Egypt’s best foods

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If you know where to look, you'll find that there is much more to Egyptian cuisine than the triumvirate of kebab, falafel, and shawarma. Sure, shish tawooq (grilled chicken) and kofta(grilled meatballs) are ubiquitous on menus, and falafel and shawarma are street food big-hitters. But dig a bit deeper, and you’ll discover culinary traditions that often stretch all the way back to Ancient Egypt.

Molokhiyya

This viscid, dark green stew made from the leaves of the jute mallow plant (the leaves themselves are also known as molokhiyya in Egypt) vies with kushari for the title of Egypt’s national dish. It’s been around a lot longer as well, and molokhiyya leaves were a typical foodstuff in the days of the pharaohs. The stew is made by a long, slow cooking of the leaves in stock with the addition of a butter-fried blend of coriander and garlic, though Egyptians will assure you the most important ingredient when making molokhiyya is love. Many a home chef will swear the most important point in the cooking process is making a little gasp – to pass your love into the pot – while adding the coriander and garlic mixture. Without the all-important gasp, your molokhiyya may well turn bad. As well as being cooked plain, rabbit or chicken are sometimes added to the pot for a heartier stew. Whichever version you come across, molokhiyya is the one Egyptian dish that divides foreign visitors; you’ll either love it or hate it. ‘Slimy’, ‘delicious’, ‘addictive’ and ‘like licking the bottom of a swamp’ are equally common descriptions from travelers who’ve tried it.

Kushari

Falafel and shawarma may come to mind first when thinking about cheap eats in Egypt, but kushari is the country’s favorite fast food. A bowl of macaroni, rice, black lentils and chickpeas, this carb-fest isn’t pretty to look at, but doused in tomato sauce, sprinkled with fried onions and then topped up with glugs of garlicky vinegar and spicy chili sauce, kushari is cheap, filling and completely moreish. Despite its phenomenal popularity, kushari a relative newbie to Egyptian cuisine. Its roots are thought to be grounded in the Indian rice and lentil dish khichdi, brought to the country by European travelers in the 19th century when both Egypt and India were under British control. The recipe then evolved as cooks padded it out with legumes, onions, and sauces, and the local Italian community added pasta to the mix. Today, many Egyptians regard this odd but humble concoction as their national dish.

Hamam mahshi

If you spend any time traveling through the Egyptian countryside, you’ll soon spot curious dalek-shaped mudbrick buildings sitting in the fields. No, it’s not because of a widespread Doctor Who obsession: these are the pigeon houses used to farm the nation’s favorite delicacy. Pigeon has been eaten in Egypt since the Pharaonic age. Today the birds are most commonly served stuffed (hamam mahshi): the pigeon’s cavity is packed full of spiced freekeh (cracked green wheat) or bulgur and then grilled over charcoal. It’s fiddly to eat – lots and lots of tiny bones – but that doesn’t put off the Egyptians who hail the dish as one of their finest.



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