The first time I travelled to Egypt, in the early 1980s, I spent a month on a friend’s mango farm outside Cairo. We often drove into the city to explore: I worked in the art world at the time, advising clients on Islamic collections, but even then I was fascinated by the street food. Leaning against the ledge of a food cart next to funny, charming strangers, dipping into a bowl of ful medames (stewed broad beans), there seemed to be no better place to be in this city.
Food trucks are sprouting on every corner in LA, London, Paris and New York. But in Cairo it’s nothing new: Egyptians have been wheeling their unmotorised wooden food carts for decades, and each vendor takes great pride in his ambulant kitchen-cum-restaurant. He – it is always a he, there are no women manning these carts, or at least I have never come across one – paints it with the prettiest and brightest colours before covering the panels with Arabic writing. If the vendor is sober, he will have suras (verses) from the Koran but if he is the ebullient type, he will write amusing texts advertising his superior talents and/or the excellence of his ful medames, ta’miyah (falafel) or even stuffed pigeons, though carts selling these are sadly rarer now.
There are three quintessential Egyptian street foods. One is koshari, a mixture of rice, pasta and lentils, topped with a fiery tomato sauce and garnished with chickpeas and crispy fried onions. The other two, often found side by side at the same vendor, are ta’miyah and ful medames. The latter dish consists of dried broad beans cooked in a huge bulbous metal jar over a very low heat for hours until the beans turn to a mush. The jar is then fitted inside the cart over a gas burner and the vendor uses a long ladle to scoop out the ful, which is then garnished with chopped tomatoes, boiled eggs and/or herbs.
Bread is essential to mop up the ful and wrap the ta’miyah and is either stacked on a side ledge or piled on a rickety table nearby on the pavement: customers help themselves to as much as they want. Some carts will have aysh baladi (country bread made with wholewheat), others aysh shami (Levantine, made with white flour).
Sweet things can also be found on the street but beware of the bassbussa (syrupy sponge cake). Flies surround the cart – they can’t resist the sticky syrup. Much safer to stop at a fiteer place, where a “magician” baker flaps circle after circle of dough in the air to stretch it as thinly as he can before folding it and baking it to produce the flakiest of breads (or Egyptian pizza, as many vendors like to call it). It can be sweet if served with clotted cream and honey or savoury when filled with fried onion or spicy sausage. You may also be seduced by a bowl of sweet couscous dusted with icing sugar and studded with raisins, a nod to Egypt’s north African neighbours.
Like any city, Cairo has changed. Some ancient buildings have crumbled and disappeared, others have been over-restored. But the carts are still everywhere and, while a few are now made in gleaming stainless steel, the wooden variety is out in force. Whichever cart you choose to stop at, you can be sure of a satisfying meal for next to nothing – in some cases as little as 20 pence. A pittance, really, but if the vendor sells enough of these every day he will earn enough to feed his family.
Where to eat on the street? In Cairo you will find carts and holes-in-the-wall on large avenues, in the medieval lanes and near train and bus stations. Your concern is not so much finding a cart but finding a clean one. I always check over the vendor and his clients; then, depending on how neat they are, I decide if it is safe to try the food. My favourite koshari is at Abu Tarek in Champollion Street, which is a proper restaurant that also does a roaring trade in takeaway. The master of ful medames remains Al-Gahsh in Sayida Zeinab – don’t be put off by the rickety chairs and primitive set-up, the ful really is the best in town. Both will set you back less than £2 per person.
Anissa Helou’s Koshari Street, a ‘hole-in-the-wall’ street food experience, is at 56 St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4EA; 0207 836 1056
This recipe is actually for the Syrian version, which I used to eat in Aleppo at a simple corner café in the heart of the city’s Christian quarter. Sadly, the café, which belonged to a wonderful old man called Hajj Abdo, was gutted in the fight between rebels and regime forces and Hajj Abdo is now in Cairo. I was not able to trace him; perhaps on my next visit. Serves 4.
For the ful
400g dried fava beans, soaked overnight in plenty of water with 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
For the tarator
1 clove garlic, crushed
Juice of 1 lemon, or to taste
2 tbsp Aleppo pepper paste, diluted with 3 tbsp water (optional)
Extra virgin olive oil to drizzle over the ful
• Drain and rinse the soaked beans under cold water. Put in a large saucepan and add about 1 litre water. Place over a medium heat. Bring to the boil then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 2 ½-3 hours, until the beans are very tender and the cooking water has become thick. Add salt to taste – you do not want to add salt until the very end, otherwise the skins will harden.
• Make the tarator by mixing the tahini with the crushed garlic and lemon juice, then gradually add 180ml water until the mixture is a little thinner than double cream.
• To serve the ful: pour a little tarator in a serving bowl. Add a serving of hot beans together with a little of their cooking juice. Spoon a bit of diluted pepper paste over the top then drizzle with olive oil. Serve immediately with pita bread.