So, I have been asked to discuss food here, and I have been waiting for a few things. First of all, I had to go back to Mohamed Ahmed’s, my favorite orientation restaurant, for “research” and of course to get a photo of a nice spread of Egyptian food (tough job, but someone had to do it…). Second of all, I figured I could hold off until after our cooking lesson that happened yesterday. As you might have picked up on from various other entries on this blog, consistency would not be the first word I would pick to describe my experiences in Egypt, and this is also true of the food. Though just about every place offers up the same dishes, they all taste slightly different, and I don’t just mean from restaurant to restaurant. Not infrequently, I have ordered the same dish at the same restaurant, sometimes from the same waiter, and received something that tasted completely different–perhaps the chef that day decided to change up the spice blend, or they felt like throwing in some new peppers–who knows. Anyway this makes eating out in Egypt exciting every time, even if we do enjoy returning to familiar restaurants. Most days, I eat the dinner at the Medina which is included in my room and board. They don’t have a huge variety of food, but it is always really good and filling. I do also make a point of eating out with friends when I get the chance, so most of my best food memories so far are from various Alexandrian and Cairene restaurants…Here are some of my personal highlights of Egyptian food.
1. Tahina (in the US we call this tahini, according to the Levantine pronounciation)
I could probably live off of tahina for the rest of my life. It is so good. It is made of ground sesame seeds, and served here either as a dip or a sauce/garnish to complement other dishes (ful with tahina anyone?). It has a really nice sour sort of flavor to it, and makes just about everything it accompanies taste better. They have it out most nights at Medina dinner and I cannot get enough of it. It sounds (and is) really simple…but oh well, simple pleasures it is.
2. Shakshouka—the two large dishes of red stuff
Probably one of the best things you will ever eat. It is basically eggs cooked in a spiced tomato sauce. It comes from Tunisia and/or Morocco, where the eggs were poached in the sauce, but the Egyptian version (by which I mean the version at Mohamed Ahmed’s which is the only one I have tried) ends up with more of a scramble. Though accurate, that description really doesn’t sound like the way it ends up tasting…but trust me the stuff is delicious…
Ful just means beans, and beans are really critical to the Egyptian diet. They come in many forms, though Mohamed Ahmed’s makes them particularly well. The Medina tends to have a bowl of foul out at breakfast and dinner—theirs are somewhat similar in texture to refried beans but usually incorporate sliced peppers, cucumbers, or lemons. In the picture, you see Mohamed Ahmed’s ful with garlic sauce—which is the white part. They also offer foul with veggies and foul with fried eggs. In these ones the garlic flavor is very strong and oh-so-delicious. I also mentioned last time that I have been eating a lot of foul sandwiches from a particular table, and their ful is a bit spicier and has a lot of peppers and onions.
4. Falafel—not pictured, though fear not we had an order of that too
Falafel…has a very special place in my heart. It is fried balls or occasionally patties of either chick peas or fava beans with spices and herbs. The best falafel, like Mohamed Ahmed’s, is green inside from all of the herbs and is perfectly crispy on the outside. Just yesterday, my friend and I discovered one guinea falafel sandwiches near the TAFL Center!
As I have frequently pointed out, Alexandria is a coastal city, and therefore has lots of really excellent seafood. Apparently the Medina is supposed to be serving us fish once a week, but so far that has not happened, so I am not eating fish very frequently. However, last week was my friend David’s birthday, and we all went out to a seafood restaurant. We went into the room where they had piles of fish that had been caught that day, and you paid by the kilo as you picked your fish. Wanting to experience as much of this delicious seafood as possible, we decided to share about 600 guinea’s worth of fish among the twelve of us. Once we had picked everything out, we went back upstairs to munch on all the mezze stuff (hummus, Tahini, bread, Baba ghanoush, etcetera…) and await our fish. They arrived cooked whole with various added veggies and spices and oh my goodness were they delicious. This was by far the most expensive meal I have had in Egypt (and deservedly so) but it still rang in at about $10, even with tip and the eleventh of David’s meal I paid for.
6. Badengan–Egyptians who read this feel free to correct my probably horrible spelling of this
This is an eggplant based dish cooked in tomato sauce with various other vegetables. It is often, though not always, served in sandwiches, and it can also be seen in our Mohamed Ahmed spread. We also made some at our cooking club, which I very much enjoyed, as evidenced in the photo above.
Oh, aseer…would that you were so omnipresent in America. Basically there are these 24 hour fruit juice stands all over the city—think Starbucks in New York kind of frequency. They are easy to spot because they tend to have lots of fresh fruit on display and hanging from the ceilings and such. You simply walk up to the counter and order any juice your heart desires—mango, strawberry, lemon, orange, banana, plum, and countless others, or if that selection isn’t enough you can combine any of the juices together for about 25 piasters more. The juices are fresh and fairly thick, often with chunks of fruit still in them. For some reason, the Egyptian way includes dumping a bucket of sugar into just about any drink, so I have found that combining various juices with lemon often tastes quite nice.
Kofta is spiced minced meat that is served everywhere here. It is difficult to find a sandwich shop without a cone of kofta ready to carve standing by the entrance. We made kofta kebabs in our cooking club–delicious. Ours was primarily flavored by cilantro, parsley and onions, though each shop has their own particular way of mixing it.
So that is my first introduction to Egyptian food. It is by no means all-encompassing, so maybe I will add to this list later on, but these are some of my favorites that I have been regularly enjoying this past month and a half, if you are curious what I have been eating. Hopefully I can come home with a few good recipes and try my hand at these when I get back home so you all can join in the fun. By the way, that weirdly pink salad of pickled jicama in the middle of the table at Mohamed Ahmed’s? That was our linguistic failure at attempting to order beetroot salad and just completely ordering the wrong item. You can’t win them all.
Until next time!