I am the most spoiled foodie in town. I have, for the past three years of my life, been sent to sample, taste, test, gorge and guzzle on the best food this city has to offer.
Yet this column, which runs throughout the month of Ramadan, will be about anything but food snobbery. In fact it’s about going back to basics in a way, exploring the food scene that’s so often overlooked by the bourgeoisie because it’s off the beaten track, in an unglamorous setting, or else utterly unknown.
Seeing as I have tested the skills of local chefs in addition to three Michelin star chefs, I think it’s about time one regains a sense of perspective – “perspective” being the term used by the supercilious food critic Anton in the Pixar movie “Ratatouille.”
In one of the movie’s last scenes, Anton demands of Linguini to create a dish that would give him “perspective.” Assisted by the mouse Remy, Linguini creates an old French vegetable dish, ratatouille, taking it back to basics, creating something humble, uncomplicated and modest, reminding Anton how simple food can be the best kind.
In that vein, I want to explore food offerings in Egypt, explore a cuisine whose natives rarely show appreciation for it, find the establishments that serve dishes that are Egyptian but have that extra ounce of “perspective” missing from Egyptian food today.
I am admittedly a food snob, one who enjoys fine table linens and formality come dinner time, but I’m putting my snobbery aside to explore another aspect of the food scene. Food made in hole-in-the-wall restaurants by expatriate communities who live in neighborhoods that were until recently, populated by Egyptians: Abasseya, Nasr City, and old Islamic Cairo.
There, I have been told, I can find a Chinese lady who makes tofu and thick noodles from scratch for the entire Chinese community that hides silently in Cairo, and Malay and Thai food made by the students who are studying at Al-Azhar. The food, I am told, is made fresh, served fast and priced cheap. Few I’ve asked know of it, and that’s precisely half the fun.
Tuk-tuks and camel meat at Kebdet El-Prince
It was the very person who insinuated I was a food snob that I demanded he take me to Kebdet El-Prince (or Brinze, as it’s more commonly enunciated.) The challenge was on: to explore the neighborhood past the point of the Swiss Club and test what I’ve been told is the best kebda, or liver, in town. Not to mention spicy Egyptian sausages and molokhiya.
Cabbing it over to Imbaba, we asked to be dropped off on the corniche, a short walk then we decided to get to downtown Imbaba’s main street, ironically also called Talaat Harb Street where Kebdet El-Prince is located.
Taxis, microbuses and tuk-tuks were available to take us and I suggested the latter instead of a beat down taxi.
Two minutes later and our flimsy tuk-tuk dropped us off at a restaurant with outdoor seating and seemingly an outdoor kitchen too. Bright lights and the cacophony of waiters yelling orders greeted us, and we were seated on plastic benches attached to metal tables. There was something so industrial about it all, like a large outdoors mess tent with all the noise, but I was game.
I was told Mercedes cars are oftentimes parked outside and as the pictures on the wall show, star footballers like Abou-Trika make El-Prince a regular outing.
Service is fast, loud, and metal plates of appetizers were clanked down noisily. Various Egyptian salads were all laid out before orders were taken. I let the food snob policeman order seeing as this was his turf, challenging him to impress me.
He ordered camel liver, spicy Egyptian sausages, torly with meat, molokhiya ‘al hawa and rice — and we waited for no longer than eight minutes.
Until then, plastic plates were set down and our waiter roughly cleaned some cutlery for us. Looking around, not everyone was given cutlery but as my date explained only some people would be offered it. I was delighted the snobbery didn’t come from my end.
The camel liver came down black in color and tough to chew in texture. I held my nose shut and bit into one chewy bite surprised at the sharp whip of green chili and garlic. The accompanying flavors were beautiful, and I thought it was a shame to be wasted on the camel which had a “smelly” taste. Even the garlic couldn’t leave a better note on my palate.
Rice, yellow from the amount of ghee it’s been cooked in, came with the molokhiya amidst great theatrics. The chef came over and ‘al hawa poured the jade green soup into the braam, a clay serving pot, raising his arm higher as the steam from the soup hit our noses with the scents of fried garlic and coriander causing a little nostril jig.
Having earlier claimed that no one can beat my mother’s molokhiya I had to admit, this was pretty good. My friend uttered as a sage: “No two molokhiyas are ever alike” and he was right. This was almost jade-green in color, medium to thick bodied and with the spicy sausages fireworks of pleasure shot off in my mouth.
The vegetable torli, our Egyptian ratatouille, was good as vegetables in basic tomato sauce go, but no life-affirming experience took place. The meat was of a tender cut and cooked to tender excellence.
We ate quickly and got up to pay at the cashier, cars had parked outside and people were standing by the butcher whose sole task was to slice meat for orders.
It came to a grand total of LE 115 with water and a coke included. I stood watching the butcher work his way through the meat with skill I envied having in my kitchen.
I’m ready to go try more of the traditional dishes, maybe not during iftar time but certainly would for a delayed iftar or early sohour. The food was delicious, and more authentic than other hotel outlets that boast about their Egyptian chefs.
It’s also a good place for a date away from curious eyes.
79 Talaat Harb St., Imbaba, Cairo, Egypt
Tel: (02) 3710 9292
Open from 3:30 pm during Ramadan.
Delivers to Agouza, Mohandiseen and Dokki.