During my entire stay in Egypt, I indulged in Egyptian food. I loved everything about it: the variety, the taste, the balance of meat-based dishes with wholesome salads, the use of good grains like freekeh, slow cooking styles, and the fragrant combination of cumin, onions, and garlic. I learned to cook Egyptian food, order it from the right places, and even recommend what to eat in Egypt to foreign visitors and other expats. To gain a more in-depth perspective, I even went on a Cairo food tour and this post is dedicated to the not to miss dishes in the capital city of Egypt. My Cairo food tour with Bellies En-Route, a company run by two women foodies and entrepreneurs. I was taken on a walk with the co-founder Laila, who showed me the best places to eat Egyptian food in Cairo. Here’s a photo essay of this delightful walk and what you should eat on your Cairo food tour.
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Cairo food tour with Bellies En-Route
There are a few things to remember when heading out for a Cairo food tour. The most important detail is that most restaurants in Egypt do not serve alcohol. Secondly, the portions served are generous, and be cautious while ordering food so as not to overdo things. The Cairo food tour with Bellies En-route has quite a few stops and I advise you to only sample the dishes since otherwise, you will have no space left in your tummy to enjoy the tour to the full. Egyptian food is mostly meat-based. However, vegetarians will be happy to know that there are plenty of plant-based dishes in Egyptian cuisine and there are plenty of fresh, juicy fruits available year round. None of the Egyptian dishes are really spicy unless you add the famous Levantine hot sauce called shatta. That has always made my tummy run and I advise people with weak stomachs to stay away from it. As ironic as it may sound, I cannot tolerate spice and it’s a standing joke among my German friends since they have higher heat tolerance than me.
Salad water, Koshari and Macarona Bechamel
Anyway, coming back to our topic in focus, my Cairo food tour started at the famous Tahrir Square where I met my guide, Laila. She took me through the interesting and photogenic back lanes of the downtown area and I knew enough smattering of Arabic to be able to converse with the locals with ease. Our first food stop was for ‘Muyyet Salata’. It is salad water that is served in a shot glass and is known to aid digestion. This unique drink constitutes of vinegar, oil, lemon, garlic, and chili powder. It is topped with some fresh greens and is usually served with heavy dishes like Koshari and Macarona Bechamel. Koshari is the national dish of Egypt and it is completely vegetarian. It is a dish that takes time and a lot of effort to be made at home and is a combination of a wide variety of ingredients. Noodles, rice, lentils, fried, onions, chickpeas, and garlic sauce are all cooked separately and combined to create the wonderful Koshari. The more adventurous eaters can add a dollop of spicy shatta for more flavour. It is one of the most popular dishes in Egypt and can be found in every nook and corner of the country. Macarona Bechamel on the other hand is a rich, homey dish that is tossed up once every week at nearly every Egyptian home. It is baked penne pasta with lots of cheese and the additional option of minced meat or zucchini. Think of layers of penne baked with creamy white sauce, cheese, and meat in a perfectly carb-laden casserole.
Egyptian pizzas and cushion pastries
Next came Hawashi bought from a nondescript shop called Hawawshi El Refaey. Its highlight is of course Hawashi, a crisp beef sandwich with a texture that crunches but doesn’t crumble. This shop uses both special bread and a special oven to accomplish just that. No Cairo food tour is complete without sampling feteer, the Egyptian take on a pizza. A flaky layered pastry, Feteer Meshaltet literally means ‘cushion pies’. These rich pastries consist of many thin layers of dough and ghee along with an optional filling of something sweet or savoury. Traditionally, it is served with a type of extremely salty cheese ‘mesh’ or honey. Feteer is best enjoyed at Wahet Omar.
Arabic coffee and fresh juices
Next on the Cairo food tour came a sampling of Arabic coffee and fresh fruit juices. Locally known as ‘Ahwa’, Egyptian coffee is similar to Turkish coffee. Your personal sugar intake alters the name slightly. ‘Ahwa Sadaa’ is as rare as can be since it is unsweetened coffee and is usually drunk on sad occasions like burials. The more popular demands are for ‘Ahwa Arriha'(sweet), ‘Ahwa Mazboot’ (medium sweet), or ‘Ahwa Ziyada’ (very sweet). Coffee in Egypt is served in small cups and the brew is light and cardamom infused. The coffee beans are lightly roasted and it is a far cry from the thick Turkish coffee. Laila took me to a very photogenic and old coffee roasting shop in the downtown area. The coffee, she mentioned, is mostly imported from Yemen and at the shop, one can customize the roasting quality of their brew. After the coffee stop, we went to a fresh fruit juice shop. Egypt abounds with fruits and the locals love their juices. From sugarcane to mango to exotic ones like hibiscus, carob, tamarind, and sweet coconut drink called Sobia, Egyptian juices are freshly made and are best had without ice. Although they are generally served sweetened, you can opt for unsweetened ones as well.
A popular restaurant and street eats
Our last three stops were at a local eatery. It catered to working men and although we were the only women there, we felt neither uncomfortable nor stared at. The food was homey and delicious. Lightly grilled chicken, a vegetable stew called Bazella, and beef and okra stew called Bamia were served with Egyptian vermicelli rice called Roz bil Shareya. After that, we went to Felfela in Hoda Shaarawi Street. This was a restaurant where locals went for ‘Tamia’ (fava beans fritters), Ful Medames (savory fava bean stew with ingredients like parsley, lemon juice, cumin, garlic, onion, and chili pepper), and dips like Baba Ganoush (roasted eggplant dip), Bessarra (boiled split beans, onion, garlic, and fresh herbs dip), and Tahina (sesame, coriander, and garlic dip). We also paused to sample a dish of Kebda Eskandarani, fried spiced beef liver. Egyptians love offal dishes and Fawakeh El-Lohoum is one of the most popular street eats in Egypt. Another hot favourite of the locals is a dish made with cow brains and livers sliced, dipped in milk with garlic, covered in flour, and finally deeply fried and spiced. Although I skipped this part, I was brave enough to try it another time and loved the taste. In my own country, offal dishes from lamb are quite popular as well and I am especially partial to Delhi’s ghurde kapure (heart, lungs, and liver curry), Brain curry, and minced lungs.
The sweet ending and a historic sugar doll
The final stop of my mega Cairo food tour was at a sweet shop, where we sampled the local desserts: Basboussa, Kunafa, and Zalabiya. There I learned about the delightful folk custom of large sugar dolls gifted to little girls on Mouild Al-Nabi (the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday). The sugar doll was the brainchild of the Fatimid dynasty which ruled Egypt in 969 AD. In the olden days, the mouild doll was made by mixing water, lemon, and sugar. The mixture was then poured into a wooden mold with the main contours of the doll engraved. After the mixture cooled down, the mold was unlocked to reveal a sugary smooth delicious sugar doll figurine. The decorations started at this stage and the doll was painted with big dark eyes, black brows, and pink cheeks. The costume of the doll was typically Fatimid in style and the doll was dressed in a veil, a generous, long ‘A-shaped skirt, and a golden paper necklace (Kirdan). Although sugar dolls are no longer created, the tradition lives on, and nowadays, Egyptian daddies bring joy to their little daughters by presenting them with plastic dolls on every Mouild Al-Nabi. Such beautiful little anecdotes were just another added charm of the Cairo food tour with Bellies En-Route. When you go on a food tour, you go with the expectation not only to eat but live a bit of the local life of the place. Perhaps this is what Winona LaDuke meant when she said, “food for us comes from our relatives, whether they have wings or fins or roots. That is how we consider food. Food has a culture. It has a history. It has a story. It has relationships.”
Extra Tips for that delicious Cairo food experience
This restaurant is a local hotspot. Known as Andrea, the original place is the oldest chicken restaurant in Egypt. Since 1958, Andrea has specialized in grilled spatchcock chicken, quails, shish tawook, and dips. I especially love its latest location on New Giza Road, where the restaurant sits on a hilltop overlooking the sprawling city of Cairo. It is a lovely garden restaurant with attached open-air baking and grilling sections, a little playground, and offers donkey rides to children. A perfect place to unwind in Cairo, enjoy a spit-roasted chicken with a bottle of chilled Saqarra beer at Andrea. Just make sure to keep the taxi waiting because the chance of finding public transport is next to impossible there. Another delightful restaurant is inside the famous Al-Azhar Park. The Al Masrawya Café offers stunning views of the park and the Citadel. The food is good and the service is laidback, but it is the perfect place to cool your tripping toes and take it easy. For a livelier scene, go to the Khan El Khalili Restaurant and Naguib Mahfouz Café at Khan El Khalili Market in Cairo. Operated by the Oberoi Group, this cafe is situated in a historic building and often offers live traditional music in the evenings. It is a great place to soak up the local atmosphere of the well-heeled of Cairo. Book a table beforehand since it gets crowded fast.
P.S – This blog post is part of the weekly series called the Cairo Chronicles. Every week, Maverickbird will take on a new theme, emotion, and beauty of expat life in the exciting, maddening city of Cairo.
Follow the rest of the Egypt series here
- THE MOSQUE OF ABU DAHAB
- THE GAYER ANDERSON MUSEUM IN CAIRO
- MANIAL PALACE IN CAIRO
- AL GHURIYA MOSQUE-MAUSOLEUM
- COPTIC QUARTER OF CAIRO
- IBN TULUN MOSQUE IN CAIRO
- MOSQUE-OF-AL-REFAIE IN CAIRO
- BEAUTY OF SULTAN HASSAN MOSQUE MADRASSA
- KHAN EL KHALILI MARKET IN CAIRO
- CAIRO MUIZZ STREET WALKING TOUR
- SOUQ AL GOMA IN PHOTOS
- TANOURA DANCE OF EGYPT
- THE BLUE MOSQUE IN CAIRO
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