Most people have fixed ideas about world cuisines. When we think of Indian food, we think spicy curries; when we think Italian, it’s pizza and pasta. Chinese food is lots of vegetables and bits of meat and fish cooked in a wok and served with rice and soy sauce.
But these are stereotypes. There are dozens of regional cuisines in India, ranging from meats and breads cooked in clay ovens in Kashmir to the elaborate fish dishes of West Bengal to the primarily vegetarian cuisine of Gujarat. In the hills of Tuscany people eat wild game like pheasant, deer and boar and very little pasta, for this is not wheat growing country. Chinese cooking is enormously varied as well: garlic, vinegar and soy sauce are favoured in the north, hot chili peppers in Szechuan, and ginger in the south.
So too with Japanese food, which ranges far beyond the sushi, teppanyaki and tempura that we are used to.
In Japan donburi means bowl or rice bowl dish and in Cairo Donburi is a new Japanese restaurant at City Stars. The creation of Japanophile Mido Barsoum, it brings authentic Japanese street food to Egypt for the first time.
After fifteen years of studying the cuisine, trips to Japan, extensive training of his chefs, and with a close attention to design, hygiene, preparation and presentation, it speaks volumes about Mido’s hard work and Donburi’s authenticity that his number one clients are Japanese expatriates looking for a taste of home.
“My Egyptian customers are disappointed that we don’t serve sushi,” Mido explained, “but this is the taste that I have been looking for all my life.”
The flavours are subtle. The typical donburi consists of meat, fish or vegetables simmered together and served over rice. The main seasoning is dashi, which is a fish stock. In Japan donburi is exceedingly popular; a satisfying “fast food” that students and office workers can cheaply and efficiently enjoy on their short lunch breaks.
The small restaurant is laid out as an L-shaped counter with high wooden chairs. Everything is neat and precise. The menu is simple, as it should be, and the food is prepared fresh and to order.
Start with some green tea and some tsukemono (Japanese pickles), maybe some miso soup, while your donburi is being prepared. Then get two or three of the mains and share with friends. The salmon donburi, new on the menu at the time of my visit, had a sweet teriyaki glaze which gave it a crispy outside and a soft, pink centre. The katsudon consisted of fried sirloin simmered with onion and egg. It had a deep character that exhibited the uniquely Japanese quality of umami.
Here in the west—and by west I mean Middle East—we identify four basic tastes; sweet, sour, bitter and salty. The Japanese have added a fifth, a somewhat indescribable richness that characterises most of the food in this restaurant that deserves to be tried, especially if you already find yourself at City Stars. It is much healthier and more fun than almost everything else you will find in the mall.
The menu includes rice bowls topped with tempura, tuna, eel and chicken as well. There are also some noodle dishes. The Tokyo udon that I tried was visually stunning but a bit too busy and in need of an extra flavour kick. As for desserts, I have a decidedly western palate, a prejudice that I have never been able to shake; thus while the sweet buns were authentic, it didn’t do it for me say in a way that chocolate mousse might have, but this is no different than going to a donburi place and asking for sushi. It is not what you come here for.
I wish Donburi was a bit busier. It deserves to be. In 2012 Chef Ahmed Bahnasy won first prize in the Egyptian Chef’s Association annual cooking competition. The problem is that it is a tricky to find. Located on the fifth floor of phase one it is but a brief escalator ride away from the squalor and dreariness of the food court, yet most people are unaware of its existence as they are forced to choose from a soul-deadening array of hamburger, pizza and chicken joints. By comparison this Japanese fast food is an adventure and well rewards the effort it takes to seek it out.