Exploring Cairo’s street food scene
After three bites of macarona bechamel, I foreshadowed returning to my room at the Steigenberger Hotel Cairo and collapsing onto my bed in a calorie-laden stupor 'til morning. I would thank Bellies En Route’s food tour for the deliciously uncomfortable gift and let the sheep count me [to sleep].
Macarona bechamel is the first dish on their whirlwind, eight-stop food tour through downtown Cairo. The women behind the culinary trek, Laila Hassaballa and Mariam Nezar, are calling their gastronomical exploration of the Egyptian street food scene a first of its kind for Cairo. They’re not likely to receive much pushback on that claim.
Before participating, I, probably like you, had no idea what Egyptians ate. Egypt, particularly Cairo, is popular to Westerners because of the Pyramids, the history, the Nile, but not food. No one’s booked a flight to the North African country with the intention of seeking out fava bean soup or a street cart’s unique take on falafel. Bellies En Route is optimistic they can change that for some.”Our food tour shows that there’s even more to discover in Egypt passed the history and the well-known things. It’s also perfect for the travelers who want a real sense of local life in Cairo, what people eat and how it was shaped by so many cultures and influences from other continents,” Laila explains as we start our walk.
“Our food tour shows that there’s even more to discover in Egypt past the history and the well-known things. It’s also perfect for the travelers who want a real sense of local life in Cairo, what people eat and how it was shaped by so many cultures and influences from other continents,” she continues as we navigate Cairo’s bustling street.
Most of their tours begin at an eatery on an unassuming street near Tahir Square. It’s here that a large slice of that macarona bechamel is slid onto the table as soon as Laila and I are seated. This carb heavy dish is reminiscent of lasagna to me, although its origins are not Italian. Substitute lasagna noodle for penne as your base carb and add bechamel sauce, minced meat with onions, garlic, and spices. Top that with a scoop of tomato sauce and you have macarona bechamel.
“Egyptian culture has a lot of influences from a lot of different cuisines,” Laila continues. “This is something that is inspired by the Greek dish, pastitsio. Even though this didn’t really originate here, it’s been here for over a hundred years and it’s something we really consider local.”
The pasta is accompanied by muyyet salata–also known by its much more hipster-friendly nickname: salad water. This, I am informed, is typically scarfed down before the main course. It is pungent, offensive to my nostrils, but those adjectives don’t convey the taste, which is actually refreshing. The combination of vinegar, oil, lemon, dill, salt, pepper, garlic, cucumber, and chili powder served in a tin cup goes down easy. The bechamel? Not so much.
We don’t stay long before venturing to our next stop, a personal favorite I would soon discover. Felfela is old school. For nearly 60 years, the folks here have been offering up some truly delicious Egyptian classics. Adhering to my mostly vegetarian diet, Laila orders a lentil soup, three fava bean dishes, and fried eggplant. Meat is considered a luxury item in a country where the average annual wage is $2,000, so for natives, fava beans have become the main source of protein. With this particular legume being plentiful, Egyptians have developed multiple ways to prepare them.
We try three: ful, taamiya, and besara. Ful is a slow-cooked sort of bean soup. Taamiya is Egypt’s take on Falafel and it is infinitely better than its more famous relative. Instead of using chickpeas for the base, Egyptians use fava beans and various herbs like cilantro, parsley, dill, and onion with spices and sprinkles of sesame seeds on the exterior. The combination makes for a fluffy, moist and flavorful end product. The besara is more or less a hummus with its origins traced back to rural farm areas before becoming more widely adopted. It is the least memorable.
And then like a gift from Ramses II during a fruitful harvest, we are served betengan ma’li, a fried eggplant seasoned with the slightly spicy, garlicky da’aa – an Egyptian salsa. This is the highlight for Laila. “I absolutely love the betingan ma’li because it’s so simple, yet packs tons of flavor. It can be served with so many other dishes, making it something I never get bored of.”
It’s the other eggplant dish that steals the show for me, an Egyptian baba ganoush that has taken the people in the kitchen decades to perfect. It is one of their signature sides and one of the few dishes from the country that have been stuck with me since returning home.
We stopped at several other restaurants and an Arabic coffee house before arriving at our final dining destination. This is where it seems most people stop once or twice a week after work to grab a plate of Egypt’s national dish.
“Koshari is super filling, delicious and extremely cheap, it also happens to be wonderfully vegan,” Laila shares. It is also a massive heap of carbs invented by some mad person that one day decided to toss as many carbs as he could find inside a bowl. The fundamental ingredients are boiled macaroni, spaghetti, vermicelli, lentils, rice, whole hummus, and fried onions. That’s topped off with tomato sauce and a garlic and vinegar dressing that you mix into the bowl of sleep. It is heavy on the eyes and stomach but light on the wallet.
Laila and I end our night on a rooftop discussing the Egypt that was and is. We are full and hopeful that sips of hot green tea will help delay the imminent onset of lethargy. I did not know what to expect on this tour but left it as Laila hopes all guests do: smiling and full. “We want people to walk away with a memorable experience that is informative and definitely fun. We want people to remember that time they ate their way through the streets and alleyways of downtown Cairo,” she concludes.
If a culinary street adventure sounds like a great way to pass a free evening in Cairo, book a tour with Bellies En Route by visiting their website.
This article originally appeared on TravelCoterie, a Black-owned publication featuring travel news, tips, and cultural experiences.