Kebabs, casseroles and ‘feteer:’ Street food in Cairo’s Bab al-Shariya

Sonia Farid
Sonia Farid - Special to Al Arabiya English
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The street food market in Cairo keeps fluctuating according to a number of circumstances. It was, for example, definitely affected for a while by the opening in the past few years of several “chic” joints in upscale neighborhoods and which drew middle class youths away from authentic restaurants in the heart of the old town. This, however, did not last for long. Soon, the exotic aura of the new places soon dissipated as the old ones proved irreplaceable in terms of both variety and flavor.

While street food restaurants are scattered all over Cairo, certain areas are deemed classic by experts from all classes, on top of which is Bab al-Shariya, a downtown neighborhood named after one of the capital’s gates constructed during the Ayyubid era. The moment you get off the subway at the station that bears the same you are hit by a mixture of smells that give you an idea why the area deserves its fame and it is only when you venture into the streets that you start deciphering what each smell stood for.

Bebeto, named after the famous Brazilian striker, is one of the neighborhood’s landmarks. Known for its casseroles and meat plates, Bebeto became remarkably popular after the closure for almost one year of the iconic al-Prince in the neighborhood of Imbaba in northern Giza on charges of using expired meat. People then started looking for a similarly delicious alternative and there it was and now even after al-Prince has reopened, the place is keeping its new clientele. There, all sorts of casseroles are served including potatoes and meat, oxtail and okra, meat and onions, yet the most demanded is the durum wheat (fereek) casserole, plain or with meat. Hardly anyone steps into Bebeto without ordering a dish of meat slices fried in lamb fat and another of rice-stuffed intestines, also called Egyptian sausages or “mumbar” in Arabic.

A totally different crowd would choose to go for that typically Egyptian treat that is only found in the type of restaurants called for the “masmat,” originally meaning the place where a slaughtered animal’s remains were dumped. Al-Tahra is one of the most famous of this type of restaurants in the area. The story has it that the restaurant was originally established in al-Sayeda Zeinab neighborhood, named after the prophet’s granddaughter, and that the name “al-tahra,” Arabic for “pure” or “chaste,” refers to her. The restaurant offers all sorts of internal organs, also called “slaughter by-products” or “delicacies” in Egyptian slang, such as tongue, lungs, and brain as well as the soft tissues of the head and the legs. Even the eyes are offered there. These parts are boiled then fried and offered with side dishes such as fatteh with garlic and vinegar, for which this restaurant is particularly famous.

On the more expensive side, there is the kebab shop Abu Taher that serves all types of traditional Egyptian meat dishes mainly the most popular kebab—not to be confused with the Turkish doner kebab—and kofta—minced meat fingers in addition to “tarb”—lamb kofta wrapped in lamb skin and “nifa”—grilled goat meat.

Abu Taher also offers ribs, sausages, and stuffed and grilled pigeons. The main difference between Abu Taher and the above-mentioned restaurants is the most of its regulars are from outside the area, mainly middle and upper middle class since it is not affordable for a large number of the locals, especially with the recent hikes in meat prices. All customers praise the cleanliness and the service, yet complain of lack of side dishes such as rice, pasta… etc., which they argue goes against the typical Egyptian preference of eating protein with carbs.

For those not in the mood for a protein-based meal, the “fatatri” is always a good option. Egyptian “feteer,” which can be Arabic for “pastry” or “dough” depending on the context, is a peculiar mix between crepe, pancakes, and pizza. The dough, stretched very thin, is rolled in the air several times by a skilfull “fatatri” then stuffed with sweet or salty ingredients and left to cook in the oven. The result is a delicious pastry that is crispy from the outside and juicy from the inside and that strangely enough feels like a pancake when sweet and like a pizza when savory. Al-Toukhi is the best destination for those looking for real feteer not only in Bab al-Shariya, but in Cairo in general. All sorts of stuffing are offered for the savory option—sausages, pastrami, tuna, chicken, mixed cheese, and eggs among others—while the sweet options mainly include honey, sugar, chocolate, and custard. Al-Toukhi also offers the traditional rural feteer, also called “meshaltet,” which is said to date back to ancient Egypt where it was offered at temples for the gods. In fact, the original name of this type of feteer is “maltout,” ancient Egyptian for “multiple” or “multi-layered.” This type consists of layers of filo-like pastry and can be eaten with traditional white cheese or honey with cream.

Almost everyone who eats in any of those restaurants cannot resist paying a visit to one single place for their “digestif” and that is none other than Mimi Gharib Drinks. A small shop displaying stainless steel containers with a little faucet at the bottom of each, Mimi Gharib, named after its founder, offers all Egyptian traditional drinks one might need after a heavy meal. These include tamarind, licorice, and carob. Added to these are popular local drinks such as “doum,” made from a fruit of the same name that was sacred for ancient Egyptians and “sobia,” a refreshing drink made of cold milk mixed with coconut, barley, or oats and usually consumed upon breaking the fast during the holy month of Ramadan. What distinguishes Mimi Gharib from similar vendors is the fact that drinks are served in stainless steel cups that apart from the aesthetic aspect do keep the drinks cold.

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