The food of the Pharaohs returns

Ancient Egyptian food was celebrated as nutritious and healthy, but in recent decades Moroccan and Lebanese dishes have stolen the spotlight. Susan Hack discovers a new generation of Cairenes reinventing Pharaonic cusine. Photography by Dana Smillie.

At 5:30pm - early by Egyptian dinner standards - all the tables are taken and a line has formed outside Fasahet Soumeya. The one-chef, one-meal concept restaurant, located a few blocks from Tahrir Square, has developed a following among political activists and Cairo’s small but passionate foodie community.

Behind a five-burner stove in the tiny kitchen stands Soumeya Hamdy, 44, a former publishing assistant who participated in the 18-day protest in 2011 that led to the downfall of former President Hosni Mubarak. The staff at Cairo’s independent Merit Publishing House, Hamdy’s former employer, had been in the habit of pooling money for her to buy fresh produce. She used the office's kitchen to prepare multi-course lunches more satisfying and economical than anything offered by commercial outlets in the area. During the uprising, Merit’s office became a popular meeting place for activists. Hamdy, a divorced, single mother with a ready smile and tobacco-throated voice, broadened her circle of culinary fans, and some urged her to start cooking professionally.

In October 2011, with the help of friends who raised 11,000 Egyptian Pounds ($1,635) in start-up funds, Hamdy opened a three-table restaurant (whose Arabic name means 'Soumeya’s Place') in a former teashop in an alley between two once-grand 19th century apartment buildings. Ismaliyya, the European-style district launched under the reign of the Khedive Ismail, has many such passages, designed to create breezes, increase retail frontage, and offer shady places for stalls where Egyptians love to pass the time drinking coffee, smoking shisha, and playing backgammon. Fasahet Soumeya has been flourishing thanks to word of mouth and youthful clients who have adopted the old cafes that once served as meeting places for the intelligentsia of the 1952 revolution and who frequent the Belle Epoque apartments that have been newly transformed into venues for art exhibits and community service projects.

Hamdy arrives at 3pm every day of the week - bar Friday - to begin preparing dinner. Service begins at 5pm “until all the food runs out”, which is usually pretty quickly. Accessed through a green painted door, the homey, den-like dining space has seating for just 14 people. Posters advertise Merit authors while bright geometric printed fabric from the medieval Cairo tentmakers’ souk covers pillows on majlis-style cushioned benches lining the walls. 

“She makes great fusilya — green beans smothered in fresh tomato sauce,” says American patron Jonathan Guyer, a Senior Editor at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. On a recent evening, a tour guide brought in a family of German travelers, while a group of young Egyptian men and women debated how to balance work and love over the night’s single main course: roasted duck quarters with rosemary crisped skin served with a mound of short-grain Egyptian rice. 

Side dishes include bamia — okra stewed in tomato and garlic sauce; roasted baby eggplant halves sprinkled with chopped fresh chili, and qilqas, a dish that dates back to the time of the Pharaohs, consisting of boiled taro root squares swimming in a hot, green broth of lemon juice, garlic, olive oil and coriander. A lone waitress serves tables and fetches non-alcoholic drinks from the teashop across the alley. The menu changes each evening, but the bill usually totals only 50 Egyptian Pounds ($7.44). 

Monthly profits have exceed what Hamdy earned in her former publishing career. “Yes, tonight there’s shourbit shariya, habibti,” she tells a regular over the phone, referring to homemade chicken soup with the Egyptian version of short vermicelli noodles. “Hey Soumeya, can I please have a bit more bamia,” another man calls to her in the kitchen with the fondness of a nephew requesting a second helping from a favorite aunt. She doesn’t take reservations but is happy to dish up a meal for take-away if customers bring their own containers.

One of the unexpected offshoots of Egypt’s political transition, Hamdy’s modest enterprise is part of a wave of recently opened establishments winning newfound appreciation for Egypt’s culinary heritage. On one level, she has tapped into a local nostalgia convinced that the best (and most reliably hygienic) Egyptian cooking can only be found in the home. On another, she connects Cairo to the global trend of boutique restaurants serving a stand-alone set menu executed by a single chef in an intimate setting. 

Her Egyptian comfort-food courses may not be as numerous or elaborate as those offered by a 'chef’s table', but they are authentically local, affordable and prepared with consistency by a cook who greets customers on a first name basis. For adventurous diners, each Thursday Soumeya offers the Egyptian specialty kawera, a gelatinous calf’s foot boiled and served in its fatty broth to accompany a piquant, fattah, a vinegary casserole of rice layered with dried pocket bread, and chick peas topped with fresh tomato sauce.

Judging by ancient temple carvings displaying scenes from daily life, the Pharaohs knew how to prepare foie gras. But in the modern era, unlike Lebanon and Morocco, the Arab world’s most populous country - with 91 million citizens - failed to export an internationally recognised cuisine. Instead, since the days of the first Thomas Cook steamer and continuing for most of the last century, Egypt’s culinary reputation stemmed from the repercussions of Nile cruise boat buffets, summed up in the stinger: 'Pharaoh’s Revenge'.

Lack of appreciation for local cuisine partly reflected enduring class prejudice in a country where more than 25 percent of the population still lives on less than 285 Egyptian Pounds ($42.38) a month. “Until the Tahrir revolution, being a chef was not considered a respectable profession," says Sarah Khanna, author of Egypt’s Buttered Up food blog. "And many Egyptians still view cooking as something for servants, which you do for money only if you don’t have a real skill such as carpentry." Khanna, 29, is also a restaurant consultant who helped update the menu at Left Bank, a two year old French style bistro along the Nile in the affluent Zamalek neighborhood, on an island across a bridge from Tahrir Square.  The idea was to move beyond the ubiquitous and popular caprese and chicken caesars salads and offer creations such as salmon tartare and poached shrimp served with a local pumpkin dijonaise.

“The Cairo model for a high dining experience,” Khanna says, “was to bring in a foreign chef, who would leave, causing food and service to decline because recipes lost in translation never made it to the table.” Like some other food critics and chefs she believes the protests that led to Mubarak’s downfall have engendered a new national pride in all things Egyptian.

Part of the program to improve Left Bank, where the initial menu didn’t quite live up to the river view, involved using social media to promote not just the creations but also the personality of Egyptian chef Wesam Masoud, a 33-year old licensed doctor who once studied immunology at Yale University and now hosts a local cooking TV show, Matbakh 101. Consulting at Left Bank, Khanna and Masoud worked to improve service by insisting waiters take cooking lessons to improve their knowledge and providing a theater coach for posture and elocution lessons. “It would be great if Egypt one day had a Michelin-starred restaurant,” says Masoud, who opened his own signature eatery, Chef's Table, in Heliopolis last February. “My goal is to make Egypt become known as a food, not just a tourism, destination.”

“Egypt has the pyramids and all this amazing heritage, but its restaurants have had a cut and paste reputation,” concurs Moustafa El Rifai, 36, a chef who earned a master's degree in social work from Detroit’s Wayne State University as well as a culinary degree from that same city’s Henry Ford Community College. While working as the executive chef at the Grand Hyatt Hotelin Dearborn, Michigan, he dreamed of writing an Egyptian cookbook celebrating regional dishes. But when he returned home in 2009 to take care of his elderly father, he found proliferating foreign chains such as Casper & Gambini’s and an elite restaurant culture dominated by luxury hotels promoting Italian, Turkish, Moroccan, but never purely Egyptian cuisine. “In Cairo you have wealthy Egyptians who adore sushi but who never heard of khabed, a skillet bread from Upper Egypt, or feteer meshalet, a pancake from Tanta made with layers of a filo type pastry, ghee, local aged cheese, and molasses,” he sighs.

El Rifai decided to break the mould in Zamalek, a neighborhood of embassies and posh apartment buildings, by launching a restaurant devoted to gentrifying and tweaking Egyptian dishes traditionally served in working class districts from street stalls and pushcarts. He teamed up with Chris Khalifa, a dynamic 29-year old former investment banker with EFG-Hermes who, before the revolution, had been looking for a project to bring global recognition to Egyptian food. “I’m convinced that Egypt has great food and a cuisine that can be highly exportable if its executed right,” Khalifa says.

In March 2012 the pair opened Zooba, a deli-style eatery located in a former kebab shop on 26th of July Street, the main drag bisecting the island. Zooba’s sky-blue painted wooden door, salvaged from an abandoned 19th-century villa, visually signals the nostalgia the partners hope to create for “gourmet” versions of street food such as taamiyya, fried patties of fava beans mixed with coriander, parsley and dill. In addition to the traditional pocket bread sandwich, Zooba offers renditions stuffed into eggplant or pressed, Panini style, with mozzarella.

A collage of antique tiles on the wall reference the deconstruction of sandwiches such as hawashi, a pocket bread version of a hamburger, with ground meat spiced with tomatoes, onion and coriander. Deli shelves displaying fresh beet and orange salad and seasonal snacks such as salted lupins and cape gooseberries compliment the colors of colorful pocket breads rendered healthier by the incorporation of spinach or beets in the dough. Menu items, written on a black chalkboard over kitchen, can be ordered to go or to eat at a communal, ten-seat stainless steel table. 

To ensure consistent standards and justify prices four times that of street vendors, El Rifai and Khalifa recruited kitchen staff from the Culinary Training Institutes of Egypt, the country’s first internationally accredited cooking school, which opened in 2011 by the Ministry of Tourism with the goal of raising the country’s culinary bar. In another revolutionary concept, Zooba’s 25 chefs and bakers rotate as cashiers and waiters, and all employees share not just customer tips but annual restaurant profits. The new-generation crew includes Muslims, Christians, women, men, and a 21-year old floor manager. “Profit sharing has benefited Zooba tremendously by creating a sense of ownership within the team that has positively effected the general culture of the company,” Khalifa says. The combination of food and teamwork has proved so successful that he and El Rifai increased staff numbers from 50 to 75 to open a second branch in the upriver suburb of Maadi.

Zooba’s "baladi chic” dining trend connects the economic elite, through their taste buds at least, to the majority of Cairo’s 18 million residents, who rely on food pushcarts to fill their stomachs without pinching their wallets. In the traffic-gridlocked city, where restaurant rents are too high for many small entrepreneurs, vendors sell a surprisingly varied cornucopia from mumbar, a rice and dill stuffed sausage to deserts of roasted sweet potatoes or couscous moistened with samna, a clarified buffalo butter, and sweetened with golden raisins and lashings of powdered sugar. 

Street food is tasty, but not always healthy or hygienic, says Suzanne Zeidy, another Zamalek restaurant entrepreneur, explaining her decision to create a modern, sit-down restaurant, Cairo Kitchen, around back-to-the-future health conscious dishes. In the 1990s Zeidy, who has an MBA from New York University, planned to open a gourmet food store in Cairo selling imported ingredients such as truffles but the plan fell though because of bureaucratic and cold chain hurdles for imported ingredients. She managed to persevere and has emerged as one of the city’s first female restaurant moguls. She launched Cairo’s first Cilantro coffee shop as well as a bar scene with two trendy Mediterranean-themed restaurants, Bodega and Apperitivo, inside the Baehler’s Mansion, a long-neglected piece of architectural patrimony built by one of Egypt’s early 20th century hotel magnates.  

“In the wake of the revolution, fewer wealthy Egyptians are willing to be seen spending lavishly because they know many people are suffering economically and they don’t stay out late because of the perceived lack of security,” Zeidy says. Instead, Cairo Kitchen, which debuted in 2012, is far more casual than her other outlets and focuses on affordable, kid-friendly dishes and ingredients “that reflect where we live and what we have”.  That means seasonal, organically grown vegetables (she's one of the few chefs who uses them) and lighter renditions of carbohydrate intensive recipes that many people remember eating at grandmother’s table. The focus is on koshari, a beloved staple and early example of fusion cooking with origins in the First World War, when the British Army imported lentils and rice from India to feed troops stationed in Egypt. Local housewives added chickpeas, fried onions, pasta and splashes of lemon and vinegar dressing or chili-laden tomato sauce to create a hot, protein-rich dish that today is one of Egypt’s most popular take out foods.   

Cairo Kitchen serves a gluten-free koshari made with brown rice and no pasta, as well as seasonal daily tagines, which might be freek, or cracked green wheat, topped with veal and artichokes. Vegetarians come for the changing selection of 25 salads including a hummus-lite made from pulsed coriander instead of chickpeas and a tahina dip that is colorful and less caloric thanks to the addition of pureed carrots. Non-alcoholic chilled infusions of tamarind juice, hibiscus and rosewater and mint on tap from glass samovars echo the drink vendors who still walk the streets with huge glass vats strapped on their backs. Zeidy hired the Manhattan-based Egyptian architect Hassan Abousada to translate traditional wooden fuel carts gaily painted in red, yellow and white with folksy slogans written in Arabic calligraphy into Cairo Kitchen’s decor.

Cairo Kitchen has been successful enough for Zeidy to launch a cookbook and three other branches and she’s contemplating opening in destinations such as Dubai and London. She joins homegrown chefs already on a roll, part of a nascent food awakening lifting local ingredients and dishes to new heights and earning a modern generation of fans along the way. “There’s a new sense of nationalism in food as well as politics,” Zeidy says. “Egyptians want to eat things that say something about who we are and where we live. It’s not a time for flash and glamor but to learn to enjoy, experiment and promote the cuisine we have.”

Susan Hack is a Cairo based writer for Bloomberg Pursuits.

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