Like any crossroads culture, Egyptian cuisine has picked and chosen those ingredients and food that grow best as well as best meet the flavour and nutritional needs of their people. Bridging Africa and Asia as it does, Egypt has a lot from which to choose from.
Egyptian cuisine is known for flavour and its use of fresh ingredients. The staple in every Arab's diet is a bread called Aish (means life), which is a darker form of the Pita bread in the Greek culture. Fava beans are also important in the diet. At an Arab meal, one would expect to have a soup, meat, vegetable stew, bread, salad, and rice or pasta. Their desserts aren't rich like those of many other Arab countries, similar cuisine as it is and most dishes have the same name all over the middle east, mostly fruit is served after a meal. Egypt's cuisine includes bean stew and falafel with veal, lamb and pigeon which is also popular.
Tourist hotel meals will offer well prepared if unexciting meat/vegetable/starch entrees but that's not the real food of the real people. To eat "real," you have to eat "street." And Egypt is a culinary adventure. "Eating street" as defined, doesn't confine itself to standup meals from cart vendors -- it's more the everyday cuisine of the everyday person in the street. These everyday Egyptians eat well. Meats are largely grilled or roasted, whole or minced, with lamb and chicken predominating. You see a lot of cows but they seem to serve more as farm equipment than beef.
The shish kebab style is extremely popular and is served either with or without the skewers but always with traditional accompaniments: greens and tomato salad, tahini sauce and pita bread. So you can stuff your own sandwich if you want. Bread is always whole wheat pita, coated with coarse ground wheat, round, fragrant and sheer heaven when hot from the oven. Often pita plus a dipping sauce, tahini, hummus or baba ganoush, makes a fast food meal and a healthy, delicious one at that. The Egyptian way of making kebabs is to season chunks of lamb in onion, marjoram, and lemon juice and then roast them on a spit over an open fire. Kufta is ground lamb flavoured with spices and onions which is rolled into long narrow "meatballs" and roasted like kebab. Pork is considered unclean by Muslims, but is readily available, as is beef.
Egyptians have embraced the tomato. The traditional and ubiquitous salad is chopped tomato, coriander, mint, little hot green peppers (not jalapenos but close) and onions, coated with garlic oil. It's great for digestion but death on the breath. Bring mints. Other veggies that grow well and show up all the time include beans, mostly chick pea and fava, which are eaten stewed for breakfast, hearty stewed for lunch and dinner and ground and pasted for tahini and hummus with great amounts of garlic.
Eggplant, mashed as the main ingredient in baba ganoush, is also used in Egyptian moussaka with a mild white cheese. Okra, cabbage, cauliflower and potatoes show up frequently, stewed with tomatoes and garlic. Rice is a universal constant, even for breakfast! The grains mix short basmati-like rice with longer brown, nutty tasting rice.
Molokhiyya is a leafy, green, summer vegetable. A traditional dish in Egypt and Sudan, some people believe it originated among Egyptians during the time of the Pharaohs. Others believe that it was first prepared by ancient Jews. Molokhia is nutritious soup made from a type of greens, known as molokhiyya or Jew's mallow (also called Nalta jute, Tussa jute, Corchorus olitorius), which is found throughout and in other Arab countries with the same climate as well as in Israel. Dried or frozen molokhiyya greens may be obtained from Middle Eastern stores worldwide. Consumption of molokhia was banned (along with a great many other things) during the reign of the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim (c.1000 AD). In addition to molokhiyya, the Egyptians make a variety of meat (lahhma), vegetable (khudaar), and fish (samak) soups known collectively as shurbah, and all are delicious.
Grilled pigeon is the acclaimed delicacy and like any small game bird is long on flavour but short on ease of eating. Pigeons (hamaam) are raised throughout Egypt, and when stuffed with seasoned rice and grilled, constitute a national delicacy. If you are visiting Egypt, beware: local restaurants sometimes serve the heads buried in the stuffing.
Egyptians serve both freshwater and seagoing fish under the general term of samak. The best fish seem to be near the coasts (ocean variety) or in Aswan, where they are caught from Lake Nasser. As well as the common bass and sole, there are shrimp, squid, scallops, and eel. The latter, a white meat with a delicate salmon flavouring, can be bought on the street already deep-fried.
Of course, when you think "Orient" you think spices. Egyptian bazaars display staggering amounts, sculptured into colourful spice pyramids, from yellows of saffron and ochres of curries to deep blues of powdered indigo dye. Food is usually spices but not spicy. Cumin and salt are found on restaurant tables.
Native cheese (gibna) comes in two varieties: gibna beida, similar to feta, and gibna rumy, a sharp, hard, pale yellow cheese. These are the ones normally used in salads and sandwiches. Mish is a spiced, dry cheese made into a paste and served as an hors d'oeuvre.
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