Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A Vegetarian in Egypt

Egypt has a lot to offer to the world, but fine vegetarian cuisine is not one of them. Having said that, let me also say that we did not hurt for vegetarian food unlike in certain parts of the world where it is hard to get anything without fish sauce or chicken broth.

Our travels took us to Cairo (and its suburb Giza) and from there to Aswan in the South, then up the Nile river to Luxor. Local food does not vary much from the North to the South. In general, Egyptian food is not spicy, and usually not salted at all.

As vegetarians, one of our favorites was the cold & hot mezzes. Mezzes consists of a number of small dishes like hummus (made with chick peas), baba ghanouj (made with eggplant), labneh (yogurt), foul medammes (mushed up broad beans), salads, pickled vegetables, olives and comes with a basket of freshly baked aish baladi (pita bread). We usually also ordered tamayya (Egyptian falafel) so that we could build our own falafel sandwiches.

In Aswan, we had our one and only "fine dining" experience for which we were ill-prepared. It was quite late in the night when we got upgraded to the "Old Cataract" hotel on the Nile. This used to be the palace of King Farouk and many famous people (including my favorite mystery writer, Agatha Christie) have roamed its halls. Hungry as we were, we did ponder all this as we sauntered into the restaurant "1902", a grand ballroom type setting with tall ceilings and chandeliers. Not surprisingly, we were almost turned away because V had jeans on, but the maitre d' let us stay considering the late hour, probably. God bless him, because we had the best meal of our entire trip!

We started with lentil soup which was great especially with the bread. Then V got the curry plate (inspired by Indian cuisine) and I got the grilled vegetables. The curry plate had rice, tamarind chutney and yogurt sauce on the side. The vegetables were cooked in a spicy coconut base which was very, very satisfying. The grilled vegetables, especially the fennel, was simple yet delicious with the pesto sauce.

In Luxor, we decided to find a good place serving local food, but we wandered fruitlessly for an hour. However, like all our culinary adventures, this has a happy ending. We ran into a British-Arabic couple who pointed us to "Sofra". Turned out to be a great recommendation (or were we just too hungry?!)


We ordered some mezzes to start with, and "koshari" for our main dish. "Koshari" is an odd mixture of rice and macaroni pasta with tomato sauce, garnished with fried onions which is tastier than it sounds. From the hot mezze menu, we ordered "Bosara" (mashed fava beans), and vegetarian sambuza (fried pastry with spinach and white cheese). The Sambuza was too oily but the other dishes including the Koshari were awesome! We finished the meal with a traditional Egyptian drink called "Sahlab", a milk drink thickened with some kind of root and sprinkled with nuts.

Our buffet meals on the Nile cruise boat were pretty standard fare, but we overdosed on fresh dates! Fruits in Egypt are awesome. We also tried the popular local drink "karkade" which is an infusion of hibiscus flowers. The pink color is alluring (like a cosmopolitan) and it is usually sweetened with sugar and drunk either hot or cold.

Food is cheap in Egypt and even a very good meal in a decent place like Sofra would cost at the maximum around $20 for 2 people.


squawkfox said...

I really enjoyed your photographs in this review. The food at restaurant 1902 looks delicious. I cannot imagine the sights, sounds, and flavors you experienced in Egypt. Thanks so much for sharing!

VnV said...

Thanks squawkfox. Your blog makes very interesting reading, and I do agree with you about beans.. I would rather not have the gooey canned stuff after I have tasted the real stuff.

A Virtual Vegetarian said...

Thank you for this post and the photos!

The thickening ingredient in making the Sahlab pudding is actually a flour made from the dried tuber of a wild orchid (Orchis Mascula).

I make a modified version of Koshari and will post it on my blog someday(?).....

.....and thank you for dropping by my blog, hope you will enjoy the ful medames...it should bring back some wonderful memories!

VnV said...

Thank you, Virtual Vegetarian. Looking forward to your koshari recipe.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your wonderful experiences hunting for vegetarian food in Egypt. Even the basic foods in Egypt can be quite good, like the freshly baked breads, and locally grown fruit, etc., so thankfully their are options.

Megan said...

I'm glad I read this. Now I know it's not impossible to be a vegetarian and go to Egypt!