The food here is mostly pretty good. The taamaya (طعمية, what they call falafel here) is excellent. In most places, i’ve found the ful (فول, beans) to be pretty good, but it can be pretty bland in some places. We actually haven’t gone out to eat all that much. There’s a place called Felfela (فلفلة) that we’ve gone to more often that anywhere else. That’s the place that has very good taamaya and stuffed grape leaves (not called dolmas here) and other traditional Egyptian stuff, done pretty well. I would go there quite often during Ramadan because it was one of the few places that was open during Ramadan, when most people were fasting (or pretending to fast) during the day. I would usually pick up a salad for Adrienne, which would generally be too hot to eat because they would put this incredibly hot sauce on top. Felfela has both a take-away part and a sit-down part, accessible around the corner from one-another. The sit-down place is maybe three times more expensive than the take-away. A taamaya (a small pita with two taamaya balls) costs LE1.25, about $0.22. Across the street from the take-away part is another restaurant we went to a couple times. I actually can’t remember the name, but it had pretty standard Egyptian stuff: ful, sambousek (sort of like pakora), stuffed vine leaves, tabouleh, kofta, pigeon. Haven’t tried pigeon yet, but it’s pretty popular. This place also had a lot of pasta dishes. Pasta (مكارونة) is also pretty popular. We just found out last night that at most take-away joints, you can order something called a “dinomite”, which is a pita sandwich (ساندويتش) with taamaya, french fries, grilled eggplant (babaghanoug), salad, ful and an egg. It’s basically just everything all in one sandwich. I’m excited to try it. They put eggs in everything, it seems, particularly ful. Last night, we went with some AUC grad students to a little Sudanese restaurant. That was pretty excellent. There was spicy fried fish, ful (the Sudanese put more vegetables in the ful, apparently), some kind of dish that was like Ethiopian food, complete with the injera (sort of), and a stew of animal joints. The latter was kind of gross, but good at the same time. We’ve also eaten fairly often at AUC’s faculty lounge, especially during Ramadan. It costs significantly more there, and the food is mediocre. Not quite Egyptian, not quite American, just…kinda…not great.
The first day of Ramadan was rough. I ended up fasting, as so many do, whether they are muslim or not, because they don’t want to eat in front of people who are fasting. I was cranky and getting very anxious to get some food. I was still at school, waiting for Adrienne to finish up with something. We finally left shortly after sunset and on the way out, we were stopped by the school security who insisted that we share the iftar with them. Iftar is the meal taken to break the fast after the sun sets during Ramadan. It literally means “breakfast”, and is used the same as in English the rest of the year to mean the morning meal. Had i not been so famished, i might have insisted that we needed to go, but i was famished, so i relented perhaps a little to quickly. They didn’t seem to mind, though. I ate kofta, pita, ful and a traditional slimy green dish called mulukhiya (مُلوخية). A lot of people don’t like it because of it’s slimy consistency (you can apparently make it less slimy by going through the very labor-intensive process of stripping off the ribs on the stems of the vegetable from which it is made), but i thought it was pretty good (and not just because i was hungry).
Mostly, though, we’ve just been cooking at home. With the ingredients available here, and our natural inclination toward Middle Eastern food, we’ve been eating probably not much different than the way locals do. We make ful moudamas (i like to think mine is better than most) and white bean dip, mujadara, tomato and cucumber salads with local cheese, various potato dishes, etc. I made some really good mousaka the other day. That’s more Greek than Middle Eastern, but it’s close. I would make more tabouleh, but it’s been hard to find decent fresh parsley in any amounts. In fact, greens in general are hard to come by (mint and mulukhiya excepted), and are generally wilted and gross when you do find them. Mangos, bananas, watermelon, limones, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, cucumber, squash and okra can be found just about anywhere in abundance and for very little money. The conditions under which the vegetables are kept may leave something to be desired, but we just wash them thoroughly and use Grapefruit Seed Extract on them if we eat them fresh. The grains are also cheap, but they need to be checked thoroughly for rocks and dirt. We’ve heard that the olive oil is, surprisingly, shite here (that’s زفت in arabic). Adrienne and i have been lucky, i guess, to be near a grocery that has better quality stuff. It’s called the Blue Nile. The place is usually packed, generally with the delivery boys picking out the food to be delivered to customers. I haven’t looked super close, but i think they generally only deliver by bike.
Just about all food stuffs, whether groceries or prepared foods, are delivered in Cairo. Sometimes by bike, particularly for the places catering to a smaller area, but often by motor scooter. Even McDonalds delivers. You can check out Otlob to see what’s available. Otlob (أظلاب), by the way, means “Order!”, as in the imperative of “to order”, like to order food. It’s a great service for ex-pats. They can do it all on-line and not have to know or speak a lick of arabic (and most of them don’t). Luckily for them, one side of the currency is in English, too. The process of getting the right change, on the other hand, is not so straightforward. It is very difficult, for some reason, to get small bills in this country. Even banks often don’t have enough (or at least claim they don’t). We actually haven’t ever taken advantage of the delivery option, at least for food.
We once had a case of beer delivered, but that was because the vendor did have it ready at the moment and we had to get back to the house to meet someone. On the subject of beer, the prices are comparable to the US, but you only get the equivalent of Pabst: Stella. Stella, one of the locally-produced beers (most of which appear to be brands of Heineken International) at one point adopted Nietzchean philosophy for its motto: “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” We were told that it would be well-nigh impossible to find alcohol during Ramadan, so we got a case just before hand. It turned out that it’s not that hard to find, though. You just have to ask. Nevertheless, the five-star hotels that cater to Westerners make a killing during Ramadan because they are the only places where alcohol can be purchased and consumed publicly.
One particularly decadent evening, we decided that we would just order food in and watch the most recently-aired episode of Desperate Housewives (censored, of course). We had splurged on a TV, but didn’t get cable, so we got what we could from the local stations. We kind of got hooked on Desperate Housewives until Ramadan started, and then all the Ramadan series started and preempted Desperate Housewives (more details on this in a subsequent post). It looks like Adrienne might be getting hooked back on it, though, now that Ramadan and Eid Al-Fitr (the three-day holiday of “breakfasting” following Ramadan) are over. Anyway, we made this plan, but i couldn’t figure out how to properly set up an account on Otlob, so we never did that. I lot of my classmates never cook or even go out to eat. They only have food delivered.