Egyptian food has been greatly influenced by Egypt’s history and geography. Persian, Greek, Turkish and other Middle Eastern culinary traditions have been incorporated into the “original” diet of ancient Egypt.
Foods such as the felafel and fuul of Felfela, the shawerma of Taza, or the fattah of Al-Omda, are all good stuff. But you can find these all over the region. Some foods, however, are quintessentially Egyptian – as iconic as the Pyramids themselves. Here are three of them:
Koshary is probably the closest thing Egypt has to a national dish. It’s Dr Atkins’ worst nightmare, consisting of a mix of different pasta, rice, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions, and a tomato sauce. You can also add fiery chilli sauce, and a potent mix of lime juice and garlic called da’a. Stir it all together, take a deep breath, and dive in.
Koshary is as filling as it sounds, and a lot, lot nicer. It’s also dirt cheap, with prices at many places starting as low as 2 or 3 LE (less than $1).
You can get your koshary fix all over Cairo, from numerous hole-in-the-wall restaurants, to posher joints that may give you the option to add chicken or beef to the mix. The most famous koshary restaurant in Cairo is Abou Tarek in Downtown. But seriously – go easy on the chilli!
Molokhiya, also known as Jew’s Mallow, is a leafy green vegetable not unlike Spinach. It’s usually served as a gloopy green soup, perfect for dunking your coarse baladi bread, or sopping up some rice. I once offended all my Egyptian friends by referring to it as having the “consistency of snot… with added stringy bits.” While this may have been a touch over the top, Molokhiya is an acquired taste.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it!
Molokhiya is the sort of dish where everyone claims their mum makes the best one in Egypt. Sadly, you don’t find it on restaurant menus as often as you should. A good place to try it is at Aboul Sid on Zamalek, where you can go super-traditional and have Molokhiya with Rabbit.
The ancient Egyptians bred pigeons for eating, and the practice has continued to this day. All those spiky white domes you see dotted about the countryside are pigeon coups.
And boy, do the pigeons here taste good: rich, moist and game-y, and often stuffed with Bulgar wheat. They are, admittedly, riddled with fine bones, and rather fiddly to eat. The way to do it is to unleash your hidden carnivore, and rip the bird to pieces with your bare hands. Sucking the flesh from the bones and discarding them on the table is optional.
Word of warning: the Egyptian word for pigeon (“hamaam”) is very close to that for toilet (“hammaam”), so be careful what you ask for. Eating a toilet – whether stuffed with cracked wheat or otherwise – is unlikely to be pleasant.