By Heba Elkayal
As global food trends pedaled sushi to people far from Japan and open seas, and micro-gastronomy introduced hot mousses and foamy foods, sincerity and satisfaction were lost in the world of gastronomy and food consumption. The global focus is now on street food.
Local dishes are being rediscovered and attempts to evolve local cuisines to produce more nutritious dishes with ingredients all locally sourced has done something important for food: It’s reminded us that local produce is best, and national cuisines are goldmines of novel food experiences.
Within mere weeks of one another, two restaurants in Zamalek opened their doors to sell Egyptian street food. A coincidence, yes, but one that we’re all the more grateful for.
“I find it positive that street food is finding a market in Egypt and that Cairo Kitchen also opened up,” says Zooba co-owner Chris Khalifa. “We’re not reinventing the wheel, we’re playing with recipes, producing something eclectic that touches upon the nostalgic love Egyptians have for street food and home-made food.”
Both Cairo Kitchen and Zooba attempt to offer traditional dishes and street food, gentrified in the manner with which they’re ordered, consumed and packaged. In line with global food trends, both restaurants could have a big impact on the local scene if other restaurants focus on providing nutritious, contemporized traditional food in a modern fashion.
Cairo Kitchen focuses on two things mainly: koshari, the every Egyptian’s dish of rice, brown lentils and pasta topped off with red sauce and thin shards of caramelized fried onions; as well as baladi salads contemporized with an ingredient’s twist or two.
The restaurant, small and capable of tightly seating 30 at most, is a canteen, stand-up-and-place-your-order sort of place.
Staff is on hand to help you out, but you’re encouraged to speak to the chefs that stand behind the counter ladling out koshari (LE 14 for a regular portion, LE 45 for a family portion), salads and tagines of shrimp, rice meatballs with vermicelli, and stewed veal shank cooked in tomato sauce.
As the staid koshari outlets of downtown have increasingly deteriorated over the past few years due to the increased prices of rice and pasta, Cairo Kitchen’s recipe is aided by the use of fresh ingredients: a chunky tomato sauce that is made with pure fresh tomatoes and thick chick peas creamy in their skins. The gluten-free version is brown-rice based, lighter and just as tasty as traditional koshari.
Whereas koshari is traditionally devoid of any proteins, Cairo Kitchen has cleverly integrated protein dishes to be served alongside. Additionally, fereek (green wheat) could be ordered instead of koshari for a healthier alternative. The fereek was slightly dry, and could have made use of being cooked in more broth. The meatballs were too soft in texture when first sampled, and the shrimp was overcooked but upon a second visit, both dishes had slightly improved.
Cairo Kitchen’s co-owner, Suzanne El-Zeidy, developed the salad recipes of which there are now 25. Every day, the restaurant will rotate the different kinds but some such as the carrot tahini salad will become regular staples.
El-Zeidy’s ingenuity was approaching salad from a European approach: vinaigrettes were developed to include Egyptian ingredients such as molasses honey or pomegranate, the coleslaw salad is mixed with labneh cheese rather than mayonnaise, and a cauliflower salad has been flavored with saffron.
An Orientalized ratatouille of vegetables cooked in koshari tomato sauce was also sampled tasting warm on the palate and pungent. Salads are served in either a small salad plate (LE 12) or can form your entire meal with the order of a large salad platter (LE 25)
No restaurant in town serves such fresh, wholesome salad options for diners on the go, and that is precisely what Cairo Kitchen is attempting to do: “The aim is to serve authentic and delicious ‘home-cooked’ Egyptian food; not bland or mass produced but…like the food we grew up eating at home,” says El-Zeidy.
Dessert at Cairo Kitchen is a weak point: their apricot ginger pudding wasn’t firm in body or flavorful and their crème caramel with orange rind lacked sweetness.
And what of the setting? Bright, deli-style and colorful, no detail has been overlooked by Hassan Abouseda, the New-York based architect and interior designer. Red stools, colorful tabletops and bright walls make it a pleasurable setting.
The menu is written out in traditional calligraphy on the walls as it would be in any Cairene koshari shop worth its salt. Look up, the ceiling is a masterpiece: metal tiles have been hammered with a traditional floral pattern inspired by traditional metalwork. Best of all, the food is served in traditional metal bowls, brightly lacquered.
Cairo Kitchen will soon be offering delivery and catering services.
Zooba too offers koshari but its main focus is sandwiches; the traditional broad bean fuul classically prepared (LE 5) or else as titled on the menu ‘Barbequed’-chargrilled as is typical in the region of Domyaat (LE 7). Fried falafel patties (LE 5), spiced sogou’ sausages (LE 11.50) and beef liver (LE 11.50) sandwiches are also on offer whereas cheese, bean and vegetable dips in interesting combinations such as areesh cheese with honey and cumin are also on the menu.
“We concentrated very hard on the culinary aspect,” says Khalifa. “That’s why we have no waiters, only chefs who both cook and serve customers, all of whom have graduated from Egypt’s Culinary Training Center. Whereas, Zooba’s co-owner Mostafa El-Refaie graduated from the Culinary Institute of America — Zooba is very chef-centric.”
Zooba’s convenient location on 26th of July Street allows one to also order and dash. For a takeaway dinner I ordered individual containers of Barbequed Fuul (LE 17), Spicy Peppers Taamia (LE 17) and the Spiced Sausages (LE 28), which was plenty for three people. Portions are fair and considering the quality of the food, good value for money.
Granted, sandwiches from food carts in downtown Cairo are cheaper, selling for around LE 4 a sogou’ sandwich, but what Zooba and Cairo Kitchen both offer is the convenience of food safety.
The perfectly fried, and dense beany texture of the taamia was exceptional as was the hawawshi sandwich of spiced beef (LE 14) sampled another day. The taamia had a sweetness due to the peppers, and all sandwiches were made with fresh pita baladi bread baked in-house. You can order plain bread to go or else pink in color, flavored with beetroot or spinach-flavored and green in color.
Though the space is tiny, 80 squared meters to be exact, a long communal table sits in the middle of the space creating a bit of an intimate traffic jam between diners and chefs. The mood though is jovial as people grab packed salads or fresh juices from the fridge.
Zooba’s interiors are also charming; modern Oriental is the theme with a bright yellow staircase leading to the upstairs kitchen, assorted Egyptian pickles, bread and candy for purchase line several shelves.
Zooba’s biggest triumph may be their asaliya, a traditional Egyptian candy stick made of molasses honey. “It was hard but we eventually found a producer who makes them specially for us using a molasses-rich recipe rather than a recipe that used mostly glucose. We had to ride a tuk-tuk to reach him,” says Khalifa.
Sweet and addictive, they sell for LE 3 a stick. As my fingers got sticky unwrapping my first one, they brought on a strong bout of childhood nostalgia — and I suppose that’s what Zooba intended all along.
118, 26th of July St.,
Entrance on Aziz Osman Street
Tel: (02) 2735 4000
26th of July St.,