This year I was lucky enough to be invited to a couple of family Iftar gatherings in Cairo and was introduced to the special Ramadan dishes. A major Ramadan food tradition of Egypt is purchasing dates, yameesh (Ramadan nuts) and dried fruits such as figs, raisins, dried apricot, and blanched almonds. The traditional Egyptian Iftar meal usually consists of three main categories First, comes the Ramadan drinks with dates which break the fast. Iftar tables have at least one of the three quintessential Ramadan drinks of Amar-el-deen (traditional Egyptian drink of apricot nectar with rosewater), tamarind, hibiscus, carob and liquorice. Then there is the main meal, which has some kind of soup, rice, pasta or mahshi (stuffed vegetables) and a fish/chicken/meat dish. Salad accompanies all meals in Egypt and the vegetarians opt for fuul beans, which is essentially mashed fava beans topped with spices according to taste.
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Egyptian food is a whole year fare
This spread surprised me a lot because I was expecting tables full of Ramadan dishes, as seen on glittering restaurant billboard advertisements and I realized that, perhaps, unlike India, Egypt does not have a huge variety of festival special dishes. The Egyptians focus more on eating and celebrating the festival together than spend precious energy on cooking during the hot holy month of Ramadan. If I were an Egyptian, there would not be much room for me to complain about it since Egyptian food is one of the most delicious and underrated cuisines in the world. That gave me the inspiration to compile the Egyptian food guide and how to eat like a local when you visit this complex, beautiful country. Read on to find out the best dishes.
Considered as the national dish of Egypt, Koshary is a vegetarian delight. Sort of like the Indian khichdi (though not mashed like it), Koshary is made up by combining a lot of cereals and grains, with sauce toppings. There is no denying that Koshary is delicious with a capital ‘D’ and it is easily found all across Egypt. Many restaurants, like Abu Tarek in Cairo, specialize in Koshary and the huge cylinder like storage drums are the giveaway of a koshary restaurant. A protein-rich dish, Koshary has rice, macaroni and lentils, topped with chickpeas, fried onion, and a tomato-vinegar sauce and is the highlight of the Egyptian food.
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Egyptian Food Breakfast Spread
One of our favourite weekend morning rituals in Cairo is to have an Egyptian breakfast. Tarek and Akash walk to the nearest food shop and buy bags of Fuul (mashed fava beans), ta´meya (deep-fried patties crushed fava beans paste), scrambled eggs with Egyptian meat called pasterma or Shakshuka, and white cheese with tomatoes. Fuul is the most versatile dish among them all and it comes with a lot of customizable toppings. In Cairo, fuul is most commonly made with garlic, cumin, olive oil, and lemon. However, it can also be topped with tomato sauce and vinegar, eggs and parsley, and more. It’s always served with piles of warm pita bread or as a separate dipping dish on a plate, fuul is best eaten at one of the many fuul carts dotting the streets of Cairo every morning.
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Egyptian Quick Eats
Egyptian food has a plethora of snacks and they are all mostly deep fried. Some variety of sandwiches are also available and they are cookie smart options of stuffing local bread with whatever is available. So, Egyptian sandwiches may come with fuul, tameyas, eggs, and even french fries. The other variety of snacks is more complex and includes interesting pizzas, canapes, and savoury pastries. Egyptian pizza is called fiteer and I think the comparison is fair enough. In reality, it is a stone-fired bread which is made with layered filo dough and butter. Definitely not an option for the weight watchers, fiteers can be sweet or savoury are rather stuffed than topped. Another personal favourite among the Egyptian snacks is the pie like Hawashi. This one for the hardcore meat lovers. Made up of baked bread baked stuffed with minced meat, people make hawashis in different ways. While some put a sausage in it, others prefer air dried beef strips.
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Salads and Dips all the Way
In Egyptian food, salads are mandatory and they are called salatat. There is a big variety of Egyptian salads and they mostly contain some kind of dairy product either in form or cheese or yoghurt. My favourite non-dairy ones are Salatat Baladi and Fattoush. While the former is more of a peasant mix of whatever greens and veggies are available, Fattoush is a more prepared dish. It is one of the most well known Middle Eastern salads and a ‘mezza‘ (small dishes) table staple. A colourful tossed salad with a lemony garlic dressing, Fattoush looks as good as it tastes. Egyptians are famous throughout the world and Baba Ghanous is wickedly delicious. Dips are always served as sides in Egyptian food and they are usually tahina (sesame seed paste), baba ghanous (mashed creamy smoked eggplant), and Besara. The last one is an ancient dish which is a green creamy paste which is a mix of crushed fava beans, onions, green bell pepper, coriander, parsley, dill and leek with spices.
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Mahshi and Warak Enab
I am always confused about the nomenclature of these dishes. Hands down, my favourite dishes in Egyptian food, mahshis are stuffed vegetables. These can be made with bell peppers, zucchini, eggplants or stuffed cabbage leaf rolls called mahshi cromb. Warak Enab is a dish of stuffed grape vine leaf rolls and in, Egypt this popular Mediterranean platter is cooked in a tomato-based sauce and served with a slice of lemon.
Egyptian food follows some basic patterns and eating one meal dishes are very popular. Fattah is one such hearty, stick-to-the-bone combination and it is made with bite-sized pita bread (baked or deep- fried), getting added on a bed of cooked rice and topped with a hearty portion of sauteed beef. Topped with garlic-tomato sauce, fattah is ready to be served in a snap.
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This liver plate dish as the name mentions hails from Alexandria. Cooked in own spicy juice with peppers, this dish is served with a slice of lemon and maybe mixed with koshary, macaroni or stuffed inside a sandwich. More of a street Egyptian food, it is cheap and delicious and the best ones can be eaten in Alexandria.
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My experience with the main dishes of the Egyptian food has been quite varied. From the joy of eating delicious viscous molokhiya stew (Jew Mallow leaves stew) to the plain shock of seeing a stuffed pigeon (legs, neck and all) on my plate, I have oscillated quite a bit before settling down to a handful of favourites. As mentioned, Molokhiya is my favourite Egyptian main dish along with Bameya (meat and okra stew), I also like the colocasia soup which is made with boiling taro in broth with spices and lemon, and the unusual qolqas. Made of peeled taro root with either with chard or tomato it is an acquired taste. The former is a tastier, healthier and a more fragrant dish which is served at the celebration of Epiphany, a Coptic Christian’s fest.
Kebab, Kofta and other grilled meat
Kebab and kofta are our favourite go-to meals in Egyptian food. While I prefer the kebab, Tarek loves the kofta and Akash eats both. Kofta is made of minced meat beef or lamb rolled onto a skewer and barbecued over coals. Very much like the Indian version, even the kebabs are similar. They are generally juicy cubes of meat cooked over a bed of hot coals and are served with a side of rice, bread, dip and veggies. One of my favourite Egyptian meat dishes is their grilled chicken and I love the tender butterflied end result. Egyptian food also includes a variety of grilled ribs, pigeons, rabbits, ducks, and camel meat, all of which I have given a miss.
The famous Egyptian sweet tooth
Egyptians have a wickedly sweet tooth and their desserts are heavy on sugar. While I find most Western desserts in Egypt to be too sweet, the traditional ones are refreshingly nicer. Sweetened with natural honey, my favourite Egyptian desserts are basbousa (semolina cake) with cream, konafa, halawa (sesame paste blocks) and Umm Ali (layers of bread baked with nuts, raisins, and milk). The Egyptian take on the wobbly Creme Caramel is delicious too and I can eat it until I burst.
Though, this is quite a lot of information on Egyptian food, under no circumstances, is it all-encompassing. There are loads of delicious other dishes which I have missed out on purpose or due to forgetfulness. I can mention some noteworthy dishes like the Egyptian Mombar (spicy stuffed entrails), Mihallabiya (Egyptian milk pudding) and Bechamel Pasta ( a modern Egyptian dish made with macaroni, minced meat, and cream). One Ramadan special is the Kishk, which is mainly made in Upper Egypt by fermenting bulgur in yoghurt before being formed into balls and dried. The kishk is then cooked by soaking these balls in water and dropping them into boiling broth. The end result is a delicious creamy Ramadan kishk.
P.S – This blog post is part of the weekly series called the Cairo Chronicles. Every week, Maverickbird will try to focus on a new theme, emotion, and beauty of an expat life in the exciting, maddening city of Cairo.
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