Dinosaurs and Egypt – two of my childhood fascinations. I even wanted to become a palaeontologist at some point, until I realised I was rather average at biology and science. Fortunately, travel gives you the opportunity to explore new worlds, ancient even.
Recently we escaped the winter chill in Joburg, and headed to Egypt! Of course this doesn’t just mean incredible ancient treasures to visit, but also new foods to try.
Before going I did a lot of research about what to eat and what to avoid. Anything uncooked seemed to be off limits, so no salads. On the other hand, carbs definitely plays a lead role on every menu. Most meals are served with a pita like flatbread, Aish Baladi. It is made with whole wheat flour, covered in wheat bran, and baked in scorching hot ovens. It is sold and made everywhere and eaten by everyone, rich and poor. We saw men carrying baskets full on their heads, women selling it from tiny shops, and hotel cooks baking it on premises. Often served with soft cheese, baba ghanoush, salsa, or whatever was placed in front of us.
Koshary is one of Egypt’s national dishes and a version can be found from street corner carts, to restaurants and holiday resort buffets. It’s made with rice, noodles (anything from macaroni to vermicelli) and lentils, topped with fried onions, chickpeas and a spicy tomato sauce.
On our last day in Cairo, after our tour had officially ended, we took a taxi to Zamalek district on Gezira Island on the Nile. Here we had our first bowl of Koshary at Cairo Kitchen. Most of our meals on the tour was only accompanied by rice with noodles, not the full deal. It is indeed very filling and super affordable.
Everywhere else noodley rice was mostly served with grilled chicken, beef or lamb koftas, small fried fish, potato with tomato and onions.
My favourite meal of the entire trip was Egyptian pancakes, or feteer, stuffed with cheese or mince (also vegetables or sweet fillings). After visiting the Egyptian museum we sat down, soaked with sweat, at a cafe in the Khan el-Khalili bazaar. I watched, mesmerised, as the baker rolled and stretched the pastry until see-through. We devoured the crispy filled layered pastry, a delicacy once served as an offering to the gods. I can understand why.
What about dessert? Some of the traditional Egyptian treats can be found, by other names, in Greece, Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. But a delicacy by any other name would still taste as sweet. I got to savour some of the following delicacies:
– zalabya (deep fried dough balls dusted with powdered sugar)
– basbousa (semolina cake soaked in syrup)
– kahk (buttery cookies filled with honey filling, walnuts, pistachios, or simply covered with powdered sugar)
– ghorayebah (melt-in-the-mouth butter cookies)
– konafah/kanafeh (thin shredded or noodle-like pastry soaked in sweet, sugar-based syrup)
At the buffets I ate way too much. No ‘western’ cake could compare. Syrupy and crunchy and delicate, but not overly sweet. We even went to a bakery, Mandarine Koueider, where in broken English I selected some treats to fly home. As I type this, munching on pistachio-filled konafah, I wish I had bought more.
Lastly, what is life without coffee? Now I didn’t go to every coffee shop in Egypt, but cappuccinos do not seem to be their thing. Tiny glasses of sweet Turkish coffee however, gave us the caffeine fix we craved. The rich, muddy (unfiltered) drink was a comfort, even in 40ºC heat next to ancient temples.
Egypt, I’ll be back. I miss the ridiculous heat already. And the pastry.