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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Dining in Cairo

by Fred Glick

CAIRO--In light of the experiences of some of my esteemed colleagues in this glorious city I now call home, I thought it time to come to her defence.

Or at least offer some tips on dodging the worst of the touts and other rat-like creatures.

Despite the fact that in Middle Eastern dance terms it is apparently not what it once was, Cairo remains a popular destination. As it should. It's still Cairo after all-the pyramids, more than a thousand years of Islamic culture, including some fine architecture, centuries-old souqs, and, of course, the food.

Yes, when you've been out sightseeing all day, when you think you'll scream at the sight of another Volkswagon-sized block of yellow stone, when the next person to offer to show you their brother's shop had better hope he has a brother to carry on the family name, when you're in need of refreshments, a chair, and perhaps even a flush toilet.the last thing you want is to have a couple of open soft drinks that you don't want plunked down in front of you by a grinning waiter who proclaims, "Welcome in Egypt!" as he proceeds to give you mediocre food at inflated prices and then explains to you why you should be happy to pay so much for this "real Egyptian experience".

Cairo is filled with wonderful places to eat where you won't be given mediocre food at inflated prices. However, most of them are not in the ever-popular Khan al-Khalili area, where bus loads of tourists are released by their guides for their daily dose of exotica. Step off that bus and you can tell that every waiter in sight sees you as a fatted sheep waiting to be fleeced.

One of the wonderful things about Egyptian food is that there is something for everyone. Vegetarians are easily satisfied with a large variety of things they can eat, but if big chunks of tender, moist, flavourful meat hot off the grill are more your style, you're in luck.

The first stop for most tourists is
Felfela. Conveniently listed in every guidebook and a major taxi landmark, you should have no trouble finding it. Don't be put off by the bus-loads that get dropped off every night, Felfela has its share of local regulars as well and there's a good reason that every tour company brings their groups here. It's good, it's clean, the service is generally good, it's pretty reasonably priced, and they
have the best variety of any place in town. A nice selection of mezze, most of which are vegetarian, and the best stuffed pigeon I've ever had.

To start, try some of the salads, the baba ghanoug is decent and the tomato salad comes with a garlic dressing that's guaranteed to keep vampires and loved ones at bay. Be sure to share. Fresh raw vegetables are generally safe to eat in Cairo.

Felfela is also a good place to try the ubiquitous Egyptian staple, foul. Known in the west as fava or broad beans, foul is to Egypt what toast is to England: doesn't have much taste on its own, but everyone eats it and takes great pride in doing so. Actually, it can be good, but is often about the blandest thing you've ever had, particularly when it's served mashed and adorned with only oil. Try it at Felfela with tehina. A fork-full of "oriental" salad and some foul in the pita-like bread that comes with your meal makes a good, nutritious, filling, and even cheap meal.

Another terrific mezze is taamiyya, which is the Egyptian version of felafel. Made from our old friend foul, it has more flavour than your basic felafel and at Felfela is available plain or whipped up with eggs to make a fluffier version that's also high on my list.

If that's not enough, try the grilled meats. The shishkabab plate has a mix of grilled chunks of meat and kofta, a grilled kabab made from minced lamb. The grilled pigeons are also excellent, though the stuffed are even better. If you've ever enjoyed quail, but thought that they just weren't worth the effort, pigeon is for you. Keep in mind that these aren't flying rats that have lived the hard life on the streets. They've been specially bred for your enjoyment.

If you've still got room, have an Om Ali, a baked milk pudding which I don't happen like because it includes coconut, but which everyone who comes to visit consumes in copious, or is that conspicuous, quantities.

Felfela is also a good bet for a mid-day break. They serve all the coffee shop basics, including Turkish coffee, tea, hot cinnamon and hibiscus, and have clean bathrooms and waiters who speak all the basic languages, English included.

OK, so Felfela is safe, it's easy. But now that you can identify all the basic foods and throw in a word of Arabic for good measure, you're ready to venture out a bit and sample the delights that the sidewalk buffet has to offer. For local foods in a more local setting, head for near-by
Champollion Street, home of some of the best take away joints in the area and numerous auto repair shops.

Starting from the southern end, you'll pass Champollion's old house on the right. In the block after that is
a wonderful kabab shop. If you're a vegetarian, you can pretty much skip this part-all they sell is meat. But, ah, what wonderful meat!

In theory, you pay first, simply telling the guy with the cigar box who sits on the sidewalk out front how much you want to spend, then take your little slip to the counter and tell the guy there what you want. This is a little complicated when you don't know what you want and don't know how much that unknown item might cost, but two Egyptian pounds per person is reasonable, three a hearty meal.

There's a good variety here, including chicken, lamb and kofta, but a personal favourite, and something a bit different, is hawwashi. Spiced ground meat is stuffed inside eish baladi (a more rustic version of the bread you'll have sampled at Felfela, made from a coarser flour and a slightly soured dough) and then the whole thing is grilled. Delicious.

Proceeding up the street, in the next block on the left you'll spot
a small shop selling fiteer, a pizza-like dish made from a thinly stretched dough which is folded to make a flaky crust. There's not much of a sign, but you'll see a man behind a counter standing beside what looks like a pizza oven. In the window is a neat stack of canned tuna and meat. This is a small shop and not much to look at, but they produce a decent fiteer at a reasonable price.unlike many of it's competitors.

I'm not sure why, but fiteer shops, called fatatri, are some of the most blatant abusers of innocent tourists. Be especially wary of the Egyptian Pancake House in the Khan al-Khalili. The waiters are notorious thieves and even the locals get ripped off there. They also have two different menus, one in English, one in Arabic. Guess which one has higher prices.

If you took a pass on the kebabs, have a savoury fiteer. Your filling choices are right there in the window and vegetarians will have no problem assembling something good. Also be sure to have a sweet fiteer as well. This can be as simple as powdered sugar and ghee or you can have the deluxe model with raisins, jam, coconut and anything else they happen to have on hand.

Another block down, and still on the left, you'll come to the fanciest place on the block,
Abu Tarek, renowned throughout Cairo as the best koshary around, no small honour since you'll find koshary shops everywhere. Rice, pasta, lentils, tomato sauce and crispy fried onions are all tossed together in a bowl and your only choice is how much you want to spend, usually ranging from a pound and a half to three pounds. Options you can add yourself include chilli sauce (check it before you dump it on
indiscriminately, Abu Tarek's is reasonable, but some are incredibly hot) and da''a, garlic vinegar. At Abu Tarek, go straight up the stairs and find yourself a seat at one of the stainless steel tables. A waiter will come round to take your order and money and bring you a bowl of the most delicious, stick-to-your-ribs food you can imagine. And it's vegetarian. And it's cheap. And it's good for you. And it's hassle free.

In Cairo? Who'd a believed it!

(c) 2000 by FD Glick

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