Going Home: A Chef’s Journey to the Culinary Soul of Egypt
“For all of the changes — in leadership, in technology, and more — Egypt is still just as welcoming as it always was.”
Editor’s Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.
Red taillights were amassing up ahead, and as soon as we pulled onto the exit ramp, traffic came to a sudden stop. We sat motionless for a few minutes until finally inching forward, the car making a Morse code of stops and starts. The driver, craning his head out the window in an effort to get a better look at the situation, started cursing in Arabic: Up ahead, a shepherd and his flock were walking across the bottom of the ramp, tying up traffic.
Cars began slowly scooting by as dozens of sheep snacked on a massive mound of garbage off to the side. The buildings of the Imbaba neighborhood hulked in the distance, store lights punctuated the gathering darkness, and the shepherds tapped away at their smartphones, impervious to the increasingly desperate honking.
Just another night in Cairo.
Egypt may be famous for its sometimes seamless, sometimes jarring juxtaposition of the ancient and the new, but this was a whole new level. We had been in the country for a week, and from Luxor and Aswan in the south to the thrumming crowds of Giza, we’d grown used to the coexistence of the two. The trash-munching sheep that we encountered as we made our way to Kebdet El Prince restaurant — famous for its molokhia soup and expertly grilled meats — didn’t faze us at all, and the fact that their ovine cousins might be our dinner in an hour seemed perfectly normal.
I had come to Egypt with chef Hamdy Khalil and his business partner, Mary Cullom, who own Arpeggio BYOB in Springhouse, Pennsylvania, a quiet suburb just outside of Philadelphia. They’ve been at it for a quarter-century, building a successful restaurant that focuses mainly on the more familiar foods of the Mediterranean basin, though there are standout Egyptian items on the menu (Arpeggio was one of the first restaurants in Pennsylvania to offer homemade pita, as well as classic Egyptian falafel formed from fava beans instead of chickpeas).
Khalil was born in Egypt, just outside of Cairo in the town of Abbassa. And though he made his name in the Mid-Atlantic, his devotion to Egypt never left him. He and Cullom wanted to introduce their guests to the dishes of Khalil’s native country, to the passion they felt for it. This trip was both a homecoming and research rolled into one whirlwind food tour — a chance to re-engage with his culinary roots, bring back as many new recipes directly from the source as possible, and give Egyptian food a greater sense of prominence on their menu.
Soon after landing in Cairo, following a not-quite-10-hour flight on Egypt Air, we stopped at El-Obour, the massive wholesale market outside the city. Here, under football-field-sized roofs, a sizable chunk of the fruits, vegetables, and fish for the city of 20 million is sold.
It was a Sunday, and the majority of the market was closed, yet the scene around the produce sections was still a mosh pit of activity. Forklifts hoisted pallets from one vendor to another, locals haggled over the price for oranges — some of the best I’ve ever tasted — in spitfire Arabic, and sellers forced fruit slices into the hands of seemingly everyone passing by. Leather-faced men sat off to the side, sucking on shisha pipes, the perfume of apple-scented tobacco mingling with the citrus on offer that day. It may not be on any tourist maps, and you’ll likely leave with sticky-soled shoes and a few new shirt stains from the juice of a fruit you’ll be all but forced to sample, but El-Obour provides a perfect glimpse into the soul of the city, the people who make it hum along, and the hustle of the millions of Cairenes not involved in the tourism industry that drives the economy.
While Egypt may be best known for its ancient monuments, the temples and tombs that lie beneath seemingly every square inch of the country, its food remains a core obsession, drawing passionate feelings.
“Food in Egypt is so important to society,” explained Cullom. “In fact, there’s a great similarity between Egyptians and Italians in how food is looked at in both cultures, where eating is a social thing as much as anything else. In both countries, they stop to eat. And in both countries, the focus is on fresh ingredients.”
The similarities don’t end there. In Egypt, too, the most emblematic dishes tend to be the most elemental: A perfectly grilled kebab; kofta laced with the perfume of Egyptian cumin; a deceptively simple, hearty breakfast of puffed bread swiped through mashed fava beans.
“In Egypt, if you don’t have much money, you can still eat pretty well,” noted Khalil. “Breakfast is not expensive, the street food is not pricey. Prices are fair for fish or meat.”
As is increasingly common around the world, the gap between the wealthy and poor in Egypt is huge, and higher-end restaurants offer the opportunity to indulge in a different dining experience than the famous street carts of Cairo. El-Menoufy, where we enjoyed our last dinner before flying home, glitters with gilt mirrors and enough marble to refurbish all of Florence. Tellingly, however, much of the remarkable food that they serve is very much in the tradition of the dishes we experienced in less lavish surroundings, though the presentation and quality of the meat and fish were unarguably higher. And preparations like the lamb-studded me’amar, with a decadent rice pudding-like texture, achieve a level of fine dining.
The importance of food, of mealtime, is one of the defining features of Egyptian life. Like many other cultures of the Mediterranean, this is a place where you're encouraged to eat more, no matter how much food has already been served, and whether you’re eating from a cart on a street corner or dining in an elegant restaurant.
The next day we flew to Luxor, where we began a four-night cruise on the Nile, with stops in the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, Abu Simbel, and other popular spots in Upper Egypt.
Boarding the MS Nile Shams, complete with a smooth jazz soundtrack and friendly, generous staff, was not unlike getting on any small cruise ship at other docks around the world. Our tour guide, Waleed Ahmed Al-Refahy, had been hired through the ship, and he served not just as our ombudsman on daily excursions, but also as our fixer, translator, and on-site historian. He also provided subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) guidance on security.
Cairo is a relatively safe city, and travelers are advised to follow the usual precautions while visiting. But the smaller towns along the Nile are another situation altogether. On our second night, as we pulled into port at Esma, we were told that we couldn’t get off the ship to explore the town after dinner.
When we pointed out that other passengers were disembarking without any issues, Waleed hedged a bit before disclosing that it was an unofficial-official policy to not allow Americans off the ship after dark. Most of the other passengers were German and Northern European, which, he explained, was fine. But Americans, even accompanied by a local like Khalil, could attract the kind of attention that didn’t benefit anyone.
We ended the night on the top deck, the town not 50 meters away, and heavily armed guards standing sentry between us and the residents.
The tourist attractions, however, are far more welcoming, and we experienced nothing but warmth and hospitality everywhere. No one knows what the tourism industry holds after the pandemic ends, or how a country like Egypt, which is so reliant on tourism, will recover. But the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens will likely be among the first to bounce back. While the flow of visitors through the tombs will probably have to be curtailed — ducking through them with a dozen other tourists suddenly doesn’t seem like such a good idea — the temples are typically set within massive, sprawling complexes. And though they see a dense crush of visitors each year, their open-air plans and acres of space seem well-suited to whatever tourism will look like in a post-coronavirus world.
Upper Egypt, ironically the southernmost portion of the country, is also home to a culinary culture that’s distinct from the rest of the country. We discovered this as soon as we started scaling the Himalaya of food that eventually weighed down our table at El Hussein in Luxor, where the fish tagine was as delicate and layered as any I’ve ever tasted, and the charred hot peppers amped up the lamb kofta brilliantly.
“The use of spice is what sets the regions apart from one another,” explained Khalil. “In each region, the spices are different, and this changes how the fool tastes. Because the land is so different, so are the ingredients. I like the spices here so much that I only use Egypt-sourced spices at Arpeggio.”
This is particularly notable in the Nubian villages that dot the banks of the Nile around Aswan. Nubian Dreams Restaurant & Cafe has become a pilgrimage destination of sorts for chefs and food lovers from around the world, and with good reason. It’s a 15-minute ferry ride to reach the Elephantine Island from Aswan — a trip that, at sunset, is colored by the modern towers of the city as they recede into the distance and the blue-and-red lights strung along the tops of boats plying the Nile.
The restaurant is helmed by chef and owner Ali Jamaica, who presides over the cheerful, welcoming space. Between the brightly colored juices, the bottles of Egyptian Stella beer at each table, the sound of water sloshing quietly below, and the music pumping through speakers, the entire experience is perfectly calibrated from the moment you arrive. The food lives up to its vaunted reputation, with revelatory homemade sun bread and camel tagine that effortlessly falls from the bone.
Cairo, on the other hand, is defined more by its bakeries and rollicking street-food scene. And there’s a deep loyalty that Cairenes feel for one cart over another.
El-Kahalawi, a street cart that’s been on Hoda Shaarawy Street for decades, is unofficially the only vendor allowed on its busy intersection. Enough food carts have tried to compete and failed, and now, El-Kahalawi is one of the defining food landmarks of the neighborhood.
The cart is locally famous for two kinds of sandwiches — the cumin- and garlic-singed sausage and the earthy-sweet chopped liver — and their 30-cent price means that even in a society where class divisions run deep and wide, everyone can (and does) come here, from businessmen in pressed suits to construction workers, many of them stopping by several times each week.
Because of the sheer size of Cairo — it sprawls like London, with Los Angeles-dense traffic complicating matters — it’s tough to tackle in just a single visit. We opted to stay at the Triumph Luxury Hotel in New Cairo, an area that was desert 20 years ago, but is now home to some of the nicest hotels and mansions in the city. Our stay there coincided with the rumored residency of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s son, and security was tight, though unfailingly polite.
That sense can be felt throughout Cairo — at least, before the pandemic hit: It’s a city that was dramatically changed by the Arab Spring, and by the succession of leaders in its aftermath, but a center of gravity seems to have developed in each district, in each restaurant.
“Since 2009, there’s been a lot of change,” said Khalil. “But through it all, the tourists seem to be coming back, and the Egyptians are welcoming them however they can, especially with our food.”
The El Baghl El Rehab restaurant, and Al Safa bakery next door, in New Cairo, reminded me of the delis in Philadelphia that my parents took me to as a child, with rows of cookies, sweets, and breads piled seemingly higher than the pyramids.
The same aesthetic could be seen at Kebdet El Prince, where platters of veal dusted with cumin, lamb kofta singed with the spice of Aleppo peppers, and bowls of fluffy tahina to swipe it all through collected on our table faster than we could eat them. That generosity was mirrored at Christo restaurant in Giza, which offers an unmatched view of the pyramids from the upstairs terrace, as well as a 20-pound whole-grilled sea bass that's packed with flavor — a blizzard of herbs and crispy potato slices standing in for the scales
“I had a different experience when I was here last in 1996,” Cullom told me. “But for all of the changes — in leadership, in technology, and more — Egypt is still just as welcoming as it always was.”
Khalil nodded. “Egypt is always welcoming,” he said. “Especially in the little towns. We have a saying in Abbassa that when you’re on a train, and somebody asks where you’re from, if you say the name of your town loud enough for everyone to hear, then you’ve basically just invited the entire train to dinner.”