CAIRO — Exploding with brightly colored wares, the sounds of bargaining and the scent of spices, Khan el Khalili, Cairo's famed bazaar, swarmed with people.
It was 8 p.m. during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and the Egyptians, after fasting all day, were coming to shop, visit and dine.
"Come, we'll show you Fetir, the famous pancake house," shouted our friend Necla Tschirgi over the din, as a merchant laden with wooden birds on sticks rushed by. Necla and her husband, Dan, teach political science at the American University in Cairo, and they were taking us to our first meal in Egypt.
Fetir is on one of the main aisles of the bazaar. We sat at an outside table and were brought delicate crepes that had been cooked on a hot griddle and sprinkled with ground pistachios, shredded coconut and powdered sugar. They were sweet, super-light and delicious, and each pancake cost 1 and 25 piasters Egyptian (about 75 cents at the current exchange rate of 1.67 Egyptian to the U.S. dollar).
Gathering in Coffeehouse
After the pancakes we visited Fishawe, the little coffeehouse that has long been a gathering place for writers and politicians. By that time the press of the throng was so great that we all held hands to be sure we wouldn't lose each other.
We wound our way through the alleys of the bazaar to a tiny coffeehouse with tables spilling onto the walkway. Women in traditional dress sipped hot tea from glasses stuffed with large sprigs of mint. Men puffed on elaborately decorated nargilas (water pipes).
"Egyptian food is similar to Turkish cuisine, but the Egyptians tend to use more spices," said Necla as we sipped thick coffee from tiny cups. Ahwa turki (Egyptian coffee) can be ordered sweet ( ziada ), moderately sweet ( mazbout ) or without sugar ( sada ).
"The mezzeh , the array of cold hors d'oeuvres traditionally served at the beginning of a meal, is basically Turkish in origin," Necla said, "and many of the variations that Egyptians enjoy are Lebanese."
Egyptian cuisine has influences, not only from Turkey and Lebanon but also from ancient Persia, Europe and Saudi Arabia. Kebabs of lamb, beef, chicken and fish are popular, and rice and lentils are staples.
Some foods are typically Egyptian. Ful medamis is a dish of fava beans--small broad beans--simmered slowly with garlic, cumin and parsley in an idra (a narrow-necked pot) and served with lemon juice and olive oil. Taamiyya or taamia (spellings are phonetic, so a dish may be spelled differently in different restaurants) is dried fava beans mashed with chickpeas, onion and spices, and deep fried. It's similar to the falafel served in other Middle Eastern countries.
Pigeon and Lamb
Roast pigeon is popular, as is kofta , ground lamb mixed with herbs and spices and formed into finger-shaped patties, grilled over flame. Melokhia , or molokhia , is a favorite vegetable, but we found it bitter and unappetizing. It's made from young shoots of jute that are cooked into a viscous substance and served with lamb or chicken.
Another popular dish is kushari , or koushari . It's macaroni, rice and lentils mixed with tomato sauce and topped with fried onions. It sounds dreadful but tastes very good. Flat, soft-crusted bread is everywhere, and is virtually the same as that served thousands of years ago.
The sweetness level of Egyptian desserts is stratospheric. Om ali , a bread pudding with nuts and raisins, is served warm with fresh cream. Katayef is a sweet pancake stuffed with finely ground nuts. Konafa , shredded pastry cooked fast on a hot metal plate and mixed with lemon juice, cloves, cinnamon and honey, may be served plain or wrapped around ground walnuts or feta cheese.
A good place to sample Egyptian specialties, Felfela is a casual restaurant just off Tahrir Square in the center of the city. Wonderful smells greeted us as we walked in the door. Behind the counter the cook was deftly lowering patties of taamais into hot oil.
We began with tahini , a puree of chickpeas and sesame seeds served with flat bread, and bessara , ground fava beans cooked with herbs and spices and served cold. The taamia were spicy, freshly cooked and not overly greasy. A special taamia Felfela came with minced meat in the center.
We also tried dawoud pacha , meatballs in a tomato sauce; kebab halla , a lamb stew with potatoes, and fata , a soup with lamb, garlic and rice bread. For dessert we had baked rice and milk, like a rice pudding. The bill came to about 10 per person ($4.40 U.S.).
For fresh pigeon we tried the Casino des Pigeons on the west bank of the Nile. The small birds come roasted plain or stuffed with rice, and two is a minimum order (for 8.52). It's proper, in fact necessary, to eat pigeon with your hands.
Beneath the Trees