Cairo food tour: Full Bellies en route guaranteed…
Travelling to an Arabic-speaking country can be daunting. The language is so unfamiliar. In Italy, Spain or France you can ‘guesstimate’ some words as they are derived from Latin. Written Arabic is beautiful to the eye, but that’s where it stops; I wouldn’t be able to even take pot luck as to where we were.
My travelling buddy and I were heading to Egypt. First stop Cairo. A lover of trying anything new, I was eager to find someone who bypass the language barrier and introduce me to everyday food the Cairenes eat.
As fate would have it, I came across a YouTube post by a young Australian couple who recorded their experience with Bellies en Route. It sounded right on target, exactly what we were looking for.
I emailed Laila, Bellies en Route founder, booked and paid for our walking food tour in advance, and let the weeks unfold.
Our Cairo food tour day finally arrived. Laila met us promptly at the arranged time outside Hardee’s opposite Tahrir Square. There were two other couples, both from the States, who joined us. Laila only takes a maximum of six people on the walking food tour making it an intimate, friendly experience for all.
It’s impossible to reveal the names of all the places we visited as most of the signage is in Arabic, but what I can say with good authority is Laila is the perfect hostess, knowledgeable foodie and generous guide. The tour was memorable, informative and highly recommended.
Bellies en Route covers savoury and sweet dishes, juices and aromatic coffee, detours around the local market, and there’s plenty of bottled water thrown in for good measure.The route we took will probably change as Laila and her business partner continually find new places to introduce to their customers. The night we walked the streets with our new-found foodie friends we covered all the traditional foods, learnt the history behind them, experienced how the food was prepared, cooked, and served. We ate and drank our way around downtown Cairo finishing with a sit-down meal in a restaurant then surprise rooftop location for a night cap.
If anyone had the desire to try and replicate this tour it would be impossible. Laila and her Bellies en Route partners know the owners of each establishment we visited. The food is guaranteed fresher than fresh. Once you set foot on the food tour you unwittingly follow Laila closely, not only to hear her stories but to ensure you don’t get lost as you traverse laneways and make your way through chaotic traffic. Bring along a big appetite and empty belly because you will be well and truly full by the end of your three to four-hour walking tour.
First stop we sunk our teeth into the local favourite Macaroni Béchamel, the Egyptian version of lasagne or macaroni cheese (pasta lightly sprinkled with minced beef, chopped onion, tomato paste, and topped with a classic béchamel sauce).
A bowl of tomato and chilli sauce was also provided leaving it up to individuals to add or not. Accompanying the dish was a drink dubbed ‘no-alcohol whiskey’. Amazingly it does give the same peppery hit; it’s a little like drinking whiskey straight without the lethal after effects. Careful to take only small sips, this concoction sneaks up on you. Who would have thought a drink made from the liquid remains from rinsing salad greens added to a variety of spices could create such a dynamic beverage? If memory serves me correctly the drink included sliced mint, vinegar, cumin cardamom, all spice, garlic and onion. I had only sip. It was mighty powerful.
Sitting around the table eating our first ‘course’ opened the doors for breezy introductions, chats and general conviviality which set a spirited, easy tone to the evening.
Next stop, Laila’s favourite coffee stop. Here we learnt about the glorious addition of freshly ground cardamom. Who would have known that a cup of this just-brewed coffee with its added secret spice would act as a digestive and give you a good night’s sleep? Laila called it the ‘amuse bouche’ of the evening’s food tour.
Onward we walked. Our next port of call was a tiny little café. We made our way past an equally tiny open kitchen and clambered up steep steps to a small open room. We pushed two tables together and chatted excitedly while the owners of this establishment laid our table with just-cooked roast chicken, rice mixed with toasted vermicelli, mulukhiyah (or molokhia – a viscous concoction made by cutting off the leaves of jute and Corchorus plants, then cooked with garlic), and ful (pronounced fool) made from fava beans, soaked overnight and cooked for hours over low heat to remove the bean casings. And of course, Egyptian flatbread (aish baladi), which is par for the course with every meal.
From there we headed to a juice specialist. We squished inside a cute little bar festooned with fruit bundled into net bags hanging from the ceiling and piles of fresh produce randomly stacked on the counter. Like fine wine connoisseurs we slowly sipped four delicious and totally disparate drinks: coconut (like silky coconut ice), tamarind, pressed sugar cane and ‘sweat of the wolf’. The last one was a little like hibiscus juice and seriously good. What the actual name of the fruit is in English I can’t say but it was truly delicious.
The remainder of the evening unfolded effortlessly as we ventured down alleys onto main streets and back down alleys. We braved the traffic by simply walking straight out into the stream of cars, who promptly beeped madly but stopped gladly. It’s street theatre at its best.
Past antique shops filled with dreamy old French wares from a bygone era, we arrived at Felfela, which according to the sign, was established in 1959 or was it 1963 as per the mosaic at the front entry? This place was quirky because the open-air restaurant is built between the external walls of two buildings. Here we enjoyed top service and greeted with beaming smiles from the wait staff.
Felfela’s spread included thick, unctuous lentil soup, crunchy felafel, dips, breads, and a selection of mashi (vegetables stuffed with savoury, seasoned rice). It wasn’t long after this feast we headed for another open-air food hub where we were greeted by a young lad bearing bowls of koshari (a mix of rice, pasta, tomato sauce, onion, lentils, chickpeas and garlic topped with crispy onion pieces and self-serve chilli vinegar).
Time for dessert. Bellies bulging, we made our way to, what would have to be, the best pastry shop in Downtown Cairo. Again, I have no idea of the name of this establishment – the sign is in Arabic. We had tried three types of dessert and learnt about the history of these desserts, how they can be transformed into different dessert variations depending on additions to the base ingredients.
Each time Laila takes her foodie followers the desserts change but on our food tour we tried a few different traditional Arab desserts; the standout was the konafa (the Queen of Egypt sweets) made of shredded konafa pieces, filled with cream or cheese (similar to a runny, light cream cheese), baked and eaten with syrup.Bringing the experience to new heights, Laila completed the evening’s adventure with a short ride in a three-person only lift to the roof top of the Carlton Hotel for dreamy views of Cairo at night and a refreshing local beer.
Bellies En Route gave us a contemporary understanding of the people, history and culture of this fantastic city. We loved every step and every mouthful.
To contact Laila or book a tour: https://belliesenroute.com