Friday, February 16, 2007

Street Food : Egypt vs India

An abridged version of this article by me was published in a magazine here in Egypt "EGO MAG" this month.

Its also been published online on desicritics at


When I first considered writing about "Street Food in Cairo" the few people I knew in Cairo had a good laugh & cautioned me that having just arrived in the city I was completely setting myself up for the curse of the Pharaohs. Well, being a desi & with an ability to eat the Pav Bhajis & Paani Puris & Vada Pavs on the streets of India, then the streets of Cairo posed no threat at all, so I was all set to explore Cairo by tasting everything it had to offer. (But I did tuck a strip of lomotil into my wallet to be on the safer side)

There’s such a variety of snacks, meals, quick bites & drinks on offer on the streets of Cairo that it would be impossible to try them all in a few days, but I did manage the highlights.

A good day begins with a good breakfast. A fuul or tamiya sandwich is what is considered ideal. I tried these at Arzak in Maadi Grand Mall, from a stall near the Sultan Hassan Mosque and Moqattam courtesy the Pen Temple Pilots and a couple of other street carts. I loved them all. Fuul is paste of cooked fava beans spiced to your liking with maybe a few fresh veggies thrown in too for texture.

The tamiya is a deep fried patty of the same fava beans. But they taste completely different in this form than as fuul. The tamiya is flattened & stuffed into the eish (pita bread) with a little hummus or tahini & more fresh veggies.

My favorite is a little tahini, a little fuul, tamiya & pickled brinjals all stuffed into one sandwich. This makes for a messy eat since the ingredients tend to squish out the sides, but to quote Rachel Ray, it’s completely “yum-o”.

These sandwiches can also be stuffed with omelettes, french fries & all kinds of combinations. At 1-2 LE each they are an absolute steal.

It’s interesting to watch the sandwich guy stuff the assortment of ingredients into the bread. It reminds me of the anda parathawala outside IIT Delhi who nimbly cracks & throws a raw egg between 2 layers of a paratha while the paratha is frying on the pan, all in one single flowing movement to produce the most scrumptious anda parathas ever.

I don't think India has a direct comparison in terms of taste for fuul or tamiya. The closest similarity I could think of was boiled & smashed peas which are used as a base in some chaat preparations. Also the tamiya is a bit like a dhalwada.

For lunch in Cairo. I’d go for Koshary. Actually, I can eat this for breakfast, lunch & dinner & never get tired of it. It’s considered the common man’s food, but I’ve also heard someone say they think it should be named Egypt’s National Dish. A combination of pasta, lentils & tomato sauce topped with fried onions. Its light yet filling, nutritious, quick, healthy & ohhh so tasty. The guy who makes the koshary normally has all the ingredients ready & warm. When an order is placed he mixes it all in a jiffy & its mouth watering to see how he deftly assembles the dish. The crunchy onions on top are better than cherries on a cake.

When it comes to Koshary every single person you meet in Cairo will tell you that they know the “best” place to eat it & everyone claims that their place is better than anywhere else. On recommendations, I’ve tried Arzak in Maadi , Abou Yoosef in Mohandaseen & street stalls all over the city. Although I loved them all, I must confess I’m a little partial to El Omda’s Koshary topped with Chicken Shawrma because it gives me my meat fix too.

Although there’s no confirmed Number One Koshary in Cairo, what is certain is that a good hot steaming plate of Koshary can warm the cockles of anyone’s heart. Koshary is complete soul food & this is what I will crave the most when the time comes for me to leave Egypt.

For mid meal snacking there are umpteen options all over town: baked sweet potatoes, roasted nuts & seeds. A friend of mine said she would rather buy one roasted sweet potato from the street vendor than a kilo & a half from the grocer for the same price. They are that delicious. For the thirsty there are a variety of juice stalls to try from. The aaseer asab (sugarcane juice/ghanne da ras) works perfectly to counter the dehydrating effects of Cairo’s heat. It replenishes body salts, it’s tasty & completely refreshing with a strong natural sugar-fix to it.

By dinner time, most Cairenes are more relaxed & have the time & leisure to wait for a good meal to be prepared. If you find yourself with the time to enjoy a meal, then head down to one of the kebab houses, order your hearts fancy & wait for the wonderful steaming dishes to be brought to your make-shift table on the street.

The two most recommended kebab places are Farhat at Khan el Khalili & Mohammed Rifai at Sayeda Zainab. You can order various meat based items here. Kebabs & kofta are the most popular combination. In Egypt, Koftas are rolled & skewered minced meat with spices. Kebabs are roasted marinated chunks of meat. Chops, roasted chickens & grilled hamam (pigeons) are also on the menu at places like these. I’ll admit I haven’t had the courage to try the pigeon yet, but all the other meat that I’ve eaten, I’ve enjoyed.

While the tantalizing smell of your meat grilling in the open oven teases you, you will be served eish (bread) with a choice of salads. Green salad, tahini, hummus or babagannoug. My recommendation : control your hunger pangs & ignore the bread until the meat arrives otherwise you may be full before the main course arrives. Sip on the shorba (served cold & spicy)instead, it will increase your appetite.

India though, has a larger variety of kebabs in all kinds of forms made from all kinds of meat. Kareem’s near the Jamma Masjid in Delhi, Tunde Kabab in Lucknow, Chawla’s Chick Inn in Chandigarh are just three of my favorites. Tandoori chicken is perhaps the best known export from India but that’s just the starting point of Indian kebabs. Tender reshmi kebabs, boti kebabs, gilauti kebabs with ulte tawe ka paratha. Just writing their names down makes my mouth water. The varieties of kebabs available in India are as numerous as the varieties of chaat or parathas or any other dish that you may mention.

If you didn't know yet, India has more cuisines styles than it has states, so there’s variety in everything. Other popular street food in India includes Dosas, Idlis, Chole Bhature, Samosas, Vadas, Vada Pav, Missal Pav, Halwas.... At the risk of repeating myself – the varieties are endless.

Although I have broadly categorized Egyptian Street food as breakfast, lunch & dinner items, when you eat these treats can be as flexible as meal times in Egypt.

Is Indian Street Food better than Egyptian Street Food?

Well, Indian food is spicier & more chatpata, but I wouldn’t venture to say that either is tastier than the other. They are both almost completely different in flavour but both are excellent.

The only thing I would stress on is that - to eat these street food delicacies, you should be standing on the road, inhaling some diesel fumes, amidst the honking of taxis & the food should have the flavor of the street on it. No five star hotel can ever make these same items taste even half as good. Be brave, ignore the hygiene factors, the occasional fly in the hummus & dig in. It’s worth it. Bon Appetit.


Cairogal said...

Mouth is watering, Kim...can I add one or two? "Pancakes" found inside the Khal Al Khalili. If you enter from the large square where all the tourist buses park, I think you veer left, and you'll see a huge sign for pancakes. Not what we normally think, but you can sit outside, and lick the powdered sugar off your fingers!!!

Also, sold in the Khan Al Khalili on the street: kanafa, the shreaded wheat like top and the custardy bottom...

Anonymous said...

On the subject of Koshary, you must
try El Winch at Station(Mahatta) road in Giza.. absolutely the best koshary in the whole of Egypt... they even say so on a board outside and will offer a reward if you are not satisfied....

Anonymous said...

Hi Kim,

It's good that I saw your blog. I'm also new here in Cairo and I'd like to learn everything I can about the place - esp food! I havent tried the koshary yet. Where in Maadi is Arzak? I usually just go around Degla Maadi as I'm not yet familiar with the city.

Anyways, I'll bookmark your blog and link you up once I have created my "Egypt" blog. :)


alyssa said...

I love Al-Omda koshary too . . . but you HAVE to try Koshary Tahrir in Medinat Nasr!! It's a regular koshary place (ie koshary only, not like Al-Omda) but super clean and the koshary tastes delicious!! It's on Abbas al-A'aad (sorry, don't know the spelling).

Kim said...

Tina, Arzak is at the Maadi Grand Mall. U can also order home delivery from them via, a most handy website for ordering online.

Cairogal : I'm gaga over feteer & the mixed cheese & cream honey nuts combos are adding inches to my waist & hiplines.

anonymous : I'm off to hunt down El Winch. Thanks for the tip

Kim said...

Alyssa, I've tried Koshary Tahrir after writing this article & quite loved it.

Prometheus_Unbound said...

Wow. Ever thought about taking up a Lonely Planet assignment as an alternative career?

Kim said...

Tried applying, They dont seem interested in my candidature :(


Prometheus_Unbound said...

They have no idea what they are missing? Wonder what it takes to kand one of those dream jobs.

blog is also gr8. Specially liked the "Gorakhgad - The challenger! 25 Feb". Did you go with India Outdoors? And secondly, have you been on one of the rain treks?

Anonymous said...

I am an American Egyptian living in the US. But I have visited Egypt many times. I am totally a foodie and love try food from different cultures. What I remember about Egyptian food is when you can get invited over for a meal. That is always best. My mom always made Kushary with rice, lentils and elbow pasta.
I have had some amazing Tamaya from the street. In Khan el Khalili I've had Sahleb - a milkie drink served hot with cinnamon. I was so excited when I finally found some sahleb mix in a Middle Eastern store. There are also some amazing bakeries in Egypt too. I remember one in Tahrir Square (near the hotels). Reading your blog makes me miss Egypt.

Kim said...

That's a really sweet compliment.

Thank you :)

arun said...

I am Indian Working in Saudi, I love the Falfil Sandiwiches, chicken shewarma from Egyptian Shops, The taste is unique from others and They mix smile and love in it.

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