When Kamala opened in the Conrad last May, like many restaurants in Cairo, it claimed to serve “authentic” Asian fare. Such a conviction was forcing me to be quite dubious.
Having tried my fair share of supposedly “authentic Asian cuisine” in the city, I’ve accepted one principle when dining: rarely does Asian food measure up to the real deal, and is often a disappointingly tame affair in Cairo.
Kamala, however, had the proof to back it up.
Kamala’s menu consists of a variety of dishes from Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand. And although the four countries share common ingredients in their cuisines, each is varied enough as to offer different palatal experiences.
Orthodox foodies may not agree on having all four cuisines on one menu, but it is great for those who wish to sample a little bit of everything.
The restaurant is quite spacious with extremely high ceilings and contemporary furniture done with a minimal Asian touch that avoids the clichés of Asian dining in Cairo. There is no Buddha statue in sight. An open-plan kitchen with glass paneling makes for great viewing as tens of people work hurriedly on orders.
My dinner partner who had lived in Singapore for quite sometime walked me through the menu, but our waitress, a soft spoken Thai woman, took over when we came to order and made some good suggestions.
The extensive menu is divided into appetizers, assorted Chinese dim sum, wet noodles and soup, wok fried noodles and rice, wok side dishes and dishes either BBQ or from the grill.
For appetizers we ordered the laab gai from Thailand, spicy ground chicken with toasted sticky rice (LE 45) which was good but not spicy as promised. Also, we ordered the sate lilit from Indonesia (LE 95), minced seafood on lemongrass skewers served with spicy grated coconuts which was good as well. From the dim sum selection we ordered the har gow dumplings (LE 48), steamed custard buns, surprisingly sweet. And delicious too. They would have been appropriately paired with our appetizers had they been as spicy as promised. But regardless, it was a perfect precursor to the spicy and salty main dishes.
We took our time to gossip and catch up over appetizers, and my friend was quite happy to select a cold beer from their imported Asian selection. He ordered a Singaporean Tiger beer, happy during his moment of brief nostalgia.
For mains we ordered the mie goreng from Indonesia (LE 64), wok fried noodles with chicken and prawn satay, the beef rendang from Indonesia (LE 105), a dry beef curry, and the goong phad prik from Thailand (LE 88), spicy stir fried jumbo prawns with Thai basil.
Our waitress made a good call suggesting we order the dishes for sharing; it was the best way to gauge how talented the chef presiding in the kitchen is and the degree to which the restaurant is truly vying to be as authentic as it claims. My friend was quite content as we dug in.
The scents of Thai basil, curry and the jasmine steamed rice (ladled out from a bit wooden bowl) were strong, and the beef rendang prompted my vegetarian friend of eight years to dismiss his dietary principles for one dinner.
Was it worth it I later asked? He grinned as he chewed and helped himself to more. A rhetorical question it seems.
A side order of tomato sabal (LE 22), a grilled and spicy mélange of tomatoes and chilis, were good to give kick to the dishes where there was none. The chef might have been little hesitant about delivering the heat we were hoping for, seeing as Asian cuisine can be far spicier than anything we’re used to here. When ordering, emphasize how spicy you’d like your order to be.
Dessert and tea time were an absolute delight. We ordered the pisang bakar from Indonesia (LE 35), grilled banana with mango syrup served with vanilla ice cream, and keplon (LE 35), an Indonesian dessert of boiled glutinous rice balls with grated coconut and palm sugar sauce.
Though favoring the grilled banana — which was caramelized so perfectly after the grilling process and cut through with the mango syrup so smoothly — the keplon was a true Asian dessert, that particular blend of gelatin and just the slightest sense of sweetness.
A menu for teas was then brought to us, and as we selected between the various white, black and green teas, a detailed description of the tea flower, its flavors and health benefits were listed. This was not simply a tea bag in a tea cup with water poured on top with much pomp and circumstance. My curiosity was piqued.
I ordered a lily fairy blooming tea (LE 35). Instead of tea leavers, Kamala serves tightly dried flowers that “blossom” when water is poured on. A black tea, the menu promised it would calm my nerves and soothe inflammations. Calm my nerves it did as I watched it brew in a clear glass tea pot. I felt I was drinking fairy tea; there was something so delightfully childlike in the excitement it elicited. Yes, I will admit I am easily excited by dining novelties. Pretty pink and red petals opened as the flower grew bigger and the water turned dark. The tea was flavorful and with a dollop of honey, the perfect end to my evening at Kamala.
Although not a cheap dining destination, service, ambience and the quality of the dinner itself has certainly set the new standard for Asian cuisine in Egypt now. Finally.
Kamala, Conrad Hotel.
191 Corniche el Nil
Cairo 11221 Egypt.
Tel: +202 2580 8000
Direct: +202 2580 8103
Prices not inclusive of 12% service charge and applicable government taxes.
Kamala’s blossoming tea flower.