire the guts, grit and resilience of Cairo’s citizens. Down with Mubarak.
After a week spent in Cairo we noticed something that might be of great interest to readers of this blog – many of the most popular street foods on offer are vegetarian (if not vegan) by defect. One of our favourite culinary surprises came in the form of what we at first thought to be a glass of tea, which turned out to be a glass of hot veggie broth with a spoonful of chickpeas swimming in the bottom. Lentil and broad bean soups (Shurba ads and Fuul nabbed) are particularly popular, at home or on the go, and served with a slice of lemon to squeeze onto them for extra deliciousness. Salads are a common in every meal, as a relish or accompaniment, and usually consist of simple, savoury combos. Boiled beets with oil & vinegar, potatoes with parsley and lemon juice, or crunchy medleys of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers tossed in oil and herbs. Eating vegetables outside of their season is rarely done – fruit and vegetables are consumed when they are at their prime for extra flavour, sweetness and crunch, and most of all when they are at their best value on the market. As far as newbies, we greatly enjoyed discovering a kind of green unknown to us, a local strand of mallow called Molokhiyya. A leafy green that visually resembles mint, it is made into a gooey, earthy-tasting and surprisingly seductive soup… try it if you have the chance, and you aren’t afraid of Godzilla garlic breath.
Fuul Medames – this slow-cooked fava bean dip is considered the national dish and is eaten at any time of the day (especially breakfast). Once the ful is cooked and salted it can be eaten plain, or in the company of its best buddies: olive oil, garlic, pepper, parsley and lemon. Try making some at home and adding tahini, limejuice, a dash of tomato sauce and lots of black pepper… a meal in itself.
Although sipping on tea and coffee at all and any time of the day is the nation’s favourite pastime, when in Egypt do not pass up on the chance to try Karkadeh, or Hibiscus tea. Served hot or cold, this infusion of dried Hibiscus flowers might be as sickly sweet as its deep pink colour suggests, but let it also be known that Hibiscus flower extract is used in many folk remedies for liver disorders and high blood pressure. We’re sure this recipe works well with agave syrup instead of sugar.
Ta’amiyah – in simple terms, these are basically fava bean falafel. They are absolutely mouth-watering when freshly-made, eaten with an assortment of pickles or preserved baby lemons, and snuggled in a fresh pocket of bread.
Kushary – and here is the street food to end all street foods, the meal that will keep you satiated to infinity and beyond… Kushary is a happy mishmash of rice, lentils, chickpeas, and not one but two kinds of pasta, which is then topped with savoury tomato sauce, crispy fried onions and yet more chickpeas (did you say carbs?). Our favourite place to sample this dish is definitely at Abu Tarek, a bustling 3-storey, neon-lit, no-frills restaurant known to locals as the temple of kushary. In fact it is the only dish that they serve, to eat in or to go. We suggest eating in to be able to enjoy the extra condiments – a fiery chilli sauce, herb salts and a garlic-infused vinegar to mix into the tomato sauce. The waiters are always happy to show neophytes how to properly mix and season everything, the best part being that each one seems to have his own technique… and, in a true gesture of philanthropy, the Abu Tarek website even supplies their famous recipe for everyone to try at home.
Nosing around on the intraweb we found a couple of other recipes to try out – a simplified version at Mediterranean Vegan, an informed background research option at Julia’s Kitchen, and a rightly-titled ‘carbapalooza’ at Vegan Nosh. Interested in reading about these and other Egyptian recipes in unison with their history, geographic and economic environment? Head over to Food by Country.
Walking off all that delicious street food: if fending off tourist touts on the Giza plateau or taking over-priced felucca rides along the polluted shores of the Nile is not your thing, we came across Backpacker Concierge, who specialise in unusual, community-oriented and eco-conscious tours/experiences in Egypt and Jordan. One of their ‘immersion tours’ catering to Cairo visitors includes a half-day spent with the Zebaleen, a community who live in the Menashayat Nasr neighbourhood at the bottom of the Muqattam Hills, which is where all of Cairo’s refuse is accumulated. The Zebaleen have traditionally been in charge of collecting, separating and sorting the city’s trash, turning recycled garbage into their trade. Not only does the tour provide a peek into the hidden aspects and polemic surrounding urban waste, but the programme also helps to fund biogas digesters and solar projects for the community’s most underprivileged.
(We promise foreign correspondent CC is not completely fixated with human waste and trash, as a previous post’s visit to the Paris sewers might suggest. The obsession is for now calibrated at ‘mildly obsessed’).
Also based in the Muqattam area is the Eboo project. This non-profit humanitarian effort aims to empower the neighbourhood’s women by teaching them new skills geared towards self-sufficiency, such as sewing quality commercial products. Some of the goods they produce can be bought on Eboo’s website – the ones made out of Khayameya (traditional tent fabric) are especially cool and we kid you not when we say we were hard pressed to choose between the book bags, large beach totes or retro aprons.
And last but not least, if you are hunting for vegetarian/vegan cooking supplies or groceries while passing through town, try Sekem on Sharia Ahmed Sabry in the Zamalek district. The Sekem group was Egypt’s first organic farm pioneer, and at their store you can find organic fruit and veggies – something of a treasure when considering the giant smog cloud that is one of Cairo’s least appealing landmarks – as well as tofu and healthy snacks. It is possibly the only health food store in town, so let’s try to keep them in business…
Tune in again next week, when we will be taking in the atmospheric sights and smells of Addis Ababa. Peek preview: Ethiopian cuisine is highly addictive.