Gilded Serpent presents...
Dining in Cairo
CAIRO--In light of the experiences
of some of my esteemed colleagues in this glorious city I now call
home, I thought it time to come to her defence.
Or at least offer some tips on dodging the worst of the touts and other rat-like
Despite the fact that in Middle Eastern dance terms it is apparently not what
it once was, Cairo remains a popular destination. As it should. It's still
Cairo after all-the pyramids, more than a thousand years of Islamic culture,
including some fine architecture, centuries-old souqs, and, of course, the
Yes, when you've been out sightseeing all day, when you think you'll scream
at the sight of another Volkswagon-sized block of yellow stone, when the next
person to offer to show you their brother's shop had better hope he has a brother
to carry on the family name, when you're in need of refreshments, a chair,
and perhaps even a flush toilet.the last thing you want is to have a couple
of open soft drinks that you don't want plunked down in front of you by a grinning
waiter who proclaims, "Welcome in Egypt!" as he proceeds to give
you mediocre food at inflated prices and then explains to you why you should
be happy to pay so much for this "real Egyptian experience".
Cairo is filled with wonderful places to eat where you won't be given mediocre
food at inflated prices. However, most of them are not in the ever-popular
Khan al-Khalili area, where bus loads of tourists are released by their guides
for their daily dose of exotica. Step off that bus and you can tell that every
waiter in sight sees you as a fatted sheep waiting to be fleeced.
One of the wonderful things about Egyptian food is that there is something
for everyone. Vegetarians are easily satisfied with a large variety of things
they can eat, but if big chunks of tender, moist, flavourful meat hot off the
grill are more your style, you're in luck.
The first stop for most tourists is Felfela. Conveniently listed in every guidebook and a major
taxi landmark, you should have no trouble finding it. Don't be put off by the
bus-loads that get dropped off every night, Felfela has its share of local
regulars as well and there's a good reason that every tour company brings their
groups here. It's good, it's clean, the service is generally good, it's pretty
reasonably priced, and they
have the best variety of any place in town. A nice selection of mezze, most
of which are vegetarian, and the best stuffed pigeon I've ever had.
To start, try some of the salads, the baba ghanoug is decent and the tomato
salad comes with a garlic dressing that's guaranteed to keep vampires and loved
ones at bay. Be sure to share. Fresh raw vegetables are generally safe to eat
Felfela is also a good place to try the ubiquitous Egyptian staple, foul. Known
in the west as fava or broad beans, foul is to Egypt what toast is to England:
doesn't have much taste on its own, but everyone eats it and takes great pride
in doing so. Actually, it can be good, but is often about the blandest thing
you've ever had, particularly when it's served mashed and adorned with only
oil. Try it at Felfela with tehina. A fork-full of "oriental" salad
and some foul in the pita-like bread that comes with your meal makes a good,
nutritious, filling, and even cheap meal.
Another terrific mezze is taamiyya, which is the Egyptian version of felafel.
Made from our old friend foul, it has more flavour than your basic felafel
and at Felfela is available plain or whipped up with eggs to make a fluffier
version that's also high on my list.
If that's not enough, try the grilled meats. The shishkabab plate has a mix
of grilled chunks of meat and kofta, a grilled kabab made from minced lamb.
The grilled pigeons are also excellent, though the stuffed are even better.
If you've ever enjoyed quail, but thought that they just weren't worth the
effort, pigeon is for you. Keep in mind that these aren't flying rats that
have lived the hard life on the streets. They've been specially bred for your
If you've still got room, have an Om Ali, a baked milk pudding which I don't
happen like because it includes coconut, but which everyone who comes to visit
consumes in copious, or is that conspicuous, quantities.
Felfela is also a good bet
for a mid-day break. They serve all the coffee shop basics, including
Turkish coffee, tea, hot cinnamon and hibiscus, and have clean bathrooms
and waiters who speak all the basic languages, English included.
OK, so Felfela is safe, it's easy. But now that you can identify all the basic
foods and throw in a word of Arabic for good measure, you're ready to venture
out a bit and sample the delights that the sidewalk buffet has to offer. For
local foods in a more local setting, head for near-by Champollion
Street, home of some of the
best take away joints in the area and numerous auto repair shops.
Starting from the southern end, you'll pass Champollion's old house on the
right. In the block after that is a wonderful kabab shop.
If you're a vegetarian, you can pretty much skip this part-all they sell is
meat. But, ah, what wonderful meat!
In theory, you pay first, simply telling the guy with the cigar box who sits
on the sidewalk out front how much you want to spend, then take your little
slip to the counter and tell the guy there what you want. This is a little
complicated when you don't know what you want and don't know how much that
unknown item might cost, but two Egyptian pounds per person is reasonable,
three a hearty meal.
There's a good variety here, including chicken, lamb and kofta, but a personal
favourite, and something a bit different, is hawwashi. Spiced ground meat is
stuffed inside eish baladi (a more rustic version of the bread you'll have
sampled at Felfela, made from a coarser flour and a slightly soured dough)
and then the whole thing is grilled. Delicious.
Proceeding up the street, in the next block on the left you'll spot a
small shop selling fiteer, a
pizza-like dish made from a thinly stretched dough which is folded to make
a flaky crust. There's not much of a sign, but you'll see a man behind a counter
standing beside what looks like a pizza oven. In the window is a neat stack
of canned tuna and meat. This is a small shop and not much to look at, but
they produce a decent fiteer at a reasonable price.unlike many of it's competitors.
I'm not sure why, but fiteer shops, called fatatri, are some of the most blatant
abusers of innocent tourists. Be especially wary of the Egyptian Pancake House
in the Khan al-Khalili. The waiters are notorious thieves and even the locals
get ripped off there. They also have two different menus, one in English, one
in Arabic. Guess which one has higher prices.
If you took a pass on the kebabs, have a savoury fiteer. Your filling choices
are right there in the window and vegetarians will have no problem assembling
something good. Also be sure to have a sweet fiteer as well. This can be as
simple as powdered sugar and ghee or you can have the deluxe model with raisins,
jam, coconut and anything else they happen to have on hand.
Another block down, and still on the left, you'll come to the fanciest place
on the block, Abu Tarek,
renowned throughout Cairo as the best koshary around, no small honour since
you'll find koshary shops everywhere. Rice, pasta, lentils, tomato sauce and
crispy fried onions are all tossed together in a bowl and your only choice
is how much you want to spend, usually ranging from a pound and a half to three
pounds. Options you can add yourself include chilli sauce (check it before
you dump it on
indiscriminately, Abu Tarek's is reasonable, but some are incredibly hot) and
da''a, garlic vinegar. At Abu Tarek, go straight up the stairs and find yourself
a seat at one of the stainless steel tables. A waiter will come round to take
your order and money and bring you a bowl of the most delicious, stick-to-your-ribs
food you can imagine. And it's vegetarian. And it's cheap. And it's good for
you. And it's hassle free.
In Cairo? Who'd a believed it!
(c) 2000 by FD Glick
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