Compared to the highly regarded regional cuisines of Lebanon, Turkey and Iran, Egyptian food is more like fresh, honest peasant fare. Pulses are served stewed (for breakfast, lunch or dinner), as a soup or fried in patties as ta'amiyya (Egyptian falafel). Egyptians love lamb kebabs, grilled chicken, pigeon and kofta (spiced mincemeat patties grilled on a skewer), while fish comes from the Mediterranean and Red Seas, and the Nile.
Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor and the Red Sea resort towns have a wide variety of eating options. Away from the main centres, choices are more limited.
- Restaurants Range from smart and expensive hotel dining, where booking ahead is essential, to canteen-style budget restaurants typically serving Egyptian kebab and stew favourites. European-style dishes can be hit and miss at budget establishments and most don't serve alcohol.
- Cafes Usually open for most of the day and night, and they only serve drinks and shisha, no food.
- Street food A huge part of the Egyptian food scene. Fast and fresh staples at local prices.
Staples & Specialities
Egyptian meals typically centre on stews and vegetables. Street food is what most Egyptians can afford, and they happily wait in line at the best kushari (mix of noodles, rice, black lentils, fried onions and tomato sauce) and ta’amiyya stalls. Egyptian specialities include the love-it-or-hate-it molokhiyya (garlicky leaf soup), hamam (pigeon) and mahshi (stuffed vegetables). Egyptians have a serious sweet tooth and no meal is complete without dessert. Mahallabiye (milk custard with pine nuts and almonds) and ruz bi laban (rice pudding) are the most popular.
Largely vegetable-based and always bursting with colour and flavour, mezze (a selection of hot and cold starters) aren’t strictly Egyptian, as many standards hail from the Levant or Turkey. But they have been customised here in a more limited and economical form. They’re the perfect start to any meal, and it’s usually acceptable for diners to order an entire meal from the mezze list and forego the mains.
A’aish (bread) is the most important staple of the national diet. A’aish baladi, the traditional bread, is made from a combination of plain and wholemeal flour with sufficient leavening to form a pocket and soft crust, and cooked over an open flame. Locals use it in lieu of cutlery to scoop up dips and rip it into pieces to wrap around morsels of meat. A’aish shammy, a bigger version made with plain white flour only, is the usual wrapping for ta’amiyya. In the countryside the women bake a round leavened bread with three handles – the same shape in which the ancient Egyptians made bread. Bakeries also sell a sweetish white Western-style roll, called kaiser, often served in restaurants or hotels for breakfast.
Simplicity is the key to Egyptian salads, which are eaten as a mezze or an accompaniment to a meat or fish main. The standard salata baladi of chopped tomatoes, cucumber, onion and pepper sometimes gets a kick from peppery rocket. The Middle East’s delicious and healthy signature salad, tabbouleh (bulgur wheat, parsley and tomato, with a sprinkling of sesame seeds, lemon and garlic), is also common. Seasonal vegetables, such as beetroot or carrots, are often boiled and served cold with a tangy oil-and-lemon dressing.
Vegetables & Soups
The archetypal Egyptian veg is molokhiyya, a leafy green of the jute plant, which was known to be part of the pharaohs’ diet. It has a similar sticky texture to okra, and Egyptians prepare it as a slimy and surprisingly sexy soup with a bright, nourishing flavour. Traditionally served as an accompaniment or sauce to rabbit or chicken and served with rice, it inspires an almost religious devotion among locals. The most popular soup is shurbat ads (lentil soup), made with red split lentils and served with cumin and wedges of lemon. Fuul nabed (broad-bean soup) is also common.
Kofta and kebab are two of the most popular meat dishes in Egypt. Kofta, spiced minced lamb or beef peppered with spices and shaped into balls, is skewered and grilled. It is the signature element of the Egyptian favourite daood basha, meatballs cooked with pine nuts and tomato sauce in a tagen (clay pot). Kebab is skewered and flame-grilled chunks of meat, normally lamb (the chicken equivalent is called shish tawooq). The meat usually comes on a bed of baqdounis (parsley), and you eat it with bread, salad and tahini.
Firekh (chicken) roasted on a spit is common, and in restaurants is typically ordered by the half. Hamam (pigeon) is also extremely popular, and is eaten stuffed and roasted, grilled or as a tagen stew with onions, tomatoes and rice.
Fish & Seafood
When in Alexandria, along the Red Sea and in Sinai, you’ll undoubtedly join the locals in falling hook, line and sinker for the marvellous array of fresh seafood on offer. Local favourites are kalamaari (squid), balti (fish that are about 15cm long, flattish and grey with a light belly), and the larger, tastier bouri (mullet). You’ll also commonly find sea bass, seabream, red mullet, bluefish, sole and subeit or gambari (shrimp) on restaurant menus. The Red Sea is famous for its spiny lobsters, while the tilapia from Lake Nasser is a delight. The most popular ways to cook fish are to grill them over coals or fry them in olive oil.
Copts are very fond of fesikh, sun-dried, salted and fermented grey mullet, traditionally eaten during the Sham An Nessim festival, a spring celebration that goes back to ancient times. The shops selling fesikh are recognisable by the smell; the flavour is an acquired taste.
Desserts & Sweets
The prince of local puds is mahallabiye, made using rice flour, milk, sugar and rose or orange water, and topped with chopped pistachios and almonds. Almost as popular are ruz bi laban (rice pudding) and omm ali (layers of flaky pastry with nuts and raisins, soaked in cream and milk, and baked in the oven).
Best of all are the pastries, including kunafa, a vermicelli-like pastry soaked in syrup, or rolled and stuffed with nuts. The most famous of all pastries is baklava, made from delicate filo drenched in syrup. Variations on baklava are flavoured with fresh nuts or stuffed with wickedly rich ishta (clotted cream).
Where & When to Eat
Unfortunately for visitors, the best food in Egypt is invariably in private homes. If you are lucky enough to be invited to share a home-cooked meal, take up the offer (bring a box of sweets for the hostess). On these occasions you will most likely be stuffed to the point of bursting – the minute you look close to cleaning your plate, you will be showered with more food, which no amount of protesting can stop.
In restaurants stick with Egyptian standards and you’ll be well fed, if not dazzled by variety. The only place we’d recommend trying other regional cuisines is Cairo, as well as the tourist zones of Luxor, Sharm El Sheikh and Dahab. In Alexandria follow locals’ lead and dine out in the seafood restaurants – they’re some of the best in the region.
Egyptians usually dine at a later hour than in the West; it’s usual to see diners arrive at a restaurant at 10pm or even later in the cities, particularly in summer. They also dine in large family groups, smoke like chimneys and linger over their meals.
Unless it’s a special occasion, the main meal of the day is usually lunch for standard restaurant and cafe business hours. At night, Egyptians typically eat lighter or grab snacks. Portion sizes can be enormous at any time, so order with restraint – wasting food is not appreciated.
Vegetarians & Vegans
Though it’s usual for Egyptians to eat lots of vegetables, the concept of voluntary vegetarianism is quite foreign. Observant Copts follow a vegan diet much of the year (hence the popularity of kushari), but more standard Egyptian logic is, ‘Why wouldn’t you eat meat if you can afford it?’
Fortunately, it’s not difficult to order vegetable-based dishes. You can eat loads of mezze and salads, fuul, ta’amiyya, the occasional omelette, or oven-baked vegetable tagens with okra and eggplant. When in doubt, you can always order a stack of pita bread and a bowl of hummus. If you do eat fish, note that fresh seafood is nearly always available in tourist towns and along the coasts.
The main cause of inadvertent meat eating is meat stock, which is often used to make otherwise vegetarian tagens and soups. Your hosts or waiter may not even consider such stock to be meat, so they will reassure you that the dish is vegetarian.
Habits & Customs
Egyptians eat a standard three meals a day. For most people breakfast consists of bread and cheese, maybe olives or a fried egg at home, or a fuul (fava bean paste) sandwich on the run to work. Lunch is the day’s main meal, taken from 2pm onwards, but more likely around 3pm or 4pm when dad’s home from work and the kids are back from school. Whatever is served, the women of the house (usually the mother) will probably have spent most of the morning in the kitchen preparing it, it’ll be hot and there’ll probably be plenty to go around. What’s left over is usually served up again later in the evening as supper.
Travel Your Tastebuds
- Fatta Rice and bread soaked in a garlicky-vinegary sauce with lamb or chicken and then oven cooked in a tagen (clay pot). It’s very heavy – after eating retire to a chaise longue.
- Mahshi kurumb These rice- and meat-stuffed cabbage leaves are decadently delightful when correctly cooked with plenty of dill and samna (clarified butter).
- Molokhiyya A slightly slippery but delicious soup made from jute leaves, served with rabbit (or chicken) and plenty of garlic.
- Hamam mahshi Roast pigeon stuffed with fireek (green wheat) and rice. This dish is served at all traditional restaurants and can be fiddly to eat; beware the plentiful little bones.
A Table of Mezze
- Hummus A paste of mashed chickpeas with lemon, garlic and tahini
- Tahini A paste of sesame seeds with oil, garlic and lemon, served with pita bread or grilled fish
- Baba ganoush A purée of grilled aubergines with garlic and oil
- Wara ainab Vine leaves stuffed with rice, herbs and meat, cooked in a broth
- Bessara Cold broad-bean purée
- Kibbeh Fried patty of bulgur wheat stuffed with minced lamb and pine nuts
- Sambusas Cheese- or meat-filled mini pies
- Torshi Crunchy pickled cucumbers, carrots and turnips
Fast Food, Egyptian Style
Once you’ve sampled the joys of the traditional Egyptian fast food you’ll be hooked. These are the staples:
- Fuul The national dish, often eaten for breakfast, is an unassuming peasant dish of slow-cooked fava beans with garlic, parsley, olive oil, lemon, salt, black pepper and cumin.
- Ta’amiyya (Egyptian variant of falafel) Ground broad beans and spices rolled into patties and deep fried
- Shawarma Strips of lamb or chicken sliced from a vertical spit, sizzled on a hot plate with chopped tomatoes and garnish, and then stuffed into shammy bread
- Kushari A vegetarian’s best friend: noodles, rice, black lentils, chickpeas and fried onions, with a tangy tomato sauce. Many kushari shops also sell makaroneh bi-lahm, a baked pasta-and-lamb casserole.
- Fiteer The Egyptian pizza has a thin, flaky pastry base, and is topped with salty haloumi and olives, or comes sweet with jam, coconut and raisins.
Ramadan is the Muslim holy month of fasting from sunrise to dusk, but it is also a month of feasting and eating well at night. Iftar, the evening meal prepared to break the fast, is a special feast calling for substantial soups, chicken and meat dishes, and other delicacies. It’s often enjoyed communally in the street or in large, specially erected tents. Like other celebrations it is also accompanied by a flurry of baking of sweet pastries.
Dos & Don’ts
- Remember to always remove your shoes before sitting down on a rug or carpet to eat or drink tea.
- Avoid putting your left hand into a communal dish if you’re eating Egyptian style – your left hand is used for, well, wiping yourself in the absence of toilet paper.
- If you need to blow your nose in a restaurant, leave the dining area and go outside or to the toilet.
- Make sure you refrain from eating, drinking or smoking in public during the daytime in the holy month of Ramadan (international hotels are an exception to this rule).
- Always sit at the dinner table next to a person of the same sex unless your host or hostess suggests otherwise.