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Lunch » Tags » Food » Reviews » Egyptian Cuisine » User review

Gastronomic Guide To Egypt

  • Jan 25, 2010
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Rating:
+5

My wife and I recently returned from a week-long trip to Egypt.  I want to share some of our experiences, beginning with this review describing the culinary experiences we had.  It seems that the Egyptian diet consists of plenty of inexpensive meatless dishes, some with the option of adding meat.  The meat selections available vary from place to place, with many of the smaller restaurants specializing in particular dishes.  We did part of our trip with a hired tour guide and part as pure adventure with a loose game-plan going in.  This allowed us to stop at some eateries that probably would be considered "dives" even by Egyptian standards.  It was a gastronomic gamble that did not result in any ill effects (but you should be warned that gambling like this is not advised).  All the reading material I did prior to visiting Egypt warned against drinking the water and eating fresh fruit and vegetables that don't have an exterior that is peeled off.  We did not drink the water (although we brushed our teeth in it...many visitors use bottled water even for this task).  We did eat tomatoes and lettuce in small amounts as well as covered fruits, which was a bit more risky.

Before I get into the actual food dishes, I want to briefly touch on sanitation.  Because it is hard to find in Egypt.  If you stick to expensive tourist restaurants you will be fine.  If you eat randomly, you are likely going to be using dishes and glasses that have not been washed with soap and hot water.  For that reason, I would suggest the following tips:  

1. Look at the overall appearance of the restaurant.  If it has windows and doors, that is a good sign.  The overall cleanliness of the food storage is also important.  It is normal for the food to be left out in the open on trays and to be handled with bare hands.  We ate at a couple of places that kept the food open, but asked for it to be cooked  a little bit longer and served hot (it is usually served "as is").  That was probably one step that saved us problems later on.

2.  If the restaurant offers "take out" it is normally served in plastic.  Even if you dine in, ask for the food to be served in the take out container.  It may require pointing and a bit of ingenuity to convey the message as many of the smaller off-the-beaten-path restaurants don't have any English speaking staff.

3.  If you order drinks, they are often in a  can or bottle.  If you are in a restaurant, they normally pour your drink into the glass for you.  Stop the waiter and just ask for a straw.  It is much safer to just drink it straight from the sterile container.

4.  If the restaurant gives you even a little bit of hesitation, move on to the next one.  Don't risk getting sick when a cleaner restaurant is likely available a few steps further.

5.  Bring a prescription for Cipro as a backup.  Luckily, we never needed to use ours.

Hopefully these tips will come in handy for anyone who decides to get adventurous.  Egyptian food is excellent, often vegan (for those who practice that style of eating), inexpensive and filling.  Restaurants normally have an all male staff (unless you are in a hotel or tourist area), and provide surprisingly attentive service.  The waiters were gracious and out-going. 

I mentioned that Egyptian food is inexpensive.  Prices fluctuate wildly depending on where you eat.  If you are eating at a hotel, you will pay hotel prices that might even get close to what you would pay in the United States at a hotel.  My hotel had the menu in the room and I decided early to experience Egypt more intimately.  My cheapest meal worked out to be $1.64 for an entire meal including two drinks.  My most expensive meal was closer to thirty dollars for two meals.

Egyptian Food

When I think of Egyptian food, kebab comes to mind.  This meal is usually served as a Mixed Grill which includes lamb chunks, chicken chunks and a sausage-like meat called kofta.  You can order any of the available meats as your main course.  The coal grilled meat is usually served with Egyptian bread called Eesh, pickles (pickled peppers, carrots and radishes) and a variety of Mezze, which are like sauces used for dipping the bread or adding to the bread along with the meat.  The Mezzes we tried included sesame, baba ganoush (from chickpeas), mesh (don't ask...scary but good), grilled eggplant (delicious) and more.  A nicer restaurant we ate at is depicted in the photographs which follow.


Mixed Grill
Mixed Grill Served with rice, french fries, fresh bread and mezzes

mezzes
Egyptian Mezzes (pickles, eggplant, mesh, baba ganoush and sesame.

eggplant
Grilled Eggplant (delicious!)

sesame
Sesame for dipping

mesh
Mesh (combination of cheeses, chilis, spices and possibly worms aged in a jar)

pickles
Pickles (carrots, peppers and radish)

baba ganoush
Baba Ganoush for dipping

If you notice the plates and glasses in this picture, it is because we were dining at a nice restaurant.  This meal cost around thirty dollars and was at a very clean restaurant.  You could see that the plates and glasses had been washed and appeared to be very clean.  The restaurant was also spotless inside (very rare).  There was a charcoal oven near the entrance to this outdoor restaurant (the cooking was all done indoors).  This oven was used by two women making fresh bread for the meal.  The bread, known as Eesh, is similar to pita but thinner with a very nice texture and flavor.

camel
camel in a slightly more protected butcher shop

While touring with our guide, we also witnessed several butcher shops, many which appeared to be far from sterile.  There were some indoor shops that looked safe enough, but it was not uncommon to see large chunks of meat hanging from a shop, being freshly butchered (with flies buzzing around).  The meat was cut from the bone and thinly sliced by hand.  The process was actually kind of repulsive because of the unsanitary condition of the area where the butchering was done, literally right on the street.  When asked about this meat, our guide advised that it was camel.  He indicated that camel meat is very tough and needs to be cooked a long time.  It is usually not available at a restaurant, but is commonly consumed in the home.

We had variations of the mixed grill at a couple of different restaurants, with the price of these meat dishes varying between around fifteen dollars for a full meal to the thirty we paid for the meal pictured above.  The less expensive meals were the ones that did not include meat or had very little meat in them.  Those meals seemed to be more common fare for the average Egyptian.  The restaurants were often small and clustered near each other, with as many as a dozen within a short walking distance of each other.  It was odd to see an upscale restaurant thirty feet from an open store front with dirty sidewalks, uncovered food and plenty of flies.  Although I ate at some of the low-scale dives, I went to the ones which were immaculate and bug free.  They can be found among the dives if you take your time and explore.  It is well worth it to experience real Egyptian cuisine.

The following meal was purchased at a dive that was fairly large, busy and open 24 hours with a robust delivery service.  Although open to the street, the floors were surprisingly clean and there were no flies around the food, which was uncovered and sitting on top of the counter.  As a precaution, I drank from the coke bottle and asked for the food to be fried again before being served (in case the hot oil would cook off any potential hazards).  The meal consisted of fuul falafel (which is a flat circular falafel made from fava beans instead of chickpeas), fuul sandwich (which is a bean stew made from fava beans) and french fries as well as bottled soda.


Foreground: fuul falafel sandwich
Background:  french fry sandwich
Notice the fresh tomatoes.  A no-no which we indulged in.  They were far better than the tomatoes we get back home.  Red, ripe and fresh.  The sandwiches also had lettuce, another non-no.


French fry sandwich with tomatoes

Although we didn't see any pork in Egypt, there were some unusual meats like camel and pigeon.  The pigeon is normally served stuffed with rice.  We did not go that direction, but did have chicken kabobs and chicken sandwiches.  The chickens were very small, which made me wonder if we might actually be eating pigeon.  Who knows?  If you order a dish with chicken, be careful for bones.  We were told that the chicken was boneless, but quickly learned that their definition of boneless is different than ours.  Smaller bones were present in most of the chicken I had.  Below is another meal we took with grilled chicken sandwiches which had delicious seasoning (and bones).


Chicken sandwiches.  This restaurant was on the dirty side, so we ate the sandwiches from foil even though they were served on plates. 


Fuul falafel from a nicer (cleaner) restaurant.  Notice all the vegetables again?  Living dangerously.

Another staple of the Egyptian diet is called Koshary (which can be spelled a number of different ways).  This consists of mixed pasta (spaghetti and macaroni), rice, chickpeas, lentils, fried onions and a red sauce.  The sauce is served a variety of ways.  Some Kosharies offer two different sauces, one hotter than the other.  Other places put the tomato sauce on top of the dish and have a vinegar based hot-sauce (similar to that used in southern barbecue) to further spice up the dish.  It is considered vegan in this state, but is often served with shawarma (lamb with tomato and spices) on top.  We ate a couple of different Kosahries, with varying prices, quality and style of presentation.


Koshary without meat after being mixed together with tomato sauce.  Filling and cheap.  This was a busy, decent, visibly clean restaurant where we paid around six dollars for two bowls of Koshary and two drinks.


Koshary with Shawarma from the same restaurant.

We purchased Koshary from a cheaper restaurant, where we asked for it to be served in plastic take out bowls instead of the metal dishes that are normally used.  We saw their method of dish washing (which consisted of dipping a bowl in water and using their apron to dry it off).  No thanks.  That meal was under three dollars including drinks.

Tipping at restaurants is a tricky issue.  From watching others and asking about it, it appeared to me that a ten percent tip seemed average at many of the restaurants.  I prefer the United States model of fifteen to twenty percent, which was still very cheap when you are purchasing a meal for fifteen or twenty dollars.  At the ultra-cheap restaurants, I found myself tipping double or triple the tab just to make it seem fair.  When you pay two dollars for a meal, a normal tip would be insulting.  I tipped very well by Egyptian standards, but the service reflected it.  The places that we ate at more than once were more than happy to accommodate us, even with the language barrier.

Another treat that any visitor to Egypt should experience is the fresh juices.  Juice bars can be found in any of the restaurant areas, offering a wide variety of juice products.  The Egyptian lemons are smaller than a lime and green like limes.  They will cut one in half and throw the whole thing into a blender with sugar-cane sweetened water and blend it.  The resulting drink is delicious, refreshing and cheap (and available in plastic cups).  The lemonade averaged around fifty cents per glass.  If you notice my description of the blending process, the exterior of the lemon was included in the drink, so be advised that it is not simply "juiced."  The mango was almost pure pulp and was also fifty cents per glass.  The pomegranate was salted and did not taste good.  Most juice is made with bottled water, but you never know, so exercise caution.  When you visit shops, you will often be offered coffee, tea or juice...the coffee and tea are boiled, so they are your safest bet.  The tea is also something you should experience...especially with mint.  Delightful.

If you travel to Egypt, you will certainly be warned about exercising caution when sampling the local flavors.  Water and fresh fruit and vegetables should certainly be approached with due caution.  The flavors of Egypt are an eating experience that I will not soon forget.  Although filled with inexpensive carbohydrates, the seasonings used to spice up the Egyptian diet make it exceptional.  The meat dishes offer different varieties than what we are used to and worth experimenting with.  I will personally take a pass on the camel.  This review does not contain a comprehensive list of Egyptian foods, just the ones I personally experienced.  Feel free to comment with other delicacies.  Look for my other upcoming reviews on Egyptian shopping, my hotel, the sights I visited and transportation considerations!
 

Gastronomic Guide To Egypt

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February 04, 2010
This was an awesomely in depth food review, great work man! Egypt is a place that I have been wanting to go to for a really long time and despite some of the sanitary issues, a lot of the food that you ate looks really good and actually quite similar to what's served in some greek towns that I visited. Just a great review!
 
February 03, 2010
Amazing review and terrific pictures. thanks for sharing this!
 
January 25, 2010
Holy cow, John!  I'm printing out your review when I take a trip to Egypt!  Actually, I'm going to Google and see if there's an Egyptian restaurant near me for instant gratification :)  Thanks for these great tips and all those wonderful pictures!  Anyone who reads this is set for eating in Egypt, so thanks for sharing!

By the way, I moved your review over from the Egypt data point to this Egyptian Cuisine data point, freeing up the former if you ever want to write a review about it ;)  I'm looking forward to your other reviews of your fantastic trip to Egypt! :)
January 25, 2010
Thanks. I have several more reviews about Egypt forthcoming...I didn't realize you could only write once on each datapoint! So that will help.
January 25, 2010
Yup, one review and one micro review per data point, but you can put it on as many lists as you'd like! ;)
January 25, 2010
How do you put it on a list?
January 25, 2010
The same way that you created your New Years Resolutions list.  For instance, you could create a travel lists like Favorite Countries or Countries that I've Visited, etc, like @Sharrie's European Countries list!
 
January 25, 2010
All of this seriously sounds delicious (minus the precautions). I'm a little intimidated by taking a trip to Egypt but it sounds amazing!! Were you there for any reason or just to explore? Any area you recommend staying in?
January 25, 2010
Cairo is where most of the hotels are. I stayed in Heliopolis which is about ten miles from downtown Cairo (near the airport). We were there for vacation.
 
January 25, 2010
wow! such a great exposition to Egypt....all I know about the place is the movie THE MUMMY lol! Love camel meat! ;-P
January 25, 2010
I'll pass on the camel. Fun to ride...not so appetizing to eat.
 
January 25, 2010
Amazing review! All I want to do is go to Egypt! What city were you in?
January 25, 2010
I stayed in Heliopolis but spent most of the time in Cairo, with visits to Giza, Memphis and Saqqarah.
 
January 25, 2010
Wow, what a mouthwatering review! I am sure many in the Food Community would appreciate this as well! Thanks :)
January 25, 2010
How do reviews written here become associated with a particular community? Is that something that is done automatically based on the topic?
January 26, 2010
It is pretty simple. You see the tag section in the right column right under the Wiki of the data point you have reviewed? Basically, each one of the tags is a community, If you click on them you'll see it :)
 
January 25, 2010
Amazing review - how helpful!!!
January 25, 2010
Thanks.
 
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Wiki

Egyptian cuisine is notable for the large amounts of vegetables and legumes in many of its recipes, as meat was very expensive for centuries in the country. Because of the rich, fertile Nile River Delta region, vegetables have been easily grown in Egypt for thousands of years. As such, most recipes can be made without meat, with the exception of local favorites from Alexandria, which rely heavily on seafood.

Kushari, made from rice, lentils, and macaroni, is considered by many to be the Egyptian national dish. Falafels in Egypt are made from mashed fava beans (instead of chickpeas), which contrasts with the rest of the Arab world. In addition, Egyptians use much more onion and garlic in their cuisine when compared to other Middle Eastern nations.

Other popular dishes in Egypt include shawerma, kebabs, and various breads.
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Food, Culture, Gourmand, Egypt, Egyptian, Falafel, Egyptian Cuisine

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