Are you ready for Egypt!? We certainly weren’t. Going from Italy to Egypt was one hell of a culture shock. After just a few hours in the sky, we landed in a country where everything was totally different, especially the food and people.
We flew with Egypt Air from Rome to Cairo. We ordered special vegan meals (VGML) when we made our online booking and called two days before to make sure they had received our request. When the meals were passed around, the staff knew to give us the veggie option. Our meals came with the little VGML cards but I’m not very confident that everything on the tray was actually vegan. There was no problem with the fruit salad, corn salad, rye bread or box of dates. The potential intruder was the ravioli, which had a mystery stuffing that none of the staff could identify. It could have been potato, tofu or cheese. And who knows what the pasta was made of. I’m dorky enough that I tried emailing Egypt Air customer service. The email address bounced back, saying the address was invalid. Ironically, their email for customer questions is email@example.com. I also tried contacting them through Twitter. My question was ignored. Oh well, I guess we’ll never know.
Let’s not dwell on that though. Today I want to share some pictures of the homemade meals we enjoyed while in Cairo.
Our initial travel plan was to couch surf while in Europe but stay in hostels or hotels once we continued on to Africa and India. As it turns out, we had so much fun with our couch surfing hosts that we decided to keep it up. When I did a search for vegan couch surfers in Egypt, a grand total of one profile matched. It turned out to be a super sweet couple named Manar and Joey. They hosted us for just shy of a week, welcoming us into their home and kitchen.
Egyptian Ful & Tahini
Manar grew up in Egypt and is very familiar with the cuisine and cooking techniques. Since turning vegan, she’s learned to make vegan versions of many traditional Egyptian dishes. One of the first things she had us try was ful (or Fūl Müdemmis), a dish of cooked and mashed fava beans served with olive oil, chopped parsley, onion, garlic and lemon juice. Some people make it from scratch, but you can also buy the canned version at any supermarket in Cairo. We ate the ful as a dip with bread and also tried dipping some bread in a bowl of tahina (or tahini) with molasses. These dips combine simple ingreidents but the flavours are really special. The tahini with just a little bit of molasses was surprisingly sweet.
Babaganoush & Taro Soup
For our first dinner together, Manar suggested we make several Egyptian dishes. We headed to the supermarket and picked up some familar ingreidents like eggplants, as well as some things I’d never cooked with before like colocasia, which you may know as taro or Jerusalem Artichoke.
We broiled the eggplant until it was soft and chard on the outside. We removed the skin and mixed it with tahini, lemon, garlic and a pinch of salt. That’s babaghanoush!
Then we moved on to the taro and herb soup. We bought the taro in a package that was already peeled and cut so we just had to put it in a pot of boiling water with some vegetable bouillon cubes and add the small packet of frozen herbs that came with it. The taro quickly softened and dissolved a bit, giving the soup a thick, creamy consistency. We served the soup over rice.
Working with Katayef
Along with our eggplant dish and taro soup, we made some dumplings. We bought a package of mini Egyptian pancakes, called katayef, which are often used to make sweet pastries. We used half the package to make savory dumplings stuffed with parsley and hummus, Manar’s twist on a cheese filled Egyptian version.
Our meal came together quite nicely. We filled our plates with samples of each dish and added some pita bread on the side.
We used the leftover katayef to make a sweet dessert. We filled the mini pancakes with chopped raisins, dried apricots and fresh dates. Then we fried them in a sauce of brown sugar and port. These were crispy, sweet and delicious!
Fava Bean & Herb Dip
The next night, we made another Egyptian themed vegan feast. Manar prepared an absolutely amazing bean dip. It was a take on Egyptian bessara, a puree of fava beans and herbs. She cooked the fava beans with onions and garlic, then pureed them with dill, parsley and cilantro. On top she added some caramelized onions. This was the best bean dip I’ve ever had. Love the dill and all the other fresh herbs.
Egyptian Molokheya Soup
We also made another green soup to pour over rice. This time it was made from molokheya, a leafy green herb that comes from the jute plant. I’ve never seen it in Canada, but you could probably track it down at some Middle Eastern, African or Greek grocers. You may see it packaged as mulukhiyah, mloukhiya, molokhia, mulukhiyya, malukhiyah, nalita or Jew’s mallow.
Molokheya soup is a very typical Egyptian dish, but one that would be hard to enjoy at a restaurant because it’s often prepared with rabbit. We bought the molokheya in a frozen package and let the chopped leaves boil in water with vegetable bouillon cubes, onions and garlic. When the soup was done, it came out looking like a green broth. In terms of taste, the only thing I can think to compare it to is spinach.
Stuffed Zucchinis & Eggplant Dish
For dinner we also made stuffed zucchinis and an eggplant dish. At the supermarket, we found the zucchinis peeled and hollowed out, all ready to go. How convenient! After we stuffed them with uncooked rice and chopped tomatoes, we put them in a pot, filled the bottom of the pot with water and a bullion cube, then simmered them until the zucchini and stuffing magically became cooked. I was super impressed with this easy cooking method. For the eggplant dish we took baked eggplant (skin removed) and sauteed it with tomatoes, onion, garlic and spices.
We tried some interesting juices with our dinner. The first one was doum juice, which is made from the doum palm. Doum, also called gingerbread palm, gingerbread tree, dhoum palm and Egyptian palm, is native to the Nile region in Africa. Doum fruit are said to taste like gingerbread. The juice did taste a bit gingery but was mostly just super sweet, almost like a syrup, and not something we could take more than a few sips of.
The second juice we tried was karoob (or carob) juice. We liked this one much better! It was kinda like drinking iced tea, with a carob chocolate flavour. Yum!
Egyptian Vegan Desserts
And finally, some desserts! We tried some vegan halawa tahina (aka halva) with pistachios. This sesame seed, sugary, vanilla, pistachio creation was rich and sweet tasting. We could only have a few bites after such a hearty meal.
Another common desert wet enjoyed in Cairo was fresh dates.
Before visiting Egypt, John wasn’t a big fan of dates, but learned to love the walnut, cashew and almond stuffed dates that were inexpensive and easy to find in Cairo. Nowadays, when I offer John a date, he asks what’s inside. He’s always a little sad when I tell him a date pit, but if there’s nuts around I’ll make him a makeshift nut stuffed date. That’s love.
Alfa Market, Zamalek, Cairo
Wondering what an Egyptian grocery store looks like? Well this is where we bought most of our groceries while staying in Cairo. This is the Alfa Market in Zamalek.
4 El Malek El Afdal St.
Landmark: Behind El Zamalek Central
Organic & More Supermarket, Zamalek, Cairo
There’s also a health food store in Zamalek. It’s called Organic & More. There’s not a lot of selection there, and what they do have is a bit expensive for backpacker budgets.
They didn’t have a whole lot of food, mostly juice and canned items.
Though we did find some streich…what a surprise! It was the same brand of sunflower seed spread we enjoyed while in Holland and Germany.
Organic & More
4 Road 261, New Maadi
Cairo , Egypt
If you’ve made it to the bottom of this long post, I’d like to reward you with a picture of this adorable kitty that Manar and Joey rescued from the streets of Cairo.