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Food, Drink and the Culinary Arts of Egypt


Food and Drink


See also our recipes section


FOOD AND DRINK


In Egypt, dining out can range from stand-up sandwich bars to luxurious five-course meals. You can find small, inexpensive establishments that serve good Egyptian food for only a few pounds. If you're in a hurry, try the local snack bars. While the cubbyholes off the street (which probably have running water) are generally safe. The larger cities even have Western-style fast-food chains like McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken, but they're relatively expensive. In cities both food and water are safe although the change in your diet may produce short-term gastrointestinal upsets.

EGYPTIAN MEALS


Although Egyptian eating habits may seem erratic, most natives begin the day with a light breakfast of beans (or bean cakes), eggs, and/or pickles, cheeses, and jams. Most families eat their large, starchy lunch around 1400-1700 and follow it with a siesta. They may take a British-style tea at 1700 or 1800 and eat a light supper (often leftovers from lunch) late in the evening. Dinner parties, however, are scheduled late, often no earlier than 2100, with the meal served an hour or two later. In restaurants lunch is normally 1300-1600, dinner 2000-2400.

Restaurants

In Egypt, as in the rest of the world, restaurants are only as good as the cooks they employ, and cooks seem to be continually changing. For current information on the best restaurants, the expatriate community is unbeatable, and the magazine Cairo Today includes monthly tips listing places to try, and publishes an annual dining guide. Most establishments use native ingredients and will offer fruits and vegetables in season. Menus are in both Arabic and English except in Alexandria, where they are in Arabic and French. In large restaurants, the maitre d'hotel will speak English, French, and possible German, Italian, or Greek. These establishments serve a mixture of international cuisine but often include Egyptian or Middle Eastern fare as well. Most hotels also maintain 24-hour coffee shops.

In the larger cities such as Cairo or Alexandria, there are various types of restaurants offering a variety of cuisines from around the world. Besides the traditional Egyptian food that can be found in many establishments there are also many restaurants serving Italian and French food, which are quite popular amongst the upper-middle and elite classes. The more globalised the world becomes the more cuisines enter Egypt. Nowadays, there are Mexican restaurants as well as Mexican food featured in American restaurants or sandwich bars. There is also a big boom in Asian food, with Japanese and Sushi restaurants opening frequently and serving in many neighborhoods in Cairo. There are a few restaurants serving Indian and Chinese food but they are usually relatively expensive not take always like in other cities around the United States or Europe.

Many of the smaller, Egyptian-style restaurants specialize in basic meat and fava-bean dishes. They are simple and inexpensive. Waiters speak little English, so use your phrase book.

Snack Bars

Throughout Egypt, little stand-up shops dispense the Egyptian version of the fast food. Most of these shops in major cities are clean and offer quick, inexpensive, and nutritious meals. Most shops have helpful staff, but during their busy times you may have to push your way into the pack of Egyptians to get waited on. You can buy roasted chickens that the shop will season for you. You can also get shawirma (Gyros), lamb cooked on a vertical split, available most of the day.

Egyptian Home Cooking

If you're lucky, you may be invited to dine in an Egyptian home. There are no set times for dinner; often hours will depend upon your host's profession. Although invitations may be issued for as late as 0100, generally if no time is set, guests are expected between 2100-2200 hours. If you wish, you may bring flowers, chocolates, or a bottle of wine (if you hosts drink--many Muslims do not). You will be introduced to other guests and perhaps the host's entire family, many of whom will not stay to eat.

Dining customs vary throughout the country, so try to follow examples set by your host and any fellow guests. Depending upon the family's own customs and the size of the party, men and women may split up for cocktails (nonalcoholic drinks in strict Muslim homes) and then rejoin at the dinner table, where seating is usually random. All the food is set in the middle of the table at the beginning of the meal. If no silverware is provided, use your bread as a combination fork and spoon. Guests are not expected to clear their plates, and you'll need to refuse more than once to convince your host that you really can't eat anymore. Complimenting the hostess on her cooking skills as well as (for women) asking her for recipes are in good taste and appreciated. After dinner, guests remove from the dining room to drink mint tea or coffee. Wait at least a half-hour from the end of the meal before you take you leave; compliment the cook again, and extend your thanks (alf shokren).

NATIVE FOODS

Egyptian food reflects the country's melting-pot history; native cooks using local ingredients have modified Greek, Turkish, Lebanese, Palestinian, and Syrian traditions to suit Egyptian budgets, customs, and tastes. The dishes are simple; made with naturally ripened fruits and vegetables and seasoned with fresh spices, they're good and hearty. Food in the south, closely linked to North African cuisine, is more zesty than that found in the north, but neither is especially hot. The best cooking is often found in the smaller towns. Although Egyptian cooking can be bland and oily when poorly done, most of the cuisine is delicious. Enjoy!

Bread

The mainstay of Egyptian diets, aysh (bread) comes in several forms. The most common is a pita type made either with refined white flour called aysh shami, or with coarse, whole wheat, aysh baladi. Stuffed with any of several fillings, it becomes the Egyptian sandwich. Aysh shams is bread made from leavened dough allowed to rise in the sun, while plain aysh comes in long, skinny, French-style loaves. If you find yourself faced with hard, dry aysh, do like the Egyptians: soften it in water, and if you have a fire available, warm it over the open flame.

Beans

Along with aysh, the native bean supplies most of Egypt's people with their daily rations. Ful can be cooked several ways: in ful midamess, the whole beans are boiled, with vegetables if desired, and then mashed with onions, tomatoes, and spices. This mixture is often served with an egg for breakfast, without the egg for other meals . A similar sauce, cooked down into a paste and stuffed into aysh baladi, is the filling for the sandwiches sold on the street. Alternatively, ful beans are soaked, minced, mixed with spices, formed into patties (called ta'miyya in Cairo and falaafil in Alexandria), and deep-fried. These patties, garnished with tomatoes, lettuce, and tihina sauce, are stuffed into aysh and sold on the street.

Molokhiyya

A leafy, green, summer vegetable, molokhiyya is distinctively Egyptian, and locals will proudly serve you their traditional thick soup made from it. The chopped leaves are generally stewed in chicken stock, and served with or without pieces of chicken, rabbit, or lamb. This soup can also be served with crushed bread or over rice. If you're served it straight, it's polite to dunk your aysh.

Mezze

These small dishes of various forms are usually served with drinks. Those resembling dips are made with tihina, an oil paste of sesame seeds. Tihina mixed with oil and seasoned with garlic or chili and lemon can be served alone, but when combined with mashed eggplant and served as a dip or sauce for salads, its called baba-ghanoug. In Alexandria, chickpeas are added to the tihina to make hummus bi tihina. Tihina also forms the base for many general-purpose sauces served with fish and meats and replaces mayonnaise on Egyptian sandwiches. Turshi includes a variety of vegetables soaked in spicy brine--it's always good with beer.

Soups And Salads

In addition to molokhiyya, the Egyptians make a variety of meat (lahhma), vegetable (khudaar), and fish (samak) soups known collectively as shurbah, and all are delicious. Salads (salata) can be made of greens, tomatoes, potatoes, or eggs, as well as with beans and yogurt. Western-type salad bars have come into vogue in larger cities, and here, for a few pounds, you can make a whole meal of the fresh produce. Yogurt (laban zabadi) is fresh and unflavored; you can sweeten if you wish with honey, jams, preserves, or mint. It rests easy on an upset stomach.

Main Courses

Rice and bread form the bulk of Egyptian main courses, which may be served either as lunch or dinner. For most Egyptians, meat is a luxury used in small amounts, cooked with vegetables, and served with or over rice, but meat dishes comprise most restaurant fare.

Torly, a mixed-vegetable casserole or stew, is usually made with lamb, or occasionally with beef, onions, potatoes, beans, and peas. To make Egyptian-style kebab, cooks season chunks of lamb in onion, marjoram, and lemon juice and then roast them on a spit over an open fire. Kufta is ground lamb flavored with spices and onions which is rolled into long narrow "meatballs" and roasted like kebab, with which it's often served. Pork is considered unclean by Muslims, but is readily available, as is beef.

Although native chickens (firaakh) are often scrawny and tough, imported fowl are plump, tender, and tasty. You can order grilled chicken (firaakh mashwi) in a restaurant or buy one already cooked at the street-side rotisseries and fix your own meal. Hamaam (pigeons) are raised throughout Egypt, and when stuffed with seasoned rice and grilled, constitute a national delicacy. They are small, so you will need to order several; the best are usually served in small, local restaurants where you may even have to give the cook a day's notice (a good sign), but beware--hamaam are occasionally served with their heads buried in the stuffing.

Egyptians serve both freshwater and seagoing fish under the general term of samak. The best fish seem to be near the coasts (ocean variety) or in Aswan, where they are caught from Lake Nasser. As well as the common bass and sole, try gambari (shrimp), calamari (squid), gandofli (scallops), and ti'baan (eel). The latter, a white meat with a delicate salmon flavoring, can be bought on the street already deep-fried.

Vegetables

Ruzz (rice) is often varied by cooking it with nuts, onions, vegetables, or small amounts of meat. Bataatis (potatoes) are usually fried but can also be boiled or stuffed. Egyptians stuff green vegetables with mixtures of rice; wara' enab, for example, is made form boiled grape leaves filled with small amounts of spiced rice with or without ground meat. Westerners often know them by the Greek name of dolmadas or dolmas, but beware ordering them by that name; in Egypt, doma refers to a mixture of stuffed vegetables.

Cheese

Native cheese (gibna) comes in two varieties: gibna beida, similar to feta, and gibna rumy, a sharp, hard, pale yellow cheese. These are the ones normally used in salads and sandwiches, but gouda, cheddar, bleu, and other Western types are becoming available. Mish is a spiced, dry cheese made into a paste and served as an hors d'oeuvre. Fruit In Egypt a multitude of fresh fruits are available year-round, but since all are tree- or vine-ripened, only those in season appear in suqs (markets) or on vendors' stands. In the winter, mohz (bananas), balah (dates), and burtu'aan (any of several varieties of oranges) appear. Special treats are burtu'aan bedammoh (pink oranges), whose skin looks like most oranges, but their pulp is red and sweet. The Egyptian summer is blessed with battiikh (melon), khukh (peach), berkuk (plum), and 'anub (grapes). Tin shawki is a cactus fruit that appears in August or September.

Nuts

Goz (nuts) and mohamas (dried seeds) are popular snack foods in Egypt, and vendors can be found selling them nearly anywhere. All are tasty; try bundok (hazelnuts), loz (almonds), or fuzdo (pistachios). If you like peanuts, the ful sudani are especially tasty in Aswan.

Desserts

Egyptian desserts of pastry or puddings are usually drenched in honey syrup. Baklava (filo dough, honey, and nuts) is one of the less sweet; fatir are pancakes stuffed with everything from eggs to apricots; and basbousa, quite sweet, is made of semolina pastry soaked in honey and topped with hazelnuts. Umm ali, a delight named for Mamluk queen, is raisin cake soaked in milk and served hot. Kanafa is a dish of batter "strings" fried on a hot grill and stuffed with nuts, meats, or sweets. Egyptian rice pudding is called mahallabiyya and is served topped with pistachios. French-style pastries are called gatoux. Good chocolate candies are likewise difficult to find, though Western-style candy bars are beginning to make their appearance. The Egyptian ice cream runs closer to ice milk or sherbet than cream. Most restaurants and many homes serve fresh fruits for desserts, and it makes a perfect, light conclusion to most meals.

Shopping For Food

The easiest way to stretch your food budget is to patronize the local stands and suqs, buying fresh fruit and vegetables you can eat raw. The prices are normally posted in Arabic and are fixed. Since there is no bargaining involved, you can just point to what you want, indicate how many or how much, and hold out your money; most vendors and small storekeepers are scrupulously honest. Small, local grocery stores occupy nearly every street corner and sell canned goods, preserves, bread, cheese, and soda pop as well as staples at government fixed prices. If the local grocery doesn't stock beer, there is probably a store nearby that does; ask. Here or at the brewery you can buy Stella by the case. Bakeries supply various types of bread and pastries at fixed prices.

DRINKS

Coffee

Developed and popularized in the Middle East, the drinking of ahwa (coffee) remains a national tradition, and local coffeehouses still cater to men who come to drink coffee, discuss politics, play tawla (backgammon), listen to "Oriental" (Egyptian) music, and smoke the shiisha (water pipe). Although the traditional poetry and high-powered politics have migrated to fancy homes and offices, the coffee remains. You will also be offered the thick, strong, but tasty brew in homes, offices, and bazaar shops. Turkish coffee is made from finely powdered beans brewed in a small pot. As the water just begins to boil, the grounds float to the surface in a dark foam; the ahwa is brought to you still in the pot and poured into a demitasse. The heavier grounds sink to the bottom of the cup and the lighter ones form a foam on the top, the mark of a perfectly brewed cup. Sip carefully to avoid the grounds in the bottom of the cup. (If you don't like the foam, you can blow it aside under the guise of cooling your drink.)

Although Turkish coffee has a reputation for being tart, its actual flavor depends on the mix of beans used in the grind; the larger the percentage of Arabica, the sweeter and more chocolate flavor. Ahwa comes in several versions: ahwa sada is black, ahwa ariha is lightly sweetened with sugar, ahwa mazboot is moderately sweetened, and ahwaziyada is very sweet. You must specify the amount of sugar at the time you order, for it's sweetened in the pot. Most people order mazboot, which cuts the tartness; ahwa is never served with cream. Most hotel and restaurant breakfasts include strong French coffee usually called Nescafe; you may have to specially order it with sugar (bil sukkar) or milk (bil laban).

Tea And Other Hot Drinks

Egyptians adopted the custom of formal afternoon tea from the native Arabians, and it's served with milk, lemon, and sugar on the side. The domestic or Bedouin version of shay is boiled rather than steeped and is often saturated with sugar; this strong tea is served in glasses. A refreshing change from after-dinner coffee is shay bil na'na' or mint tea.; dried mint is mixed with tea leaves and the mixture is brewed like regular tea . Kakoow bil laban (hot chocolate) is available during the winter, as is Sahlab, a thick liquid that tastes like a cross between Ovaltine and oatmeal. Karkaday, a clear, bright red, native drink especially popular in the south, is made by steeping dried hibiscus flowers, sweetened to taste, and served either hot or cold; the locals claim this delicious drink calms the nerves.

Cold Drinks

Bottled water (mayya ma'daniyya) is available in all areas frequented by tourists; both large and small bottles are sold on the street and from ice buckets at most of the antiquities sites. Be sure the cap is sealed. Mayya shurb or mayya ahday (drinking water) is safe in most metropolitan areas.

A delectable treat in Egypt are the fresh fruit juices (asiir) available at small stalls throughout Egypt. The shopkeepers blend the whole fruit and small amounts of ice and sugar water and then strain this mash into your glass--the resulting drinks have been described as ambrosia. Juices, which are made from fruits in season, include farawla (strawberry), manga (mango), mohz (banana),and burtu'aan (orange) and are especially welcome in hot weather. In addition to pure fruit juices, you can also get them made of vegetables such as khiyar (cucumber), tamaatim (tomato), and gazar (carrot). For a new experience, experiment with some of their combination drinks: nuss wa nuss (carrot and orange), an unexpectedly delightful concoction, or mohz bi-laban, a blend of bananas and milk; an Egyptian milkshake. Asiir lamoon, common throughout Egypt, is a strong, sweet version of lemonade. In the past few years canned and packaged juices have become common, but their flavor cannot compare with the freshly made varieties.

A very popular local drink is Faryouz. It comes in many different flavours such as Pineapple, Peach, Pear and Apple.

Western soft drinks are ubiquitous in Egypt, but most are domestically bottled. You can find Schweppes, Fanta, Seven-Up, Coke, and Pepsi; club soda is also available, but Collins mix is nearly nonexistent. If you buy from street-side vendors, you're expected to drink the soda right there and return the bottle; if you want to take a bottle with you, you'll have to pay for it.

Alcoholic Drinks

Although devout Muslims refrain from drinking alcohol, beer, wine, and hard liquor are available in bars, restaurants, and some grocery shops. Imported beer and wine are the most expensive, but the local beer called Stella is a light lager that is quite good, provided it has not sat in the sun too long. It comes in large (about 20 oz.) bottles and runs about LE4-5. Stella Export, available in bars and restaurants, is more expensive (LE4), comes in smaller bottles, and is stronger--closer in alcohol content to most Western beers. Marzen, a dark, bock beer, appears briefly during the spring; Aswanli is the dark beer made in Aswan.

Brandy is drinkable only when diluted, and the local rum is not much better. However, zibib, the Egyptian version of Greek ouzo or Mexican anasato, is good either on the rocks or diluted with water (which turns it milky) as a before-dinner cocktail. Other hard liquors are imported and therefore are limited (the ports at Suez and Alexandria seem to have the widest variety) and expensive. If you drink regularly, plan on stocking up at a duty-free store before you enter Egypt.

Return to Travel Tips

See Also :

Egyptian Recipes

Beef and Lamb Recipes

Sweets and Desserts


Last Updated: August 28th, 2011

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