Egypt is no stranger to alcohol: after all, beer has been brewed there since the time of the ancient pharaohs. However, in primarily Muslim modern Egypt, the sale and consumption of alcohol is heavily restricted outside upscale tourist hotels and establishments. Sit down for a traditional meal at a local restaurant, for example, and there almost certainly won’t be any alcoholic options on the menu. Fortunately, Egypt has an impressive array of non-alcoholic alternatives, many of which make the most of exotic fruits grown in the fertile Nile Delta.
Tea, or shai as it is known locally, is a mainstay of Egyptian social culture and is enjoyed throughout the day no matter how hot it is outside. Leaves are brewed English-style in a teabag, or added loose to the boiling water. The default style is black and sweet, so ask for min ghayr sukar if you want to skip the sugar, or shai bil-haleeb if you want to add milk. Shai bil-na’na, or freshly brewed mint tea, is a popular alternative to black tea; as is helba, an infusion made from crushed fenugreek seeds. The latter has many health benefits including the ability to lower blood glucose and cholesterol levels.
The life-giving waters of the Nile River support the growth of an incredible abundance of exotic fruit. As a result, juice stands are ubiquitous in Egyptian cities like Cairo and Alexandria and freshly squeezed juices often dominate the drinks menu in local restaurants. Popular flavors include lemon, banana, guava, mango, and strawberry. For a more exotic taste, opt for sugarcane juice (asab) or tamarind juice (tamrhindi). The former is extracted from pressed sugarcane grown in vast plantations across Upper Egypt and has a low glycemic index despite its naturally sweet flavor. Tamarind juice is more sour, and has excellent antioxidant properties.
Mowz bil-Laban (Banana Smoothie)
Bananas have been cultivated in Egypt since at least the 10th century, and are the star ingredient in mowz bil-laban, a popular twist on regular fruit juice. Made from fresh bananas blended with milk, sugar or honey, water, and ice, this beverage is essentially a smoothie. Jawafa bil-laban is another common take on the same recipe that swaps the bananas for guavas and requires a straining stage to remove the guava seeds. Essentially, as long as the restaurant or street stall has it in stock, any fruit can be substituted to make whatever flavor smoothie you prefer.
The most popular Egyptian coffee is a thick, strong, Turkish-style brew known as ahwa. It’s made by mixing finely ground coffee powder and sugar with hot water, then letting the grounds settle to the bottom of the cup before serving (instead of filtering). Because of this, you can’t add sugar after the coffee is served since stirring the cup would disturb the grounds. Therefore, be sure to specify how sweet you want it when ordering. Ahwa is served in espresso-style cups and is meant for sipping. If you prefer a more Western taste, ask for Nescafe, a broad term for all kinds of instant coffee regardless of the brand.
Karkadai (Hibiscus Tea)
This fabulously exotic tea is brewed using the buds of the hibiscus flower, giving it a distinctive crimson color that looks great on your Instagram feed. Far from a recent trend, however, karkadai is believed to have been a favorite drink of the pharaohs and is traditionally used to toast the bride and groom at wedding celebrations. It can be served chilled in summer or hot in winter. High in vitamin C, karkadai prevents hypertension, lowers blood pressure, reduces blood sugar levels, and aids with digestion. There is one side effect to watch out for: regular drinking may undermine the effectiveness of estrogen-based birth control.
Sobia (Coconut Milkshake)
Another popular Ramadan beverage, sobia is a thick and creamy drink made from blended coconut, milk, rice starch, sugar, and vanilla. It tastes similar to a melted, Western-style vanilla milkshake and is especially popular with children. Best served chilled, it is found in juice shops and cafes across Egypt, and is also sold by street vendors in unmarked plastic bottles. Sobia is an effective thirst quencher and is as good for reviving tired tourists after a day spent visiting Egypt’s ancient sights as it is for giving energy to the faithful during Ramadan.
Made from the dried and crushed tuber of the Orchis mascula orchid, sahlab is an ancient tradition that dates back to Roman times and later spread across the Ottoman Empire. Blended with milk and sesame seeds, it has a thick consistency that’s half-beverage, half-dessert. Sahlab is best served warm, and is particularly sought after in winter when temperatures can drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit. You’ll find it in coffee shops across Egypt, although garnishings differ from one establishment to the next. The traditional toppings are chopped pistachios or walnut and cinnamon, although shredded coconut and chopped dried apricots are also delicious.
Qamar al-Din (Stewed Apricot Juice)
The name qamar al-din translates as “moon of religion”, which is appropriate since the drink is often used to break the fast at the end of each day of Ramadan. It is brewed using a kind of dried apricot leather, which is in turn made by boiling apricots and sugar over a fire, then straining them through a wooden strainer and leaving them to dry into sheets in the sun. To rehydrate the sheets, liquid is added. This can be rosewater, orange blossom water, orange juice, or even plain water. Either way, the drink delivers a strong dose of sugar and electrolytes; perfect for restoring energy after a long day of religious fasting.
Launched in 1997 as the country’s first flavored malt beverage, Fayrouz is a product of Egyptian brewing company Al Alhram. With a foaming head, a rich golden color, and a malty aroma, it is essentially a non-alcoholic beer (and the first in the world to achieve Halal status thanks to the fact that it has absolutely no alcoholic content from the beginning to the end of the brewing process). Made of blended malt, real fruit, and sparkling water, Fayrouz comes in a variety of different flavors. Apple was the original; now you can opt for pineapple, peach, and pear amongst others. It is free of preservatives, artificial colors, and flavorings.
Yansoon (Anise Tea)
Yansoon, or anise tea, is made by grinding anise seeds and steeping them in boiling water. Before serving, the tea should be strained and you may choose to add sugar or honey if you prefer a sweeter flavor. The overall taste is similar to licorice. Yansoon is usually enjoyed either hot or at room temperature. It's attributed with improving digestive ailments such as bloating, gas, indigestion, and constipation. For this reason, it is common to drink a cup of anise tea after a big meal. Yansoon may also help to reduce nausea and alleviate menstrual cramps.