I ignored it in Egypt for the first few days, not so much that I don’t like falafel (I do), but I can get it in Seattle where I live. How many ways can it be made, I figured.
That’s before I knew there was a distinctive Egyptian version. How is it different? Instead of chick peas, it’s made from fava beans. They take on a nice shade of green from any number of herbs that can be mixed in the batter, like parsley, cilantro, leek, dill.
The first sample I had was just down the street from the hotel where I was staying in Giza, a restaurant called Felfela, where our tour guide Waleed ordered a plateful. He told us the restaurant is known for its ta’ameya, which is what the falafel is called.
The best I’ve ever had without question. Why? Favas don’t absorb as much oil as chick peas do, according to Waleed, which makes them extra crispy on the outside. Because they’re not as mealy as garbanzos, the texture inside is a tad chewier. In addition, the falafels tend to be flatter than the spherical shape made throughout the Middle East and Levant.
On our third day on tour, while visiting the pyramids of Saqqara, we stopped in the town of Dashur where Waleed got everyone a falafel sandwich from a local stand. It was lightly dressed (if at all) and packed with fresh vegetables, falafel and roasted eggplant. Simple but delicious.
The Egyptian diet also includes ful medames (mudammas) which my Giza hotel served every morning. Their version of these beans was more smashed than usual, looking more like Mexican refried beans. Condiments on the side included minced red onion, lemon, salt, ground cumin and ground chiles. I had them every morning until I noticed their effects later in the day. Still, if there weren’t friends around me, I wouldn’t have worried so much about their after-effects.
I like vegetables with meals. Egypt didn’t disappoint. Every lunch and dinner included many salads and vegetable side dishes that I’m not entirely sure were Egyptian. But many were. Vegetarians need not worry in Egypt.
Eggplant dishes are bountiful in Egypt. Every meal at hotels and on the Nile river cruisers served them in one form or another. The most abundant is baba ghanoush, smashed roasted and charred eggplant mixed with spices.
A dish similar to dolmas is called mahshi, eggplant or zucchini stuffed with rice, herbs and spices.
We loaded onto the bus after visiting the Cairo Museum all morning, ready for lunch. “Americans love McDonald’s, Egyptians love koshary,” Waleed told the group, as he distributed takeaway containers from a renowned place specializing in it (Abou Tarek in Cairo). Koshary is a savory, filling carb-loaded dish: rice, lentils, chick peas, fried onions, spaghetti-like noodles cooked in two ways, topped with a chunky tomato sauce.
A few places served kofta, a dish popular throughout the Levant, minced meat (beef, lamb, chicken) with spices, formed into cigar shapes around skewers and grilled.
While in Egypt, I knew I had to try pigeon, which as a delicacy is not nearly as popular here in the U.S. The flesh is reminiscent of dark chicken meat and is fattier like duck. The squab is typically stuffed with rice (or freekeh).
Egyptian pita, called eish (aish) baladi, was served at almost every meal.
No account of my culinary foraging in Egypt would be complete without mentioning Turkish coffee flavored with cardamom. It’s a beverage to be savored by itself (or dessert). Powdery fine ground coffee, sugar (optional) and water are heated in a small pot (cezve) and poured unfiltered into demitasse cups. You take a small sip at a time and leave the coffee sludge at the bottom. The cardamom gives it an exotic taste, which I much prefer to cinnamon (which I find too ‘sweet’). Sometimes ground ginger and nutmeg are added. At home, I’ve adapted it to my electric coffee machine.
Recently, the Seattle area’s only Egyptian restaurant opened. My wife and I have yet to try it. But no matter how good, the food won’t be as unforgettable as when we ate it at communal tables, in Egypt, with our newly made touring friends with whom we shared this culinary adventure.