The Art of Ancient Traditional Egyptian Food
By Sarah B. Hood
There’s an old Egyptian saying that whoever drinks the waters of the Nile will return. And certainly generations of visitors, initially attracted by the antiquities, have found themselves back at home fondly recalling the pleasure of Egypt’s simple, fresh and nourishing traditional cuisine that dates back even further than the famous treasures of King Tut.
Egypt shares some dishes in common with other Middle Eastern countries, like crispy fried falafel nuggets, the sesame paste known as tahini, spiced lamb kofta (meatballs) and flatbread – known in Egyptian as aish baladi, literally, river bread. More specifically known as an Egyptian dish is ful mudemmis, the comforting and sustaining meal made from fava beans cooked soft and spiced with cumin.
Ful is served with a drizzling of olive oil and garnished with chopped green onions, boiled egg slices and wedges of the local limes, which are spherical and not much bigger than a walnut. It’s a dish that may have been eaten in Pharaonic days, and its popularity at breakfast (and other times) has spread to other North African and Middle Eastern nations.
Another beloved national dish is the dark green soup called melokhia, made from the jute relative Corchorus olitorius. The leaves are generally simmered to a thick consistency in a chicken stock with garlic and oil or butter. Some love it for its rich, earthy flavour; others shy away from its mucilaginous texture, something like the consistency of cooked okra. It often accompanies chicken.
As an Islamic country, Egypt is not known for its alcoholic beverages, apart from the omnipresent Stella beer. Labelled with a distinctive star, it is sold in both local and export incarnations, with the export variety slightly higher both in alcohol content and price. But the non-alcoholic options are worth exploring. For instance, karkade is a traditional sweet Egyptian tea made from hibiscus blossoms, drunk hot or iced, and apparently, like ful, dating back to the time of the pharaohs.
An ideal place to sample it would be the Old Winter Palace hotel in Luxor, built in 1886. As an institution of old colonial days, it has hosted a prestigious array of guests while they were in town to view the Luxor
Temple or the Valley of the Kings, where King Tut’s tomb was discovered in 1922. Amongst the august visitors to the Winter Palace were murder mystery doyenne Agatha Christie and her archaeologist husband, Sir Max Mallowan; in fact she is said to have written Death on the Nile while she was staying there. Modern visitors can still sip a cool glass of karkade on the terrace overlooking the Nile during the early Egyptian sunset, or in the ornamental gardens while parrots squawk overhead.
In Cairo, most of the major international hotels like the downtown Ramses Hilton and Sheraton Cairo serve buffets to guests and visitors, where it would be a shame to pass over the traditional Egyptian food on offer alongside familiar North American staples like bacon and eggs. But for decades, tourists looking for unadulterated authenticity – as well as Cairo residents – have been dropping into Felfela, a short walk off the centrally located Tahrir Square (the site of Egypt’s recent peaceful demonstrations and the location of the famous Egyptian Museum, the national treasure trove of famous antiquities).
Felfela is actually two restaurants with one kitchen: a sit-down spot at 15 Sharia Hoda Shaarawi, and a very popular takeaway outlet with stand-up counters for dining, just around the corner on Talaat Harb.
Dependable, clean, tasty and extremely easy on the wallet, Felfela promises foodie fun and genuine local flavours to please all but the most timid traveller – if you’re curious about ful, this is the place to try it out! And possibly, those who have tasted its true Egyptian cooking will be tempted to return to taste it again.