Everyone in the world from the time of Herodotus until now has heard tales of Egypt and its 3,000 pyramids. Egypt is much more than King Tut, the Pyramids of Giza, and the Sphinx. The Nile delta was the breadbasket of the ancient Mediterranean world. It was also home to Greek, Roman, Ottoman, French, and British Empires. It is home to ancient Jewish communities, Coptic Christian communities, and Muslim communities, with the world's most prominent Sunni school (80% of the Sunni Imams globally have been trained there). Cairo is the largest city in Africa, the largest in the Middle East, and is the 15th largest in the world. It is one of the most densely populated cities with 20 million people living on a strip of land a little bit larger than Manhattan Island. Cairo is so prominent in Egyptians minds that they call this city Egypt (In a small neighboring town, someone might say "tomorrow I am going to Egypt").
Life in Egypt
Both of us have spent time in Egypt. Brian lived there as a contractor in the Petroleum business and Stephen visited and saw most of the country while he was there. Brian was there during the Arab Spring, and watched the country go through a radical transformation as they chose their own president for the first time. Egypt was used by the French and then the Brits as an over land route to their eastern colonies. The Brits later built the Suez Canal and then installed their puppet as king. He was overthrown by Nasser, who was friendly to the Russians, then Sadat, who was friendly with the west, and finally by Mubarak, who in spite of playing himself as the "Islamic" president, was seen by locals to be a puppet of the West. Egyptians have essentially been under some kind of foreign rule or military dictatorship in the form of democracy from the beginning until now.
Politics aside, you can see some of the highlights of our time in the slideshow below. We found Egyptian people to be some of the most friendly and hospitable people we have ever met and we were able to develop lasting friendships there.
The Middle Eastern mentality regarding food is "feast or famine." If you eat like an Egyptian you can eat on a couple of dollars a day. Most Egyptians will eat certain staple foods until a holiday, wedding, or other celebration where they will kill the proverbial fatted calf, which in the Middle East is not proverbial. Dandanah's Cafe in Houston serves several of the Egyptian daily staple dishes. Koshari is one of the main dishes that is eaten almost daily by most Egyptians. It is a combination of noodles, rice, more noodles, lentils, chickpeas, and a spicy tomato sauce on top. In Egypt a large bowl will go for about a dollar and is probably big enough for two people to eat. In Egypt the dish is usually served street side from a small vendor who stands in front of vats of each ingredient and uses a large spoon to scoop and toss the layers into a bowl while the hungry crowd watches.
Use All the Parts!
Although not all Egyptians are Muslim, most Egyptians avoid pork. From a Muslim perspective, Halal means permitted. Halal food, then, is a list of permitted items that are killed in a specific way (By analogy, think of Kosher food). As such, for the permitted animals nothing goes to waste. When an animal is killed for a special occasion every part is used.
Mumbar is a sausage made from stuffed beef intestines. It contains rice, so it might remind you of Cajun Boudin if you have eaten that. Traditionally, sausage around the world is stuffed into animal intestines--until the recent convention of synthetic casing. It most non-Muslim countries, however, the casing is from pork intestine rather than beef. The difference is that Mumbar has a chewier and heartier mouth feel and flavor.
Mokh sandwiches are rather common. Typically the brain is breaded and fried, which not having a lot of experience with brain, we assume is the best way to eat it.
Finally, there are two other things you must try. Hawawshi is a small fried sandwich that fits into what we call the "meat pocket" category. Stuffed with savory meats and then fried, this is a delicious treat you wont want to pass up.
Fatir belongs in a category by itself. The Middle East is home to many (MANY) western food chains. The problem is that there are certain seasonings and ingredients that are in some way pork based and are therefore not used in these restaurants. Try pizza hut in the Middle East and not only does it taste "off" a little bit, you will feel like you ate a brick. A word to travelers, skip western food when you are in another country and go straight for the local joints. Fatir is essentially a local adaptation of pizza. There are many meat varieties which outrank any western chain of pizza in the country. The best flavor of fatir is Chocolate (and banana if you can find it)! Make sure you save room for this dessert!
Rarely do we find warning of spicy food to carry much weight. Check out today’s story where our usual response of “how would you eat this in your home?” to the question “how hot would you like it?” backfired on us.
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Our interview with Houston’s most interesting restaurateur has been more than a year in the making. We have this much awaited conversation on site at her new restaurant, Horn of Africa.
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Phoenicia: a Houston food institution and a “museum of food” that every Houstonian should explore.
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The intrepid explorers sailed around the world and brought back exotic new foods from the Americas while leaving their stamp on the world as far as the Philippines. With plenty of tapas to choose from and some of the only Moroccan food it the city, you need to add Andalusia to your list.
Nepal is where the East meets the West, and the North meets the South. It is also where the Sky meets the land. With the world's highest peak, Nepalis have their own time zone and have an independent spirit that has never been conquered.
Explore a Japanese market new to West Houston, and grab some ingredients to make something tasty and traditional (like Miso Soup)!
Cafe Brussels is not only the final outpost for Belgian food, but is also a cultural hub for Belgians and several other networks of Europeans who live here in Houston.