With a history as long as that of its ancient monuments, Egypt’s cuisine relies heavily on the rich bounty of vegetables and fruits harvested every year in the fertile Nile Delta. The difficulty and expense of raising livestock in Egypt means that traditionally, many dishes are vegetarian; although today, meat can be added to most recipes. Beef, lamb and offal are all commonly used, while seafood is popular on the coast. Because the majority of the population is Muslim, pork does not feature in traditional cuisine. Staples include aish baladi, or Egyptian flatbread, fava beans and a bevy of exotic spices.
A simple dish of stewed fava beans, ful medames is the archetypal Egyptian staple. The oldest evidence of fava beans being used for human consumption comes from a Neolithic site near Nazareth, Israel; and in Egypt, it’s likely that the dish dates back to the time of the pharaohs. Today, ful medames (or ful as it’s known colloquially) is served throughout the day but is especially popular at breakfast. You can find it for sale on the streets, or in many restaurants as a traditional mezze. The beans are simmered overnight in a large pot, then seasoned with olive oil and spices. Typically, ful medames is served with aish baladi and pickled vegetables.
Another hugely popular street food, ta’meya is Egypt’s answer to the felafel. Unlike their Middle Eastern cousins, however, ta’meya are made from crushed fava beans instead of chickpeas. The bean paste is usually mixed with chopped onions and spices including parsley, coriander, cumin and fresh dill; then rolled into a ball and fried. Often, ta’meya are coated in sesame seeds before being fried, giving them an extra crunchy texture. They are vegan, inexpensive and utterly delicious — whether you enjoy them at breakfast like most Egyptians, or as a snack later in the day. Ta’meya are usually served with tahini sauce, salad and aish baladi, and often come with a side of ful.
Spelled differently from restaurant to restaurant (with variations including molokhia, molokhiya and moroheiya), mulukhiya is an Egyptian staple named after the plant of the same name. Known as jute in English, mulukhiya is a green leafy vegetable that is almost never served raw. Instead, the leaves are finely chopped and cooked with garlic, lemon juice and spices until they resemble a thick stew. Naturally viscose, the stewed leaves have a somewhat slimy texture; but their flavor is rich, aromatic and pleasantly bitter. Mulukhiya can be served on its own over rice or bread, or with chunks of meat (typically beef, chicken or rabbit). Seafood is a popular addition at the coast.
Popular throughout the Middle East, the Egyptian version of fattah is typically associated with celebrations and religious festivals. In particular, it is served at Eid al-Adha, the sacrificial feast that marks the end of Ramadan fasting; and to celebrate the arrival of a new baby. It consists of layers of rice and fried aish baladi, interspersed with meat chunks and topped with a vinegar and tomato sauce. The meat used differs from recipe to recipe but is usually beef, veal or lamb, with lamb being the most traditional. You should be able to find fattah outside of religious festival dates. Weight-watchers be warned, though - this dish is famously calorific!
An affordable and uniquely Egyptian dish, kushari has become something of a cult phenomenon with entire restaurants in Cairo and other cities dedicated to serving it exclusively. It consists of a blend of rice, spaghetti, round macaroni and black lentils, topped with a thick tomato sauce, garlic vinegar and chili. This veritable hodge-podge of ingredients is then further garnished with crispy fried onions and whole chickpeas. As strange as this dish may sound, kushari provides an incredible blend of flavors and textures that locals and tourists find equally addictive. It’s also vegetarian (and indeed vegan, as long as vegetable oil is used to fry the onions instead of butter).
Squab, or young pigeon, may not be a conventional meat in Western culture but it’s something of a delicacy in Egypt. Pigeons are raised in dovecotes across the country specifically for the plate, providing a dark meat that has its own unique flavor. Hamam mahshi is a popular choice for wedding banquets, partly because of its status as a delicacy and partly because it’s considered an aphrodisiac. To make the dish, a whole squab is stuffed with freekeh (a cracked green wheat with a nutty flavor), chopped onions, giblets and spices. The bird is then grilled over a wood fire or spit-roast until its skin is golden brown and deliciously crispy.
Though it’s served as a side dish in restaurants and as a popular grab-and-go street food option, hawawshi is perhaps best known as a staple of feel-good Egyptian home cooking. Essentially, it’s Egypt’s take on a stuffed meat sandwich. It involves spiced ground beef or lamb, cooked inside a whole pocket of aish baladi bread in a traditional wood oven. By the time it’s ready, the bread is so crispy that it almost tastes deep fried. Recipes differ from home to home, with the meat mixture sometimes incorporating chopped onion, bell pepper or tomato in addition to assorted spices. For an extra kick, try hawawshi made with crushed chili pepper.
Liver is a common ingredient in many Egyptian dishes. In the historic port city of Alexandria, liver sandwiches are a particular specialty and visitors travel from far and wide to buy them from street food vendors or fast food shops. Recipes typically use chopped calf’s liver, stir-fried to perfection alongside garlic, bell peppers and lime or lemon. Spices are key but vary from chef to chef. In addition to cumin, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and/or cardamom, any Alexandrian liver recipe worth its salt should include a hearty dose of chili. Once cooked, the liver is stuffed into a fresh Egyptian baguette or bread roll and served with pickled vegetables (known locally as torshi).
One for the seafood lovers, sayadeya is another coastal delicacy best sampled in seaside cities like Alexandria, Suez and Port Said where the catch is guaranteed to be fresh. It uses fillets of white fish (traditionally bass, bluefish or mullet) that are marinaded in lemon juice and spices before being lightly fried. Afterwards, the fillets are laid on a bed of yellow rice, topped with a rich tomato and onion sauce and baked in an earthenware pot (similar to a Moroccan tagine). The result? Wonderfully soft and fragrant fish that melts at the touch of a fork. Often, sayadeya is garnished with fried onions and/or flaked chili.
No list of must-try dishes would be complete without dessert, and kunafa is one of Egypt’s most popular. Traditionally served during Ramadan to keep people full during fasting hours, the original version comprises two layers of extra-thin semolina flour noodles. These are baked until crunchy, arranged around a central filling of soft cheese (usually ricotta) and soaked in syrup. Alternatively, the noodles can be replaced with thin strips of filo pastry or spun shredded wheat, while fillings vary from mixed nuts to custard. Some Egyptian bakeries have become increasingly adventurous with their kunafa fillings, with modern interpretations using mango, chocolate and even avocado.