Flavors of Egypt
Egyptian cuisine reflects the country’s long history of foreign occupation, combining elements of Greek, Arab, Turkish, and French cuisines—as well as a few recipes dating back to the pharaonic era. It’s wholesome and tasty cooking that uses seasonal ingredients, flavorful spicing, and perhaps a bit too much oil. With the majority of Egyptians unable to afford meat, the national diet revolves around vegetable-based recipes.
Fuul medammes (stewed fava beans) is a morning staple, cooked overnight and served in a bowl or on a piece of flatbread. It’s packed with carbs and sits heavy in the stomach, but it will keep you charged for hours.
Bread is a staple of the Egyptian diet and served with every meal. The most common variety, aysh baladi, is a round flatbread made of coarse whole-wheat flour that tastes great fresh but hardens like rock within a day. Aysh shami is a higher-quality white-flour version. In southern Egypt, you’ll also come across aysh shamsi, a delicious, pitalike bread made at home by allowing the dough to rise in the sun.
Egyptians often begin their meals with a selection of small salads and dips called mezze. It’s a Mediterranean tradition reflected in the food, which puts a local spin on recipes shared from Morocco to Greece to Lebanon.
Cold mezze include the distinctively Middle Eastern flavors of hummus (a puree of chickpeas) and tahina (a sauce made from sesame paste). Baba ghanoug (a creamy dip made from a puree of smoked eggplant, tahina, and garlic) is also popular, while toumiya (a potent garlic spread) will require you to go easy or lose a few friends.
Mezze can also be served hot. Watch for kobeba (fried meatballs) and sambousak (a flaky pastry stuffed with cheese, meat, or spinach). You’ll also come across wara einab (grape leaves rolled like small cigars and stuffed with rice, meat, and spices). They look like small Greek dolmathes, but Egyptians like them served hot and drizzled with lemon juice.
Meat is a luxury for most Egyptians, but they’ll gladly tuck into beef, lamb, goat, poultry, and even camel if given the chance. Pork is prohibited in Islam, so it's extremely unlikely you'll see it served anywhere.
Grill houses build their reputation on kofta (spiced, minced meat) and kebab (grilled chunks of meat), which are barbequed on skewers and served with salads and dips. The most-tender meats are those served in a slow-cooked stew known as a tagen, which is prepared in an earthenware pot with onions, tomatoes, and rice.
Poultry is the most affordable meat, and in even the smallest village you’ll find some hole-in-the-wall serving roasted chicken. Stuffed pigeon is also popular, and quail sometimes find their way onto the menu.
Egyptians fortunate enough to live by the sea make the most of its bounty. Alexandria is rightfully famous for its seafood, but you’ll also find it on the menu in upscale Cairo restaurants and at those in the Red Sea resorts. Seafood restaurants usually price fish by weight. Pick your selection from the ice box, and it will be weighed and cooked to order. Fish can be fried, baked, or grilled—charcoal grilling being a favorite with coastal folks. Prawns, calamari, and clams are often served with lemon, oil, and spices, or in a zesty tomato sauce.
While vegetable-based dishes form the bulk of the average Egyptian diet, vegetarianism is not a concept they are familiar with. Meat or chicken is added to dishes whenever it can be afforded. That being said, Egypt’s streets are saturated with small eateries offering cheap fuul and taamiya, and spicy eggplant sandwiches. Other safe vegetarian bets with sustenance include your basic salads: taboula (made from bulgar wheat, mint, parsley, tomato, an onion), fatoush (with pita slices), baba ghanoug, hummus, koshary (a stew of rice, brown lentils, macaroni, and chickpeas in a tomato sauce), and molokhiya (a thick garlicky soup made from corchorus leaves, popularly known as Jew’s mallow).
If you are a vegetarian, be careful when choosing your dishes since not everything is as it appears to be. Beef or chicken stock creeps into the preparation of many soups and sauces. And while bamia (okra stew) and mahshi (stuffed vegetables) may appear to be vegetarian, Egyptians often prepare these dishes with meat.
Egyptians usually end their meal with seasonal fruit, but occasions call for more tantalizing treats. Local specialties include ruz bi-laban (a creamy rice pudding) and mahalabia (cream thickened by cornstarch and topped with chopped pistachios). More elaborate still is umm ali, a delicious bread pudding with coconut, raisins, nuts, and cream, served hot.
Sweet, sticky pastries are served at social gatherings instead of dessert. A selection will usually include baklawa (filo pastry soaked in honey and nuts), basbousa (semolina cake with syrup and nuts), and konafa (angel hair filled with thick cream or chopped nuts and syrup). It’s no wonder dentistry is such a popular profession here.
Tea, Coffee, and Herbal Drinks
Tea is the national beverage, served strong and sugary, with the grounds at the bottom of the glass. Order coffee, and you’ll probably receive it Turkish-style—thick, black, and sweet, and served in a tiny cup. The pharaohs preferred karkaday, a crimson infusion made from crushed hibiscus flowers and served hot or cold. Other traditional herbal drinks still popular today include helba (fenugreek), yansoon (anise), irfa (cinnamon), ganzabeel(ginger), nanaa (mint), tamr hindi (tamarind), kharoob (lotus bean), doum (palm), and ersous (licorice). Many of them have proven therapeutic properties.
You’ll find beer and wine in many tourist establishments, while upscale nightspots keep well-stocked bars. Stella is the national beer and is refreshing when served cold; Sakkara, Meister, and Heineken are also available in many places.
Egyptian wines have greatly improved in recent years. Grand Marquis and Château du Rêves are decent local reds, while Cru des Ptolémées is a passable white. Steer clear of local spirits, which are mostly cheap and potentially dangerous; one exception is zibeeb, which resembles ouzo and is usually drunk neat.
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