Thursday, May 3, 2012

Fast Falafel in Old Cairo

A world away from the tourist-thronged pyramids and the commotion of central Cairo lies the quarter known as “Medieval Cairo.” This small area has 850 listed monuments, making it one of the most heritage-rich enclaves on Earth. Evocative, atmospheric, and little changed, the fascinating quarter is also believed to be the home of Egypt’s version of fast food: the falafel.

For many, Egypt’s capital Cairo is synonymous with pharaohs, pyramids, and sphinxes. But Cairo was never in fact a Pharaonic city, despite being situated close to the ancient capital of Memphis, and was only formally founded in the 10th century under the Fatimids, who marched in from modern-day Tunisia. Al Qahira (“the victorious”), as Cairo is still known in Arabic today, soon grew into a great and prosperous city ruled by a series of wealthy, tyrannical, and sometimes capricious sultans.
The magnificent monuments erected during this time made the city a legend in its own day, and many still survive. Extending from the old Fatimid gate of Bab Zowaylah in the south to Bab Al Futuh in the north, Al Qahira is as well preserved architecturally as it is atmospherically; it is quite simply one of the finest, most evocative medieval cities in the world.
Market-goers for centuries have had to dodge the donkey carts that still clatter down the alleyways. In the souks, the piles of pungent spices and the earthy aromas emanating from the food stands are a heady mix; and the competing cries of the gallabiyya-clad market vendors echo around the city walls.
From the 4th to the 6th centuries, the Copts, a very early Christian community, were the largest religious group in Egypt. They were eager to create a vegetarian alternative to meat for days of fasting and are credited with the invention of falafel (or ta’amiya as it’s better known in Cairo) for this purpose. The popular fritter caught on throughout Egypt, then across the Middle East and beyond. It is usually made from uncooked, ground fava beans in Egypt (or from chickpeas or a combination of both elsewhere), which are mixed with garlic, parsley, sesame seeds, onions, pepper, cumin, and coriander, then deep-fried until golden brown.
Falafel is served as meze (see also pp110–13), and sometimes as part of iftar, the meal that breaks the daily fast after sunset during Ramadan. But it’s usually eaten as a kind of fast food, in pita bread or lafa (another flatbread), with salad, pickled vegetables, hot pepper sauce, and tahini (a sesame seed paste). Hot, crisp, and freshly made falafel is the perfect thing to eat while drifting among the beautiful buildings of old Cairo.

Above : Fast food Egyptian-style: crunchy falafel in pita bread with cucumber, lettuce, mint leaves, and yogurt

Best Places to Eat Falafel

Naguib Mahfouz Café

Naguib Mahfouz is like an oasis amid the swirling motion and commotion of the Khan al-Khalili bazaar. Named after Egypt’s 1988 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, who regularly came here, the café-restaurant provides a cool, serene, and civilized escape from Cairo’s chaos. The elegant, marbled café is a great place for a fresh falafel snack, reviving cup of Arabic coffee or sheesha pipe – or better still, all three. Deeper inside, the lavish decor à l’Oriental of the formal restaurant provides an atmospheric and moody setting for a quiet lunch or dinner, particularly inside the private niches off the corridor. Specializing in classic Egyptian dishes that are well prepared, cooked, and served, the Naguib is an excellent choice for a first foray into Egyptian cooking or for a last-night splurge. The Naguib’s ta’amiya (falafel) are prepared with finely diced green onion and garlic, subtly spiced with coriander and cumin, and topped with sesame seeds.
5 Sikket Al Baddistan, Khan al-Khalili, Cairo; open 10 AM–11 PM daily; +20 2 2590 3788
Also in Cairo
Run by the same family for 50 years, the Felfella Restaurant (+20 2 2392 2833; moderate) on Shari’ Hoda Shaarawi has carved a niche and reputation for itself by offering fresh, wholesome, and good-quality Egyptian cooking at competitive prices in clean, convivial surroundings. Ta’amiya is the specialty: the crisp and carefully fried exterior hides a bright green fava interior that shouts of freshness and attentive cooking. For a good, inexpensive pit-stop when you’re sightseeing, try Al Halwagy (inexpensive), located 165 yards (150 m) east of Shari’ Al Mu’ez Li Dinillah. Over a century old, this tiny, modest little place has survived through force of reputation: its ta’amiya and fuul are legendary.
Also in Egypt
Mohammed Ahmed (+20 3 487 3576; inexpensive) in Alexandria is an unassuming restaurant with a fanatical local following. Two staples have made it famous: ta’amiya and fuul.
The menu (available in English) offers a good choice of salads, sauces, and condiments to accompany the little golden beauties, which can be eaten in or taken away.
Around the World
In central London, the Ali Baba (+44 20 7723 7474; inexpensive) near Regent’s Park has developed something of a cult following for both nostalgic Egyptians and Londoners seeking fresh, decent Middle Eastern food at attractive prices, including the crunchy and flavorsome ta’amiya.
Egyptian Eating Etiquette
In the Arab world, the right hand only is used for eating. The left, reserved for toilet ablutions, is kept firmly tucked away. If eating from a communal plate, it’s considered bad manners to dig in with too much relish – including reaching for dishes not placed near you, overfilling your mouth, or eating too fast. The refusal of at least some second helpings is equally frowned upon.
Once full, locals sometimes place their right hand over their stomach or heart to show repletion and gratitude. During the Muslim month of Ramadan, it shows sensitivity and respect to avoid eating, drinking, or smoking in public. If invited to an Egyptian household, it’s considered good manners to bring a small gift such as flowers, chocolates, or pastries. Shoes are left at the door, hands are washed, and guests are seated next to a person of the same sex.
A Day in Cairo
After a traditional breakfast of fuul (cooked, mashed fava beans), head first for the monumental 10th-century gateway, Bab Zowaylah.
MORNING : Just outside the gate, take a look at the Mosque of Salih Talay and the Souk Al Khayyameyyah, which once furnished the Fatimid armies with tents and saddles. Climb the ramparts for spectacular views over the old city. After a visit to the Mosque- Madrasah of Sultan Mu’ayyad Shaykh, continue along Shari’ Al Mu’ez Li Dinillah until you reach the 16th-century Al Ghuri complex.
AFTERNOON : Visit the famous 10th-century mosque of Al Azhar, one of the oldest educational institutions in the world. Have Arabic coffee at Suliman Café and then shop for perfume, spice, and gold in the famous Khan al-Khalili bazaar. If you have time, visit the Fatimid and Mamluk complexes, containing the world’s densest collection of mosques, madrasahs, mausoleums, and khanqahs (Sufi “monasteries”).
EVENING : See Sufi whirling dervishes at the Wikala Al Ghuri, then retire to a restaurant for falafel meze and delicious fresh seafood.
Getting to Cairo
Buses, minibuses, and taxis connect Cairo’s international airport with the downtown, 12 miles (20 km) away. The metro and taxis are the simplest ways of getting around town.
Where to stay in Cairo
Carlton Hotel (inexpensive) is centrally located in a 1930s building with simple but spotless rooms.
Grand Hotel (moderate) is less grand than it once was, but the former five-story palace still offers large and comfortable rooms at good prices.
Mena House Oberoi (expensive) is a stunning 19th-century hunting lodge with breathtaking pyramid views.

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