“You might want to prepare yourself,” my friend from Cairo told me, just before we opened the menus that had been placed in front of us. “Egypt isn’t exactly known for its food.”
It was my first full day in Cairo and, as someone who travels mostly for the experience of aiming new forkfuls of food toward my mouth, this was not the dinner conversation I’d hoped for. (My guidebook was equally ambivalent, and its author seemed to eventually give up on finding synonyms for the word ‘bland’). Despite that underwhelming introduction, I was pleasantly surprised by the meals I had – and the ones I repeated – during a recent 10-day trip through the country.
From ful to feteer, shakshouka to shawarma, I ate a lot of Egypt’s signature dishes, both the ones that are native to the country and those that have been imported and adopted from its neighbors. And I’ll admit to being tempted by the McFalafel at the McDonald’s in Aswan, but stood on the sidewalk talking myself out of it instead. These five foods became fast favorites, though:
It’s hard to find a better way to start the day than with ful, a filling blend of mashed fava beans (yeah, Hannibal, those beans) seasoned with a cumin-heavy spice blend and mixed with finely chopped onions, tomatoes, parsley and a splash of both olive oil and lemon juice. It was a simple-but-satisfying combination, made even more enjoyable by the flatbread wedges that served as my spoon for scooping it out of the bowl.
As with many Egyptian dishes, the history behind it is almost as satisfying as the meal itself. Some scholars believe that ful dates back to the middle ages, when the dish was known as “bath beans.” The workers at Cairo’s public Princess Baths kept fires burning all day to heat large pots of bathwater and, after the baths closed, enterprising local residents filled those now-empty pots with fava beans, simmering them and becoming the city’s go-to ful source.
After breakfast, it was hard for this unapologetic carb-lover to say no to koshari, the country’s unofficial national dish. Koshari is a combination of rice, lentils and macaroni, tossed together and topped with tomato sauce, chickpeas and crispy fried onions. The vegetarian staple is easy to find at food carts, from street vendors and at countless restaurants including Cairo’s famed all-koshari spot, Koshary Abou Tarek.
When my Cairo-born guide and I were driving to Saqqara, I asked her about the cone-shaped mud brick structures at the edges of many of the roadside properties. They were dovecotes, each one filled with pigeons that are raised as sources of both food and natural fertilizer. “I ate one of my own pigeons last night,” she said, with a satisfied smile. Mine came from Naguib Mahfouz, a restaurant in the tangles of Cairo’s Khan El-Khalili market. It was fried to a golden perfection, stuffed with spiced rice, and tasted even better when I was encouraged to eat it with my hands.
The most adaptable food might be feteer, a flaky pastry with delicate layers that can be stuffed with savory meats or cheeses, or sweetened with dates, coconut or chocolate. I had it for breakfast twice (on the mornings I wasn’t shoving ful into my face), once drizzled with honey, pistachios and fat coconut flakes, and once topped with molasses and cream. It was the kind of breakfast that makes you feel like your day might have already peaked.
Today, on our tour "Around the World in 12 Plates", we're taking you to beautiful Egypt, where I (Nicoletta), have been a few times. We made a traditional Egyptian dessert called Om Ali and that can be compared to North America's bread pudding. We used the French pastry palmiers instead of the more common puff (or phyllo) pastry, and that just took this bread pudding to over the top good. We got inspired by a beautiful recipe found on @cleobuttera and to her we are forever grateful because this amazingly delicious dessert will from now on appear frequently on our table. You have to try the first warm, milky, sugary, crunchy spoonful to fully understand 😍. Thanks to @gabpeyton The food girl in town and Bernice @dishnthekitchen for sharing with us this monthly "adventure". * #atw12p #breadpudding #omali #egypt #travel #dessertstagram #delicious #food #huffposttaste #instayum #instadaily #foodstagram #foodpic #getinmybelly #nomnom #yahoofood #yumgoggle #tastespotting #fbcigers #tasteab #homemaking #homebaking #bloggerlife #foodphotography #buzzfeedfood #foodpic #doubledevoncream #palmiers
On my last night in Luxor, I watched a chef make Om Ali and, as he effortlessly waved a kitchen torch across its surface, he described it as “Egyptian bread pudding.” He wasn’t wrong. Om Ali – “the mother of Ali” – can vary depending on where you’re eating it, but the basic recipe involves chunks of puff pastry mixed with milk or cream, coconut, pistachios, cinnamon and lots of sugar. Its alleged backstory is, uh, heavy on murder, but after a 13th-century ruler’s wife had her rival, Ali’s mother, killed, she ordered that the country’s chefs create the most delicious dessert ever. They delivered: Om Ali was the result.
My friend might’ve been right. Egypt might not be known for it’s food, but man, it should be.