The reputation of Egyptian cuisine takes a constant battering, largely because it’s compared with regional heavyweights such as those of Lebanon, Turkey and Iran. Truth be told, Egypt does not have a well-established culinary heritage, and lacks the diversity and regionalisation of dishes found elsewhere in the Middle East. But this ill-reputation is unfortunate simply because the food here is good, honest peasant fare that packs an occasional – and sensational – knockout punch. Whether you’re a hard-core carnivore or a devoted vegetarian, you’ll never fail to find cheap and hearty fare in Egypt. True to their Middle Eastern roots, Egyptian meals typically centre on lightly spiced lamb or chicken, though there’s enough coastline to reel in the fruits of the sea. Of course, even meat lovers will wait in line for hot and crispy falafel, the ubiquitous Middle Eastern vegetarian staple. Regardless of your culinary preference, you can always count on stacks of freshly baked pita and heaping bowls of rice to accompany any meal.
There is always room for dessert in Egypt. This is one culinary arena where the country really shines, especially when you accompany your plate of delectable treats with a cup of dark, thick and knock-your-socks-off-strong coffee. And, just when your stomach is about to explode, signal your waiter to bring you an apple-scented sheesha (water pipe) – a few long, drawn-out puffs can not only settle the stomach but also relax the mind and calm the nerves.
STAPLES & SPECIALITIES
Largely vegetable based and always bursting with colour and flavour, mezze (a selection of hot and cold starters) aren’t strictly Egyptian (many hail from the Levant), but they have been customised here in a more limited and economical form. They’re the perfect start to any meal, and it’s usually perfectly acceptable for diners to order an entire meal from the mezze list and forego
‘Aish (bread) is the most important staple of the national diet. Usually made with a combination of plain and wholemeal flour with sufficient leavening to form a pocket and soft crust, it’s cooked over an open flame. Locals use it in lieu of cutlery to scoop up dips, and rip it into pieces to wrap around morsels of meat. Shammy, a version made with plain flour only, is the usual wrapping for ta’amiyya (Click here).
TRAVEL YOUR TASTEBUDS Fatta – dish involving rice and bread soaked in a garlicky-vinegary sauce with lamb or chicken, which is then oven cooked in a tagen (clay pot). It’s very heavy; after eating retire to a chaise longue. Mahshi kurumb – these rice – and meat-stuffed cabbage leaves are decadently delightful when correctly cooked with plenty of dill and lots of sinful samna (clarified butter). Molokhiyya – a soup made from mallow.
Properly prepared with rabbit broth and plenty of garlic, it’s quite delicious. Hamam mahshi – pigeons (smaller than European) usually stuffed with fireek (green wheat) and rice. This dish is served at all traditional restaurants and can be fiddly to eat; beware the plentiful little bones.
Simplicity is the key to Egyptian salads, which have crunchy fresh ingredients (including herbs) often tossed in oil and vinegar, and are eaten with relish as a mezze or as an accompaniment to a meat or fish main.