In an era where it’s fashionable to claim “I like to explore the local cuisine of a place when I travel”, I run the risk of repeating a cliché, but I actually do like to try out the local cuisine. I confess, many times, I have had to resort back to tried and tested taste of pasta or steak when the local taste (like the peanut and fish taste in Bali) does not agree with my palate but more often than not, we try to pack in atleast one local meal in the day when we travel.
When you close your eyes and think of the food of a country with a vibrant heritage and Islamic culture like that of Egypt, you will probably dream of steaming hot gravies and lots of meats! I thought the same, but I couldn't have been more off the mark. Egyptian food is dry…very very dry. The reasoning is quite simple actually – the country’s main source of water is the River Nile around which their lives literally revolve. The rain gods rarely oblige them in this desert land.
Egyptians eat in small portions throughout the day. Only dinner is a proper sit down affair. Breakfast is usually beans and their local bread. This bread is omnipresent in all their meals. It’s a sort of dry grainy pita bread. Very dry for my liking but they seem to relish it. Lunch is usually a take away sandwich in the same bread with your choice of filling. Fillings range from crispy wafers to mixed vegetables, aubergines and even boiled egg. This is topped with just a dollop of hummus if you so wish. Surprisingly, no meats are offered as fillings. The very famous shwarma roll of the middle east is also available here but in their dry pita bread and with only a bit of hummus. Unfortunately, it did not measure up to the rolls you can find in street corners in Dubai.
In the evenings, we would usually walk around town and try to find the market where the locals roamed and not the tourists. Cairo is a bustling city with lots of options for foodies. We were staying in the uppity diplomatic area called Zamalek. We tried a few restaurants around town, Abou El Seid(Egyptian Cuisine), Cilantros (A coffee shop like our Barista), Five Bells (International food) among others but found the best to be right behind our hotel, a tiny café on the sidewalk that made heavenly food that you could have with your favourite hookah called ‘Goal’.
But undoubtedly, the better cousin was Luxor in terms of food. A British lady settled here and started a restaurant called The Lantern. She served generous portions of English food and made you feel at home as she walked around the tables and chatted with the guests. A little expensive compared to other restaurants, this was sure worth every penny. Luxor has the luxury of being a tiny town and if you so wish, you can literally walk the length of the town. We would set off early evening with the tonga walas trying to sell us a ride (but eventually over the days, even they stopped trying and waved as we passed) and walked where we would wish. Some days the road would lead us to the corniche (the Nile banks) which are lined with cafes and little shops. On other days, we would walk into the local market and try out their best sellers. But undoubtedly, the best meal we had in Egypt was in a restaurant called Tutankhamun. Across the Nile from the Luxor Temple, this little restaurant is the talk of the town. An unpretentious terrace café, the chef has worked in popular hotels like the Hyatt. We ordered the most recommended dish, the chicken curry. Coming from India, we thought we couldn’t be surprised by it, but we were so wrong! A delicious gravy with the tangy taste of mango and the chicken melting in our mouth, it was unbeatable. But that was the least of the surprises. The dish was accompanied by 2 vegetables, one gravy, one salad, some rice and some local bread. We couldn’t believe our eyes when the waiter just kept bringing the dishes in. A must have!!
So if you want my advise, go with an open mind, good research and the recommendations of locals – Egypt can not and will not let your taste buds down!