I am sitting in an Internet cafe in Amman, Jordan, and just want to say before I forget to ever record it that there is an ashtray at every computer station. The man at the computer next to me is currently smoking. Know, and appreciate, how I am endangering my lung health to bring you this crucial food post!
Food in Egypt. Ahhhh. I thought it would be tough to leave the cuisine of Ethiopia behind, but I must have forgotten how much I love falafel! I could eat it for every meal. And in Egypt, I almost did. It costs around 25 cents US for a falafel sandwich in Cairo (or up to 50 cents in more touristy locations like Luxor and Dahab) and damn, they are good. Enjoying falafel and Egypt's two other staple fast foods, koshary (also spelled kushari and several other variations) and fuul (also spelled full, fool, and my favorite, foul) made me a very happy (and very vegetarian) traveler for a couple of weeks.
So what exactly are these foods? Read (and look) on for descriptions and pictures.
First up: Koshary. It is a combination of rice, three shapes of pasta, lentils, spicy tomato sauce, sweet fried onions, and a garnish of chickpeas. It has been compared by many travelers to your momma's leftovers all thrown together. I won't say it was our favorite food in Egypt, but it was also really cheap and totally hits the spot when your tummy is really empty. This dish is from Felfela, a cheap takeaway in Cairo that also has amazing falafel.
Since Cairo is hot and McDonald's has cheap ice cream cones, we popped in...and Andy discovered a new product: fried banana pies. He said it was good, but nowhere near the quality-for-price of Madagascar 5-cent fried bananas.
After falafel, the thing I love best about Egypt is the fresh juice stands about every three feet. Popular juices include pomegranate, guava, and sugarcane, but when I saw it on a menu I had to try the fig juice. It was actually really delicious--much better than prune juice!
Andy and I were walking down the street in Cairo when we saw a pastry shop bursting at the seams with locals. We immediately raced in and bought some pastries. It turned out to be El Abd, a Cairo institution. The baklava-like pastries were nut-filled, honey-soaked, and delicious, though we would find even cheaper and better ones later in our travels.
We were lucky enough to meet up with Emma and Rashad, two friends of our college friend Amy who now live in Cairo, and they took us to the little sidewalk restaurant that has the best foul (does that look like an oxymoron or what?) in town. It came with mezze, which is a tableful of tasty salads and dips.
And here's the fuul/foul/full/fool: saucy, spiced beans cooked with oil, often served with tasty garnishes. You dip your pita in and eat. This may or may not be related to the "full breakfast" bean dish in Ethiopia, but it's definitely a staple in Egypt.
Pita breads are definitely the staple starch in Egypt, and you see huge conveyor-belt ovens churning them out on the street.
Egypt has lovely drinkable yogurt--thanks to Rashad for recommending this brand, which tastes like a mango lassi.
Lemon juice is a refreshing drink! Like lemonade, but fresher, sweeter, and probably cheaper.
Back to El Abd for fruity sorbets at night. Andy hadn't had ice cream since...well, McDonald's the day before, so he's really happy.
If you're not near a fresh juice stand (stuck on a train, for instance), there are lots of sugary bottled drinks to keep you hydrated. The white one, guava, was better than the mango one.
Egypt has some terrific puddings. This one is like a blancmange with a hint of rosewater, and coconut on top. It's called mahalabaya (with many alternative spellings--transliteration from Arabic to English is an art form all its own!). The rice pudding in Egypt is also excellent.
Emma tipped us off to buy brittle-like sweets from Tanta, a certain town we passed through on the train ride to Alexandria. The one on the right was coconut- and rosewater-flavored, but the one on the left was especially fun since it was made of chickpeas and sticky stuff.
There is a juice stand on the corniche in Alexandria that is famous for its mango juice...which we thought at the time was very expensive at $1.15 a glass (we hadn't been to Dahab yet, where everything is twice as much and half as good!). But it was pretty amazing, like a whole crazy sweet mango or five smashed up into a glass (you'd have to like your juice pulpy to appreciate it). Since they are called "King of Mango and Strawberry," we came back the next day for Andy to try the strawberry juice, which he declared to be indeed the best ever before fainting with strawberry-induced pleasure.
Our other favorite spot in Alex is Mohammed Ahmed, the local king of falafel, foul, mezze, pudding...basically, all staple foods Egyptian, excellently done. The menu has no prices, but the bill is always crazy low--we stuffed ourselves for less than $2 each multiple times. Definitely one of the better Lonely Planet recommendations ever.
On to our favorite cookie knockoff of the trip so far. Would you like a glass of milk with your Borios?
Mirinda is the Pepsi version of Fanta. In Egypt, Fanta has a Cantaloupe flavor (!) which I sadly never got around to trying (though I did dub it "Fanta Canta"), but I doubt it could've been as good as the weirdest Mirinda flavor I found--Hibiscus. It's like bissap soda! Yum.
Little clay pots of stew are popular in Egypt. Andy ate this one while I was busy eating...probably falafel.
Fiteer is Egypt's answer to pizza, and it can be savory or sweet. Guess which kind Andy prefers?
A nice vendor at the bus station in Suez watched our bags while we took a trip to the canal, and wouldn't take any money for the trouble...so we bought cookies from him instead. Cardamom cookies! Made in KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, also apparently the world's number one sandwich cookie manufacturer [OK, I made that up, but a lot of cookies found in Africa and the Middle East are made in the KSA!].) Anyway, as cardamom sandwich cookies go, these weren't quite as good as the Indian ones we found in Cameroon...
Restaurants in Dahab are expensive, so we bought a lot of our own groceries. Here's one of our champion breakfasts: Twinkies (made in Egypt!) and pineapple nectar.
Before boarding the ferry to Jordan in Nuweiba, we spent our last Egyptian pounds on whatever looked interesting at a minimart. My choices were guava yogurt (too bad I never saw this flavor elsewhere in Egypt!) and hazlenut KitKat (yum! Apparently, made in Bulgaria).
And, finally, I leave you with a picture of my beloved falafel. Which are fried balls or patties of ground chickpeas or fava beans and various tasty spices and herbs. In Egypt, often served with the delightful bonus of sesame seeds. Luckily, they are not endemic to Egypt, but are found all throughout the Middle East, so I am continuing to enjoy them daily...usually wrapped in a pita, with some tahini sauce or hummus and salad.
As Middle Eastern food goes, Egypt isn't usually considered a culinary superstar like, say, Lebanon or Turkey. But I loved eating there and would be very excited to go back and hit my favorite fast-food, juice, and pastry spots again (and again, and again). Especially the ones in Cairo and Alexandria.
But not everyone might agree. Andy got a little tired of the Egyptian staples by the end...which is why I didn't let him write this post.