February 21, 2012
In the Arab world, Egypt is known for its music and movies. In fact, Cairo was once called “Hollywood on the Nile.” The rest of the world associates Egypt with the Pyramids, and now, unfortunately, the Muslim Brotherhood. No one regards Egypt for its cuisine. Gastronomically speaking, Egypt is to the Middle East as Britain is to Europe.
This is not an entirely fair assessment, however. Egyptian food can actually be quite good, but it’s hard to find because Egypt doesn’t have a thriving restaurant culture. Most people eat at home, and while home-cooked food can be fantastic (my Egyptian friend’s mother is one of the best home cooks I know), restaurant food is not. That’s why I put together this incomprehensive guide to restaurants in Egypt, which is really just a list of my favorite things to eat there, in no particular order:
1. Chicken and molokheya at Om Dahab: Om Dahab is not a restaurant. It’s a cart run by two women at the back of an alley in downtown, somewhere near the night club After 8. The first time I went there I felt rather uncomfortable. First, I had to walk past a line of gawking, hookah-smoking men sitting in the café at the opening of the alley. Then I saw the tiny cart and started anticipating days of bacteria-induced stomach cramps. The two women seemed nice though, and were engaged in a riveting conversation about the belly dancer on their miniature television. I started to relax when I saw one of them wash her hands. I’m not sure what other dishes they serve, but we ordered mahshi (vegetables stuffed with rice) and chicken with molokheya—one of a handful of dishes that is undeniably Egyptian (Arab countries can never agree on what dish comes from where). Molokheya is a leafy green vegetable called Jew’s mallow in English. Egyptians mince it and use it in a viscous soup (like okra, molokheya gets a bit slimy when cooked) that is flavored primarily with garlic and coriander. Sometimes the soup is served as a sauce for chicken or rabbit. The molokheya at Om Dahab is by far the best I tasted in Egypt, so if you have a stomach of steel, can learn a few words of Arabic, and are up for an adventure, I highly recommend going there.
2. Stuffed eggplant at Le Caire 1940: There are two reasons I love Le Caire 1940, an Egyptian restaurant in Zamalek. The principal one is that it’s decorated with old pictures and news articles about Egypt in the 40’s (and 50’s and 60’s, as I remember). But obviously, one doesn’t go to a restaurant solely for its nostalgic décor. Food-wise, Le Caire 1940 has consistently decent dishes and it makes excellent stuffed eggplant. The eggplant comes with a variety of other stuffed vegetables (look for mahshi on the menu) and they’re all delicious because of the filling, which is heavily spiced. Most mahshiis a little on the bland side, so the Le Caire 1940 version is my favorite.
3. Stuffed grape leaves at Abu Sid: Apparently, Arab housewives are judged by how small they can roll their stuffed grape leaves, or wara ainab. If one were to apply that rule to restaurants in Egypt, Abu Sid would win; its stuffed grape leaves are about the size of my pinky finger. Abu Sid also has the best-tasting stuffed grape leaves of any restaurant in Egypt. They’re served warm with a delicious yogurt-and-mint sauce for dipping. Most people recommend Abu Sid, an upscale chain restaurant, to tourists looking for a place to experience Egyptian cuisine, and it’s definitely one of the better Egyptian restaurants. I also like El Sit Hosneya in Dokki. The best Egyptian restaurant, however, is in Luxor. It’s called Sofra and it’s in an old house located in the center of the city near the train station—away from the Nile and the hordes of tourists that plague this otherwise amazing city. You can check out the menu on its surprisingly nice website.
4. Orange and strawberry juice at Zaharat Bustan: If you’re looking for a more traditional café in Cairo that welcomes foreigners and females, check out Zaharat Bustan, which is behind Café Riche in downtown. It’s a great place to cool down after exploring the Egyptian Museum a few blocks away. Order an apple hookah (shisha toufah) and a strawberry and orange juice (nos bortu’al wa nos farawla). Despite the prevalence of juice shops in Cairo, no one else has perfected this drink like Zaharat Bustan. You can also play backgammon—ask for tawla. They don’t serve food, though.
5. Chicken shawerma at Abou Ramez al Souri: In terms of nutritional value and fat content, the chicken shawerma at this Syrian take-out restaurant in Dokki may be the worst thing you can eat in Egypt. Like all other types of shawerma, the meat is roasted on a vertical spit. Fat drips down the sides of the meat and forms a pool at the bottom. The sandwich guy, for lack of a better title, takes a large flatbread, fills it with chicken, pickles, and tum (a garlic sauce that’s mostly comprised of oil), rolls it up like a burrito, and then dips it in the grease pool under the roasting meat. Then he fries it. As with most things made of fat, garlic, and more fat, it’s absolutely delicious.
6. Chicken topkapi at Ataturk: I’m pretty sure most people go here for the stuffed pigeon, but I don’t eat pigeons, or “rats with wings,” as I like to call them. Instead, I order the chicken topkapi, which is also stuffed. The chicken is moist and roasted and it’s filled with rice, spices, and nuts—the smell is intoxicating. Ataturk may not have the most authentically Turkish food, but it has nice ambiance and a handful of great dishes. In addition to the chicken topkapi, check out the veal kebab and the mombar (rice sausages).
7. Shafout at the Yemen Restaurant: I don’t know what’s in shafout besides yogurt, bread, and tomatoes. I’m not even going to try to describe it other than to say it’s incredible and I could eat it with every meal. Unfortunately, they only serve it during Ramadan! I was very upset when I made this discovery. There are some other good dishes at this Yemeni restaurant on Iran Street in Dokki (aptly named the Yemen Restaurant), but nothing quite as good as shafout. Try a bean dish and make sure to get lots of their crispy, chewy, freshly made bread.
8. Batatas (potato) sandwich at Gad: The first time I ate one of these I was in disbelief. I mean, I love French fries more than most people, and most people love French fries, but French fries in a pita? French fries in a pita with cucumbers, tomatoes, and tahini sauce? That sounds terrible. One bite changed my mind, unfortunately, and I became rather addicted to them. I say unfortunately because I think Gad’s French fry sandwiches accounted for at least 5 lbs of the weight I gained in Egypt. Other sandwiches worth checking out at Gad, which is a fast food chain, are the masa’a (stewed eggplant), baba ghanoug (baba ghanoush), ful bil bayd (fava beans and eggs), and ta’meya (Egyptian falafel made with fava beans instead of chickpeas).
9. Korean BBQ at Hana Restaurant: Most people are surprised when I tell them my favorite restaurant in Cairo is a Korean one, but there seems to be a fairly large Korean population there. I’m a huge fan of Korean BBQ in general, mainly because one order of meat comes with an endless supply of little plates of kimchi, marinated vegetables, and pickles. Hana Restaurant in Zamalek has especially good Korean BBQ, and the restaurant is generally quiet and hookah-free—a rarity in Cairo.
10. Chicken fettah at Taboula: Taboula is my second favorite restaurant in Cairo, and it’s a close second. Their Lebanese-style chicken fettah is the ultimate comfort food. It’s basically a casserole with toasted pita, rice, shredded chicken, yogurt sauce, and pine nuts. I recreated the recipe and everyone I’ve made it for loves it. Taboula also has a wide assortment of fantastic appetizers—my favorite is the grilled halloumi cheese and the lebnah (yogurt cheese) rolled in za’atar that they bring out before your meal with a mountain of freshly baked pita.
11. Kunafa with cream at Al Abd: I’m not a huge fan of Middle Eastern desserts because they’re pretty much all soaked in syrup with the notable exception of Om Ali, a kind of bread pudding made with filo pastry, custard, raisins, nuts, and lots of butter. The kunafa bil krema (kunafa with cream) at Al Abd, however, is drool-inducing. Kunafa is a pastry made of shredded filo dough layered with either cheese or cream. The pastry is baked and soaked in sugar syrup. Al Abd is arguably the best bakery in Cairo and this is their best offering. I also like the little buttery cookies sprinkled with ground pistachios, but I can’t remember what they’re called.
12. Grilled shrimp at the Greek Club: Alexandria has a large community of Greek immigrants, hence the existence of a Greek club near the Qaitbay Citadel. I don’t know what else is at the Greek club besides a fantastic seafood restaurant, nor do I really care. All I care about are the large, juicy shrimp—or maybe they’re prawns. The shrimp, or prawns, are grilled with the shells on and served with lemon. They’re divine. I honestly can’t tell you what else is on the menu because all I care about are the shrimp, but I do remember you can pick out your fish at the counter and tell them how you’d like it cooked. Everything’s very fresh.
13. Liver sandwiches at El Fellah: Before El Fellah, I refused to eat liver. I had actually never tried liver because my mother abhors it and the thought of eating organs used to freak me out. My boyfriend at the time spent months trying to convince me to go to El Fellah and I’m so glad he did—it was love at first bite. El Fellah slices the liver (calf’s liver) into very thin strips and fries it with green chilies and garlic (at least this is what my taste buds deduced). They serve the fried liver on soft, elongated rolls with lots of lemon and a spice mix that I think is baharat. The restaurant, which has a few tables and does take-out, is incredibly easy to find because everyone knows where it is—it’s that good.
And now, for today’s recipe, I give you my incredibly inauthentic version of chicken with molokheya. First of all, I’m using the term “molokheya” very loosely—there’s no molokheya, or Jew’s mallow, in this dish. Jew’s mallow is a pain to find and not really worth the effort. Instead, I used spinach and watercress, which I think do a relatively good job of recreating the flavor of Jew’s mallow. To give the “molokheya” its characteristic viscosity, I added ground flaxseed. The spices are pretty standard, except for the turmeric, which I used really just to preserve the color of the spinach—you can’t taste it.
The chicken in authentic chicken with molokheya is fried as far as I know, but I used another cooking technique that I learned in the Black and White desert. I poached the chicken and then broiled it, which takes out most of the fat and leaves the chicken tender. It’s a pretty fool-proof way to ensure that you don’t overcook the chicken. I’m not sure it would work as well with white meat, however.
The optional garnish of fried rice vermicelli was really an accident, but a good one. I wanted to toast vermicelli to cook with the rice, which is a standard way of making rice in Egypt, but I didn’t realize that frying rice noodles (Egyptians use wheat noodles) would basically create toasted puffed rice. The puffed rice noodles add a nice textural contrast to the chicken and molokheya.
If you don’t eat meat, you could easily make a vegan version of the molokheya by infusing vegetable broth with cardamom and bay leaves and using that in place of the poaching liquid from the chicken.
To poach the chicken: Place the chicken in a saucepan large enough to hold it in one layer. Cover the chicken with water and add the bay leaves and cardamom pods. Bring the water to a boil, add salt, and then simmer until the chicken is very tender, about half an hour. Turn off the heat and leave the chicken in the poaching liquid to cool for at least 15 minutes.
Preheat the broiler in your oven and place the rack near the top.
For the “molokheya:” Mince the watercress leaves and spinach, or pulse in a food processor. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a medium saucepan. Add the garlic and shallot and sauté until the shallot softens, about 5 minutes. Add the spices and sauté for another minute. Stir in the spinach, watercress, and 2 cups of the poaching liquid from the chicken. Bring to a simmer, add the flaxseed, and simmer until the spinach is soft, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the cilantro and lemon juice. Taste for salt and pepper.
To broil the chicken: Take the chicken pieces out of the remaining poaching liquid, pat them dry with a paper towel, and place on a baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Place the chicken under the broiler until golden brown, about 5 minutes on each side.
For the optional garnish: Heat the vegetable oil in a small frying pan set over high heat, and fry until puffed and brown, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a plate covered with a paper towel.
Serve the chicken and spinach sauce (“molokheya”) with Cardamom-Scented Brown Rice. You can either pour the spinach sauce over the chicken, or keep it on the side in small bowls.
Heat the vegetable oil in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the rice and stir fry for a few minutes until lightly toasted. Pour in the water and add the cardamom and salt. Bring to a boil and then turn down the heat to low. Cook the rice at a low simmer until the water has evaporated and the rice is soft, about 40 minutes.