Unsurprisingly, our favorite thing about traveling is the FOOD, and we try to learn a bit about the local cuisine before we visit a place. You may be surprised that up until now we have never taken a food tour. When we learned about the first food tour in Cairo, given by Bellies en Route, it sounded like the perfect food tour for us. Bellies en Route is curated and run by Egyptians Mariam “Mia” Nezar and Laila Hassaballa. They are experts in the Cairo food scene and picked out the perfect eats for first time visitors, exposing you to the vast variety of classic Egyptian foods. And as you may have guessed since we are not Arabic-speakers, the tour is given in English.
We met Mia in Tahrir Square in the heart of downtown Cairo at 4 PM to start off our walking tour of downtown Cairo foods. Mia and Laila have throughly vetted all of the stops on the tour both for tastiness and consistency so you know you will be in for a treat, taking out all of the guesswork in a new city. Our host Mia, a born and bred Cairene, was also extremely knowledgable about the history of Cairo and its cuisine. We really appreciated the extra historical context and insight she provided throughout the tour.
Our first stop was for some classic Egyptian home cooking. Our amuse-bouche was salad water (Muyyet Salata) a vinegary drink in a shotglass proportion with garlic, lemon and dill meant to whet the appetite. Our next sample was macarona bechamel, a tasty baked pasta dish with meat and a cream sauce (with extra tomato sauce on the side) that is popular at home but rarely seen out in restaurants. Without the tour I am sure we would never have gotten to try it. Think of it as kind of a cousin of tomatoless Greek pastizio.
Another new-to-us specialty the Bellies unearthed at a historic coffee roaster was Arabic-style coffee which is light in color, and nothing like the thick, potent Turkish coffee you may be expecting. This conconction is served unsweetened with cardamom, and tastes akin to a green tea. You definitely have to try it for yourself!
Next we were off to a juice bar to sample some fresh Egyptian juices, something the country is particularly known for. We sampled karkade, a popular drink made from a flower similar to hibiscus (and the Mexican agua fresca Jamaica), sugarcane juice, and Sobia, a rice and coconut water similar to Mexican drink horchata without the cinnamon. I find it interesting how there are so many analogues between Mexican and Egyptian drinks. It was particularly fun to watch the raw sugarcane stalks pressed through the machine to make the juice, and surprisingly it was not too sweet. Of course, in Egypt, the king of all juices is Mango. Egypt grows dozens of varieties of mangos and their in-season time is hotly anticipated. Sometimes it is impossible to know which juice bar is good (or clean enough) so we felt grateful for the Bellies’ guidance.
We also visited a well-known classic restaurant for Egyptian comfort foods, Felfela, which is actually built into an alleyway and is particularly atmospheric (seen above). After that we visited a hole-in-the-wall homestyle Egyptian restaurant tucked into a nondescript storefront in downtown Cairo that we can assure you could never find on your own. At these two restaurants we sampled heartier Egyptian fare including Egyptian falafel (made of fava beans instead of chickpeas as it is in many other places), a parade of mezze, and the polarizing Egyptian soup molokiah (dark green soup seen below).
Molokiah is made of jute leaves cooked in a chicken (or other type of) stock, and has a very unusual texture. The plant leaves, which are somewhat akin to kale or collard greens, have a viscous okra-like texture when cooked. The dish is a love-it or hate-it thing and we personally fall into the pro-molokiah camp. Mia also showed us how to sop up the molokiah with pieces of the baladi bread made into the shape of a “cats ear” (same deal as an Italian scarpetta).
By this point we were getting pretty full, even though most of what we had been tasting was the sample portion size, but we pressed on, eager to sample more! As our last savory item, we visited a place for koshary that came recommended over the more famous Abu Tarek. You have to attend the tour to find out where! We have written about koshary (and our affinity for it) a few times before and it is a must-try for any visitor to Egypt. Koshary is a satifying mix of lentils, chickpeas, various shapes of pasta, fried onions and tomato sauce, which you can customize with spicy or garlic sauces.
After all of these main courses, we stopped at a traditional dessert shop where piles of cookies and desserts in large copper trays were on offer. We sampled basboosa, honey cake and kunefe
. Basboosa is cooked with semolina flour and flavored with rosewater and kunefe is made with two cake-like layers of crunchy wheat vermicelli filled with a layer of cream.
And there were even more surprises in store, but you have to attend the tour yourself to find out. We are grateful to the Bellies for showing us a different, more local side to the Cairo food scene. If you are new to Cairo and want an on-the-ground food tour featuring food that the local Cairenes actually eat themselves, we couldn’t recommend Bellies en Route more. Our only major advice is: come to the tour hungry!