Arabic shai (tea), closely followed by ahwa (coffee), both drunk black, are Egypt's favourite drinks. Delicious seasonal fresh juices are cheap and readily available too. Many Egyptians don't drink alcohol in accordance with Islamic traditions, but locally brewed beer is served in higher-end and tourist-orientated restaurants. Drinking on the street is taboo, as is public drunkenness.
Tea & Coffee
Drinking shai (tea) is the signature pastime of the country, and it is seen as strange and decidedly antisocial not to sip the tannin-laden beverage at regular intervals throughout the day. Shai usually comes as a strong brew of local leaves, ground fine and left in the bottom of the glass, or served ‘English’-style, as a teabag plonked in a cup or glass of hot water. It is usually served sweet; to moderate this, order it sukar khafif – with ‘a little sugar’. If you don’t want any sugar, ask for min ghayr sukar. Far more refreshing is shai served with mint leaves: ask for shai bi-na’na. In winter locals love to drink sweet shai bi-haleeb (tea with milk).
Arabic ahwa (coffee), traditionally served in coffeehouses, is a thick and powerful Turkish-style brew that’s served in small cups and drunk in a couple of short sips. As with tea, you have to specify how much sugar you want: ahwa mazboot is a moderate amount of sugar, ahwa saada is without sugar, and ahwa ziyada (extra sweet) will likely make your teeth fall out on contact. Traditionally you can tell your future from the coffee mud left at the bottom. In hotels and Western-style restaurants you are more likely to be served instant coffee (always called neskafe), although upmarket places increasingly serve Italian-style espressos and cappuccinos.
The coffeehouse, known as ahwa (the Arabic word for coffee is now synonymous with the place in which it’s drunk), is one of the great Egyptian social institutions. Traditionally ahwas have been all-male preserves, but it’s now common to see young, mixed-sex groups of Egyptians in ahwas, especially in Cairo and Alexandria. The ahwa is a relaxed and unfussy place where regulars go every day to sip a glass of tea, meet friends, talk about politics or wind down for the night.
A feature of coffeehouses from Alexandria to Aswan, shisha is a pastime that’s as addictive as it is magical. Most people opt for tobacco soaked in apple juice (tuffah) but in trendier places it’s also possible to order strawberry, melon, cherry or mixed-fruit flavours. A decorated glass pipe filled with water will be brought, hot coals will be placed in it to get it started and you will be given a disposable plastic mouthpiece to slip over the pipe’s stem. The only secret to a good smoke is to take a puff every now and again to keep the coals hot. Bliss!
Of course, it’s worth mentioning that even though the smoke from shisha is filtered through water and tastes nothing like the tobacco from cigarettes, it’s smoke nevertheless, and the nicotine hit you’ll get is far more intense.
Beer & Wine
For beer in Egypt just say ‘Stella’ – though not to be confused with the Belgian lager, it’s light and perfectly drinkable. It now has sister brews in crisp, lower-alcohol Sakara Gold and the dangerous Sakara King (10%). Most locals just stick to the unfussy basic brew – it’s the cheapest (around LE15 for a half-litre retail) and, as long as it’s cold, it tastes fine.
Over the past decade the quality and choice of wine in Egypt has improved significantly. For the better wines, such as the Château des Rêves cabernet sauvignon, the grapes are imported from Lebanon. The Gianaclis whites are serviceable. These wines retail between LE70 and LE270 per bottle. Imported wines are both harder to find and significantly more expensive.
Over the hot summer months many ahwa-goers opt for cooler drinks such as chilled, crimson-hued karkadai, a wonderfully refreshing drink boiled up from hibiscus leaves and famous for ‘strengthening the blood’ (lowering blood pressure). It’s also served hot in winter. Another refresher is fresh limoon (lemon juice), sometimes blended with mint (bi-na'na). In winter many prefer sahlab, a thick warm drink made with the starch from the orchid tuber, milk and chopped nuts; helba, a fenugreek tea; or yansoon, a digestive aniseed drink.
Juice stands are recognisable by the hanging bags of netted fruit (and carrots) that adorn their facades and are an absolute godsend on a hot day. Standard asiir (juices) include moz (banana), guafa (guava), limoon, manga (mango), bortuaan (orange), rumman (pomegranate; say min ghayr sukar to avoid sugar overload), farawla (strawberry) and qasab (sugar cane). A glass costs between LE5 and LE15 depending on the fruit used and where you drink it.
Water from the Nile
Egyptians say that once you drink water from the Nile, you will always come back. Once you drink water from the tap, however, you might not feel like going anywhere – the stuff can be toxic. The exception is in Cairo, where, if you have a hardier constitution, you can usually drink it without injury – most locals do, even if it tastes heavily of chlorine.