By Lucia Admiraal and Mohamed Anis
Ramadan provides an annual opportunity for restaurants to show off their best meals for the hungry, fasting crowd. The food business thrives as customers line up to find a seat in dinner halls, fast food outlets and “shaaby chic” kitchens.
But there are other establishments to choose from once you’re done with lengthy family dinners at home; local places only known by name and neglected by reviewers. We, a meat-loving Egyptian and a flexible vegetarian foreigner with a shared love of food, go on a culinary quest through the streets of Cairo to experience Ramadan beneath the surface.
Tuk-tuk race in Dar El-Salam
Loud music comes from the speakers behind our heads while we hold tight to the handrails in front of us. Our fast driver Antar Abu Farah moves his tuk-tuk from right to left, synchronic with the electronic beats. We zigzag through busy dark alleys during a power cut, only seeing flashes of Ramadan lamps and car lights.
Another tuk-tuk appears on our side, trying to catch up with us. A girl comfortably sitting in the back smiles and claps her hands. Boosting up our speed, we leave behind the crowds of Dar El-Salam and head towards the empty streets of an age-old cemetery. We can’t resist taking a quick tuk-tuk-selfie.
How did we end up in this roller coaster? Half an hour before, we had a peaceful iftar in Dar El-Salam, one of Cairo’s poorest neighbourhoods in between Maadi and historic Coptic Cairo, which is also the heart of the Egyptian mahraganat music scene being heard from every tuk-tuk in town.
Now we are on our way to get a sugary Egyptian dessert at Abd el Naeem in the Gyara neighbourhood– close to Manial. It’s worth the claustrophobic tuk-tuk ride: we fall in love with delicious sweets carrying the name rumoush – eyelashes. It is similar to Egyptian basbousa, but has more bite and a nice oval shape.
The kind driver Antar, 27, who brought us here, used to be a butcher, like his father and grandfather. But after the revolution started in 2011, business was not going so well, after which he decided to drive a tuk-tuk instead. He is hoping President Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi will make things better so he can be a butcher again.
Shortly before iftar we started our adventure on the busy roads of Dar El-Salam. The streets are full of fruit vendors selling the tastiest smelling mango. Ma’adet El Rahman tables – where free food is being served for iftar – are to be found on almost every street corner. However, apart from a smoky kofta place, there were not a lot of balady restaurants open as people spend more time with their family the first weeks of Ramadan.
A man tells us to go to Fawzy – only a short walk away. While we hurry through the crowds – it’s only 10 minutes up to iftar – the man suddenly appears again, this time in a tuk-tuk joined by his two young daughters. Excited, we squeeze ourselves in the tuk-tuk for our first ride.
Fawzy’s restaurant is owned by a Christian family and opened more than 70 years ago. It has a nice small terrace surrounded by plants. Throughout the year, they serve a wide range of balady food, from duck and chicken to cheese sambousek, mindy, mahshy, an Egyptian favourite, and Italian inspired cannelloni.
For iftar, there is less to choose. We get soup, beans fasouliyya, salad, bread and chicken and beef served with rice. The restaurant owner, Fawzy Hakeen immediately appears at our table – having seen our doubtful glances at the greasy beef. But beef without fat can’t be good meat, he ensures us. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make it look more tempting. The chicken, however, is nicely flavoured, the soup is served warm and the salad tastes fresh. What more do you need?
A cup of tea on the terrace with Fawzy. He talks almost as passionately about his food as he talks about his former wife, who passed away four years ago. Listening to his stories, you wouldn’t immediately tell he used to work for security services before running a food business.
He owns another shop selling falafal and foul for the sohour that normally serves “KFC-type” food.
“KFC has the secret recipes, I have the balady recipes,” Fawzy says.
Looking us into the eyes back and forth, he concludes, “There’ll never be someone like your first wife when it comes to love.”
Fawzy Restaurant, Abo Ashraf Street, Dar El-Salam
Food: Simple balady.
Price: EGP 60 for a nice meal that leaves room for dessert.
Atmosphere: Good place for some romantic advice from Fazwi.
Accessibility: Take the metro to Dar El-Salam and then walk or take a tuk-tuk.
Egyptian rating: Well-marinated chicken, great vibe, love advice, adventurous tuk-tuk, what not to like? Ok, maybe the greasy beef.
Foreigner rating: Unforgettable, claustrophobic tuk-tuk ride.