Cairo: The Street Food

When I think about Cairo, the first thing I think about is the traffic. For any given two-lane road there’s at least three lanes of cars, usually bumper to bumper. Crossing the street is both a science and an art. One Cairene told me that the real Egyptian way to do it is to just close your eyes and go, but there’s more to it than that. You can watch and wait, and your brain can do the calculations to let you know if there’s just enough space between two cars, and if they’re moving just slow enough. Then again, sometimes there is no good time to go and you just have to step out into the street — the closed-eye method. There’s also the sense that the roads, as well as the ramps and the sidewalks (or lack thereof) are more complicated than they need to be. Perhaps this is a consequence of being such an old city (modern Cairo goes back about 1000 years); roads and paths were hallowed by time long before cars, and the infrastructure just went up where people expected them to be. The good news is that as long as there have been roads, there have been people who sell food to those traveling upon those roads. And in fact, the street food in Cairo is better and cheaper than any of the restaurant food I had while I was there.

My first taste of Cairo street food was this grilled corn. Under the 6 October Bridge is a bus depot, and there are always tons of commuters moving back and forth under it. On any given day you can find people selling roasted potatoes, sesame candies, various breads, or grilled corn. For 1 Egyptian Pound (at the time of my trip 1 LE = about 20 cents) I got one of the grilled ears, expecting something akin to the corn at the Red Hook Ballfields. Alas, this wasn’t so good — there was no seasoning whatsoever, and the corn itself wasn’t great. The grilling had lent a little charred flavor to it, but that was all. Luckily, this was to be the exception, and not the norm.

I walked along the Nile eating the corn, looking for something a little more substantial. On the way back to my hotel, I happened up a side street where there was a clothing and fabric market taking place. Among the tables and clothing racks there was a guy with a big glass booth selling koshary. What, you may ask, is koshary?

Koshary is a uniquely Egyptian dish, and it doesn’t sound like it would make any sense. It’s a mixture of rice, macaroni, spaghetti, lentils, and chickpeas, all covered with a spicy tomato sauce and fried onions. You can also add some vinegar sauce to it if you like. Later in my trip I had the dish at Cairo’s most famous koshary (the word is also used as the name for the places that sell it), but this version I found on the street was far superior. It tastes kind of like your school cafeteria’s kitchen-sink pasta, only really good. The guy dishing this out seemed a little suspicious of me at first, but he was more than willing to put together a bowl for me. He even asked me if I wanted it spicy, which I did, though he didn’t offer me any of the vinegar sauce. For 3 LE (less than $1) I got this amazingly delicious, filling meal.

If there’s any one food that might be considered Egypt’s national dish, it’s fuul. Fuul is fava beans, cooked and mashed up with lots of spices, usually served in a pita bread. It’s often eaten for breakfast, intended to give you a protein-rich and filling dish to start your day. At Felfela Takeaway (on Sharia Talaat Harb) they make a pretty good fuul for just 1 LE, and for .50 LE more you can have an egg added to it. Fuul actually tastes a lot like refried beans, but the egg adds a nice and unexpected richness to it.

Another popular dish in Egypt is taamiya, which is basically falafel made with fava beans instead of chick peas (as a side note, fava beans really are quite popular in Egypt; I saw several people selling them from stands on the side of the road). Felfela’s version (pictured here with salad, for 1.25 LE) is quite good.

At some point walking around Cairo, you’re bound to run into someone selling bread on the side of the road. These bread sellers usually have a wooden board with dowels rising out of it, and these pretzel-like breads stacked high like rings. 1 LE got me these two slightly sweet breads (on Corniche el Nil), with crunchy exteriors but soft insides. The smattering of sesame seeds were a welcome touch.

On my last day in Cairo I put my map of the city away and just wandered. I managed to find my way to Tawfiqiyya Souq, the fruit and vegetable market of downtown Cairo (uncanny how my instincts always lead me to these markets). As I walked through the market I passed by a stand serving fiteer, also called Egyptian pancakes. They are actually more like a pastry than a pancake, made of many layers of thin, phyllo-like dough. There was a savory version topped like a pizza, but I was drawn to the plain one, sitting on a grill. I asked about it, and the man behind the grill told me that it was the sweet version, and that it could be mine for a mere .75 LE (about 15 cents). He also asked if I wanted sugar on it. It was warm and crunchy and flaky and not at all sweet on the inside, so I’m glad I went for the sugar on top.

In my next post I’ll talk about the restaurant meals I had in Cairo, but as I mentioned above I had much better luck with the street food. I think it has something to do with the fact that this is the food that actual Cairenes eat every single day; it had better be good if you’re going to stay in business. I’d recommend when you travel anywhere to at least try the street food. You’ll get an authentic taste of your destination, and you just might be surprised.