Tag Archives: Egypt

Elegant Egyptian Classics at Sofra in Luxor

Whenever we were looking for restaurant recommendations in Luxor, Sofra (90 Mohamed Farid Street Al Manshiya, Luxor) kept bubbling up to the top. One thing that will impress you about Sofra right away is its historic setting in a 1930’s era structure. When we arrived at lunchtime, the whole bottom floor was empty, but we climbed the stairs and we found a bustling dining area. Notably, Sofra has one of the most relaxing and tranquil restaurant settings we encountered in Egypt. The upper level was filled with historic wooden furniture and traditional copper tables, colorful lanterns and draperies. Even though it was open to the elements and the 95 degree heat, the shady dining room was not hot at all.

The menu was filled with elevated Egyptian classics. We started out with Baba ghanouj eggplant dip and Khiyar Bil Zabadi Salad (cucumber and mint in yogurt – 21 EGP) which were both cool and refreshing. We each ordered a hearty main: hamam mashi (grilled, stuffed pigeon 65 EGP) stuffed with spiced rice and lamb shank fattah with a yogurt sauce over rice and bread cubes (95 EGP). We had tried pigeon before in Egypt, and it did remind of Cornish game hen – a lot of bones with little meat. However, Sofra’s version blew us away – the bird was tender and juicy and the rice stuffing made the meal feel more substantial. The lamb shank was fall-off-the-bone tender, though we would have liked more yogurt sauce on our dish.

One of our favorite things in Egypt is the fresh juices, so we went with cantaloupe (18 EGP) and classic mango juices (22 EGP) to accompany our meal. For dessert we tried Sahlab (25 EGP), a warm rosewater pudding made with flour from orchid tubers. Everything at Sofra was outstanding, the portions were generous, and we left happy and full. We would recommend Sofra to anyone who is visiting Luxor – delicious food, at reasonable prices, in a luxurious setting – what could be better?

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Wenkie’s Ice Cream in Luxor

The best ice cream we had in Egypt was at Wenkie’s (El Gawazat Street Luxor, Egypt) a German-run shop in the heart of Luxor. Wenkie’s specialty is making ice cream out of super-local water buffalo milk. Water buffalo are found throughout Egypt near the Nile and we were really excited to sample buffalo milk in a form other than our favorite cheese: buffalo milk mozzarella.

The shop was bright and welcoming, and featured a pin map on the wall of the locations of all the visitors (we couldn’t contribute since the US had already been well-covered). The owners of the shop, Ernst and Babette Wenk were running the show when we arrived, and helped explain all of the available flavors to us. We especially like that they make ice cream in local flavors like hibiscus, guava, pomegranate and doum fruit (which we were not even aware of until this trip). We ordered 3 scoops (15 pounds each) and they gave us a ton of samples afterward. You could also get milkshakes, coffee and even waffles!

The buffalo milk ice cream at Wenkie’s is indeed delicious! We loved all of the flavors we tried as well as the creamy texture of the ice cream. The doum fruit also lent itself very well to ice cream, perhaps better than having it as just a juice. We also were delighted by their chocolate and gingerbread flavors (we should have guessed that Germans would make amazing gingerbread). Ernst encouraged us to try the Hibiscus and chocolate together to make a sort of Black Forest cake. If you are in Luxor you have to visit Wenkies, there is simply nowhere else like it!

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Afternoon Tea at The Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan

There is nothing we love more than a good cup of tea, so we always try to do a little research into the best teas in the area when we are traveling. We were surprised to find out that one of the most storied teas in Egypt was found in Aswan, in southern Egypt, at the Old Cataract Hotel, a British colonial hotel from 1899. The Old Cataract Hotel is very expensive and decadent, and has played host to a variety of luminaries and dignitaries over the years. With this tea we have now had tea in 4 of the 6 populated continents. Somehow along the way we have missed South America, despite our long stay in Brazil – oh well – we will get there again eventually.

The price of tea at the Old Cataract Hotel is quite steep by Egyptian standards where a normal cup of black or mint tea will cost you only a few pounds. There are two versions of the tea available, a lighter and heavier option, and you pay by how many trays of food you want (versus per person). For the lighter teas, it is 360 pounds for one tray of food and 50 pounds for a second serving of tea (though nowhere is this listed). It is worth noting that the Old Cataract is quite fussy about letting non-guests in, and each non-guest must spend 200 pounds while there. We just walked right in the front door (be aware there is security as there are in many expensive Egyptian hotels), though we met others who have been stopped and questioned as to where exactly they were going.

The main attraction of the tea at the Old Cataract is the luxurious setting and the gorgeous view over the Nile from a comfortable shady terrace. We were a little disappointed to see that, of all of the teas being advertised on the menu (over a dozen), there were only 2 available: Darjeeling and Earl gray (we chose Darjeeling). After a bit of a wait, we got our tea in a substantial cast iron kettle, and a while after that, we got our tiered tray of food. There was plenty on the tray for both of us, so we were glad we did not order two, which would have been way too much for an afternoon tea.

For savories, we got roast beef, salmon with capers, and chicken salad popovers along with turkey and cheese and veggie finger sandwiches. M particularly liked the popovers and said that the salmon was his favorite bite of the whole tea. For sweets we had a “scone” with “clotted cream” (more of a bread roll and whipped cream), a mini berry macaron, a brownie, mini opera cake, a lemon tart and a fruit tart and a cup of custard. The mini opera cake was my favorite of this lot, though all of the desserts were pretty good. The last tier was a welcome surprise that you do not get at most teas: fresh fruit! We enjoyed the heaps of fresh mango, honeydew, strawberries and kiwi.

Sitting on the outdoor terrace and taking in views of the Nile was an extremely pleasant way to while away the afternoon. We felt like we could take our time and really take in the ambiance of the Old Cataract Hotel. During tea you definitely feel the last remnants of Colonial British Egypt (for better or worse). While you are certainly not paying for the service, the atmosphere could not be beat, and it is a relatively cheap way to enjoy the historic ambiance of the Old Cataract Hotel.

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Egyptian home cooking at Fasahat Somaya in Cairo

When we read about the food Renaissance in Cairo one name that kept bubbling to the top was that of Somaya Hamed. One of the few prominent female chefs in Cairo, Somaya cooked for participants of the 2011 revolution in Tahrir Square. Now she has laid down roots and opened up a restaurant of her own. Fasahat Somaya (19 Youssef El Gendy Street, Off Hoda Shaarawy Street Cairo) which occupies a small corner in downtown Cairo near Tahrir Square.

The restaurant can be identified by its white walls and bright blue sign only in blocky Arabic script carved into the wall (seen above) – you won’t be able to miss it because invariably there will be crowds milling about waiting for the restaurant to open at 5 PM. The restaurant is only open for 2 hours a day, first come, first served, and there is a finite amount of food. When they are out of food, they’re closed for the night! We have heard that the best Egyptian food is always cooked at home, and you feel just like you are being invited into Somaya’s home as she greets you from her open kitchen (chef/owner Somaya is below).

Somaya will have a few selected items for the menu of the day, and you can expect something different daily, so come with an open mind. There is no menu on the wall, and the prices were unlisted. The waiter told us the offerings of the day and we decided to order one of each.

On the day we visited, Somaya was making:

  • Sweet and sour chicken: These were crispy chicken drumsticks with a sweet and sour glaze. The drumsticks were delicious, with more of an East Asian flavor than Egyptian.
  • Whitefish with a lemon cream sauce: This was probably our favorite dish of the night. The whitefish was mild and tender and the lemon cream sauce was the perfect complement.
  • Molokhia: Egypt’s famously slimy and polarizing jute leaf soup. We have had this Egyptian classic a few times while here, but this was our favorite version.
  • Salata Baladi: delicious local salad with many permutations, this version had tomatoes, cucumber, onion and peppers in an oil and citrus dressing. Fresh and delicious!
  • Roast potatoes with cumin: We were not expecting much out of this dish but it was tasty and hearty.No two nights will be alike, and Somaya’s menu is always changing with the seasons. Our whole meal for four only set us back about $20 US, which was absolutely astounding. We would definitely recommend getting in line early for Somaya’s takes on Egyptian classics with a twist –  you feel like you are eating in someone’s personal kitchen – where the best food is always located.

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The Doum Palm of Aswan

We are currently riding down the Nile River in Egypt on a dahabiyya, an historical wooden boat, and are outside of Aswan. Our lovely crew decided to pull over to make a picnic for us on the shore of the Nile. While there, we marveled at a proliferation of palm trees with wrinkly green/pink fruits that we had never seen before. Not a coconut or banana certainly… somewhat guava-like but still not that….

Turns out this scrubby palm with tons of spikes was a Doum Palm! This sturdy palm tree grows in arid climates across the Sahel of Africa and produces a sweet fruit by the same name. Doum fruit is eaten from Senegal to Tanzania and beyond, and is apparently popular in Egypt as both an edible fruit and folk remedy. Our intrepid crew got us some ripe Doum specimens from the trees and made a chilled smoothie for us back on the boat (seen below). Though the appearance was standard, the flavor was really shocking! Think a fruity butterscotch with a hint of maple. With a flavor like that, it is no wonder the Doum Palm is also called a “gingerbread tree.” The sweet candy-like taste also reminded us of the lucuma fruit from Peru which has a similar, unexpected cake-like quality. Who knew the Sahara could produce gingerbread!?

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Bellies en Route Cairo Food Tour

Unsurprisingly, our favorite thing about traveling is the FOOD, and we try to learn a bit about the local cuisine before we visit a place. You may be surprised that up until now we have never taken a food tour. When we learned about the first food tour in Cairo, given by Bellies en Route, it sounded like the perfect food tour for us. Bellies en Route is curated and run by Egyptians Mariam “Mia” Nezar and Laila Hassaballa. They are experts in the Cairo food scene and picked out the perfect eats for first time visitors, exposing you to the vast variety of classic Egyptian foods. And as you may have guessed since we are not Arabic-speakers, the tour is given in English.

We met Mia in Tahrir Square in the heart of downtown Cairo at 4 PM to start off our walking tour of downtown Cairo foods. Mia and Laila have throughly vetted all of the stops on the tour both for tastiness and consistency so you know you will be in for a treat, taking out all of the guesswork in a new city. Our host Mia, a born and bred Cairene, was also extremely knowledgable about the history of Cairo and its cuisine. We really appreciated the extra historical context and insight she provided throughout the tour.

Our first stop was for some classic Egyptian home cooking. Our amuse-bouche was salad water (Muyyet Salata) a vinegary drink in a shotglass proportion with garlic, lemon and dill meant to whet the appetite. Our next sample was macarona bechamel, a tasty baked pasta dish with meat and a cream sauce (with extra tomato sauce on the side) that is popular at home but rarely seen out in restaurants. Without the tour I am sure we would never have gotten to try it. Think of it as kind of a cousin of tomatoless Greek pastizio.

Another new-to-us specialty the Bellies unearthed at a historic coffee roaster was Arabic-style coffee which is light in color, and nothing like the thick, potent Turkish coffee you may be expecting. This conconction is served unsweetened with cardamom, and tastes akin to a green tea. You definitely have to try it for yourself!

Next we were off to a juice bar to sample some fresh Egyptian juices, something the country is particularly known for. We sampled karkade, a popular drink made from a flower similar to hibiscus (and the Mexican agua fresca Jamaica), sugarcane juice, and Sobia, a rice and coconut water similar to Mexican drink horchata without the cinnamon. I find it interesting how there are so many analogues between Mexican and Egyptian drinks. It was particularly fun to watch the raw sugarcane stalks pressed through the machine to make the juice, and surprisingly it was not too sweet. Of course, in Egypt, the king of all juices is Mango. Egypt grows dozens of varieties of mangos and their in-season time is hotly anticipated. Sometimes it is impossible to know which juice bar is good (or clean enough) so we felt grateful for the Bellies’ guidance.

We also visited a well-known classic restaurant for Egyptian comfort foods, Felfela, which is actually built into an alleyway and is particularly atmospheric (seen above). After that we visited a hole-in-the-wall homestyle Egyptian restaurant tucked into a nondescript storefront in downtown Cairo that we can assure you could never find on your own. At these two restaurants we sampled heartier Egyptian fare including Egyptian falafel (made of fava beans instead of chickpeas as it is in many other places), a parade of mezze, and the polarizing Egyptian soup molokiah (dark green soup seen below).

Molokiah is made of jute leaves cooked in a chicken (or other type of) stock, and has a very unusual texture. The plant leaves, which are somewhat akin to kale or collard greens, have a viscous okra-like texture when cooked. The dish is a love-it or hate-it thing and we personally fall into the pro-molokiah camp. Mia also showed us how to sop up the molokiah with pieces of the baladi bread made into the shape of a “cats ear” (same deal as an Italian scarpetta).

By this point we were getting pretty full, even though most of what we had been tasting was the sample portion size, but we pressed on, eager to sample more! As our last savory item, we visited a place for koshary that came recommended over the more famous Abu Tarek. You have to attend the tour to find out where! We have written about koshary (and our affinity for it) a few times before and it is a must-try for any visitor to Egypt. Koshary is a satifying mix of lentils, chickpeas, various shapes of pasta, fried onions and tomato sauce, which you can customize with spicy or garlic sauces.

After all of these main courses, we stopped at a traditional dessert shop where piles of cookies and desserts in large copper trays were on offer. We sampled basboosa, honey cake and kunefe. Basboosa is cooked with semolina flour and flavored with rosewater and kunefe is made with two cake-like layers of crunchy wheat vermicelli filled with a layer of cream.

And there were even more surprises in store, but you have to attend the tour yourself to find out. We are grateful to the Bellies for showing us a different, more local side to the Cairo food scene. If you are new to Cairo and want an on-the-ground food tour featuring food that the local Cairenes actually eat themselves, we couldn’t recommend Bellies en Route more. Our only major advice is: come to the tour hungry!

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Cairo Kebab Before we head to Cairo

We are going to Egypt (starting in Cairo) TODAY. So before we headed to Egypt we whet our palates with a little Egyptian food right here in Chicago. There is a lot of Persian and Lebanese food in Chicago, but not much Egyptian, so we had to seek out Cairo Kebab1524 W Fullerton Ave, Chicago, IL ) for a taste of Egypt.

One of the signature dishes you have to get in Egypt is koshary (seen above), so naturally we had to get it at Cairo Kebab. Koshary is mix of rice, lentils, macaroni and chickpeas with a spicy tomato sauce and topped with fried onions. Now, we have only had koshary a few times, so we are super excited to sample it in Egypt. Cairo Kebab’s rendition of koshary ($8.75) was a huge portion of filling, tasty comfort food, and we could really taste how well all of the elements complemented eachother. We also filled up on the delicious hummus and pita ($6 for a large, as seen below) and stuffed grape leaves ($5). At this point we were already astounded by the sheer amount of food – so it is a good thing that we decided to split among us the Cairo Kebab Combo ($15) a platter of Chicken Kebab, Shish Kebab, and Kofta Kebab, served on a bed of rice with grilled veggies. The kebabs were tasty, delicious and filling. If you are a fan of any particular type of kebab you can order that one individually as well. Though we did not try it – the chicken or beef shewarma also looked particularly tantalizing ($11.75).

We finished up our meal with typical sweets for dessert: Baklava and Mamoul (date cookies). We are definitely fans of Cairo Kebab – their renditions of Middle Eastern favorites and Egyptian specialties were great. We are now feeling a little  more prepared for our trip to Egypt and its culinary delights. Do you have any Egyptian food recommendations?

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Egyptian-Themed Chocolates and Desserts

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flags_of_EgyptOne of the big events in town this Spring is the Ancient Egypt exhibition, Pharaoh: King of Ancient Egypt, at the Cleveland Museum of Art. M has always been a huge fan of ancient Egypt, and now the whole city has Egypt on the brain. A box of these gorgeous Ancient Egypt-themed chocolates from Maggie Louise Confections would be the perfect treat before the show – when they popped up on my Instagram feed I was instantly struck by their gorgeous colors! We didn’t find any Egyptian traditional recipes that called for chocolate, but if you are in Cairo, be sure to check out House of Cocoa for all things chocolate. However, there are plenty of other Egyptian desserts that would be great to try including Basbousa, an almond semolina flour cake and Umm/Om Ali, a bread pudding made with nuts.

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Koshari, street food of Egypt in London

flags_of_EgyptWe have eaten a lot of Lebanese street food, but Egyptian street food is something new to us. The most emblematic street food in Egypt is koshary/koshari, a mix of pasta and grains topped with chickpeas, a spicy tomato sauce and caramelized onions. Koshari Street  (56 St Martin’s Ln, London WC2N 4EA) does a modern fast casual take on the Egyptian dish, offering three sizes of koshari in take away cups.

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Located in the heart of London, Koshari street provides an unexpected cheap option right in the tourist track (though don’t worry, it is not touristy in the least!). Koshari Street is also a very quick option – Chipotle-style, the koshari is assembled in front of you to order. You can then customize the grain base with tomato sauces in three spiciness levels and you can specify if you would like onions and lemon on top. Though we didn’t think of it at the time, this dish is also vegan which makes it a good area option for all palates.

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There were three sizes of koshari to choose from and we each ordered a small cup for a shockingly reasonable £3. We really enjoyed the mix of pasta and grains and the savory tomato sauce (vaguely reminiscent of Italian pasta and red sauce). M also went the extra mile and got spicy sauce. The koshari was tasty, warm and filling and easy to eat on the go. Definitely the perfect food for ambling about and taking in the sights!

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Kahk al-Eid: Egyptian cookies for Eid

flags_of_Egypt Today is Eid Al-Fitr – the breaking of the fast after the month of Ramadan. Of course, this means lavish, delicious feasts. Every country has its own food traditions to celebrate Eid, but all have an iconic dessert or two! Sweet rice/vermicelli puddings are found in India, Pakistan and Burma as a way to celebrate Eid. In Egypt there is a classic cookie: Kahk al-Eid (literally, “Eid Cookie”). These sugary shortbread-like cookies get their kick from a combination of spices including fennel and anise – which may be listed as “Kahk Flavor” in some recipes. Cookies may be made into small circles or can be shaped with a wooden mold, as in this recipe. A simpler recipe is provided by Food Republic, if you do not have access to Kahk spice.

Kahk

Egyptian Eid Cookies (Kahk) – by Lorenz Khazaleh

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Merry Christmas 2013!

Happy winter wishes from the miniature snow-covered Sphinx in Tobu World Square Theme Park in Japan.

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Fueling the Arab Spring in Egypt: Koshary

flags_of_EgyptSerious Eats has an extremely interesting post about a different side of the Arab Spring, what those involved in it are eating. In Egypt, the answer is Koshary.

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