You all, I have so much to tell you about Cairo and yet, somehow, I feel that saying that I’ve barely scratched the surface of Cairo is even an exaggeration. There’s so much here to see, smell, feel, be a part of, try to avoid haha…
I spent three days between Cairo and Giza. [But really, we’ll just call it Cairo (al-Qāhirah), since these days despite the fact that Giza is a huge city in its own right, it’s really a part of the massive urban sprawl of Cairo.] Cairo/Egypt is crazy and chaotic and nonstop and steaming hot, it took a lot of energy to get from point A to point B, wherever those may be. We got to maybe a third of what we wanted to see and do…. It’s also a place that’s hard to break into if you look like me–a white woman. Keith and I were outsiders who, while welcomed most places, were always on the fringe.
That didn’t stop me from eating true Egyptian food though, even if sometimes I had to find it in the hotel we stayed in. First up is كشرى (koshary), which is probably the closest thing to a national dish in Egypt. And it was hearty, and a great way to carbo-load; it’s nothing but macaroni, lentils, rice, and spaghetti, plus some chickpeas and fried onions. Oh yeah, and some tomato sauce just to throw in something reminiscent of a vegetable in there. I could barely finish half of it, it was so much!! It’s a “poor-man’s” food since it’s made of pantry staples and/or leftovers, and is a common street food dish.
Foul medames (فول مدمس in Arabic) is probably runner-up for the Egyptian national dish designation. Though, judging by the fact that I saw this more than koshary, I’m tempted to place it first.
Nevertheless, foul is ubiquitous on breakfast and dinner tables alike. Or on a tray being hoisted by a small boy running and swerving down an alley to feed some shopkeepers. It’s made with cooked and mashed fava beans with spices (and mine had some minced meat and butter in the mix, so good). We had ours as a sandwich in a pita, along with pickled vegetables, for you know, vitamins.
Perhaps my favorite part of eating in Egypt was found in mezze. It’s essentially several small dishes that you slowly enjoy as you eat your way through the variety of flavors, textures and spices. It’s in my opinion one of the most luxurious way to eat, nibbling here and there, and is a great way to eat it all when you can’t decide or choose just one plate.
And yet, I still wasn’t able to sample everything! Such is life…. I did have:
- فتوش – Fattoush (fried pita with mixed greens and vegetables)
- حُمُّص – Hummus (chickpea purée with tahini)
- جبنة – Spicy white cheese (I guess white cheese is a name ha!)
- لبنة – Labneh (basically strained yogurt, with olive oil topping)
- محمرة – Mouhammara (mashed red peppers, walnuts, and chilies)
- كبة – Kibbeh (fried chopped meat and bulgur)
- تبولة – Tabbouleh (parsley, bulgur, and tomato)
- بابا غنوج/متبل – Mutable/Babaganouj (eggplant purée with tahini)
- كفته – Kufta (meatballs)
A lot of the food in Cairo isn’t necessarily exclusively found in Cairo or Egypt, but is more Middle Eastern/Eastern Mediterranean. Such as shawarma. Here’s the delicious shawarma I had outside the al-Azhar mosque:
Some food though, while found all throughout the region, is made with slightly different ingredients. Such as falafel; most is made with chickpeas, but in Egypt it’s liklely to be found made with fava beans.
Bread is also a big deal in Egypt. The word for bread and life is the same, aish. Though, it’s more than just food and sustenance: bread is political. Egypt has the highest per capita consumption of bread than any other country. But, its arable land is nominal—and disappearing quickly between erosion and development—compared to the needs of its people, so Egypt must turn to importing wheat (it’s actually the number one importer of wheat in the world). It has continued to be subsidized heavily by the government over the last several years through riots and revolution for farmers, millers, bakers and consumers alike. (It should come as no surprise given the importance and reliance on bread that there’s a positive correlation between violent riots and the price of wheat over the last decade in Egypt.) And the rations system is as corrupt and imperfect as you’d expect, unfortunately for a country where almost half of its population lives on less than 2.50$ a day. You might think a bit more about the next piece of bread you eat, wherever you are, and the significance it has in your life, culture, or country.
Of course, not all cultural aspects of day-to-day Cairo food culture is wracked with doom and gloom. There’s a strong café culture, complete with drinking ea or Turkish coffee and smoking shisha (hookah), which we partook in frequently. It was a nice balance to the hustle of Cairo, since there in the cafés no one rushes you at all. You linger. You chat. You breathe. If you ever go to Cairo, you’ll find relief in the leisurely break, all day and all night.
And of course, a pyramids picture for good measure … Before we’re off to Israel!