Cairo Kitchen is a sleek little café with a clever concept. But unlike so many concept joints that disappoint, this one is a treasure. It’s where the cool kids go in Cairo.
The concept in question is upscale koshary. Koshary is something of a national dish in Egypt, the poor person’s staple – carbs designed to get a person through a day of tough labour. The most common version, bought from a street cart for a few cents, is a bowl of brown rice topped with a heap of mushy macaroni, a scoop of lentils or chickpeas on top of that, followed by tomato-ish sauce, and maybe a layer of crispy burnt onions
At Cairo Kitchen, you can go for the classic comfort food and have a bright melamine bowl full of street koshary, with a bit of class – the noodles aren’t gluey, there is a hint of thyme in the sauce. But you can also have it jazzed up: with shrimp or Thai chicken, for example. It’s filling and healthy and cozy and a definitive Egyptian experience.
Cairo Kitchen is having its moment now, in post-revolutionary Egypt, where people are newly fond of national symbols, of tradition and of new ideas about what the country can be. The restaurant is the creation of a woman who dreamed up two of the city’s trendier nightspots, and a foodie pal; they are interested in exploring and preserving what they call Egypt’s heritage foods.
You order your meal from a counter along the back: the steaming cauldrons of koshary, from which the genial cooks lift the lids with a flourish, and a dazzling glass cabinet full of salads. For 25 Egyptian pounds, or $4, get a large salad platter and pick anything that catches your fancy: carrot hummus; zucchini stuffed with salty Arab cheese; red bell peppers filled with fereek, cracked wheat. Do not miss the Moroccan eggplant salad, shot through with cinnamon, which makes the list of Top 10 best things I’ve ever eaten anywhere. There are 25 salads on offer; the list changes each day.
There are also daily specials, most of them focused on meat and drawn from granny’s cookbook, such as mulukhiya, bitter greens with chicken, or fattah, rice and lentils with veal.
Once your tray is loaded with the sturdy and colourful dishes, turn to the row of drink dispensers, gleaming in jewel tones like jellybeans. There is lemon-mint, the best lemon drink I’ve had anywhere in 20 years of working in some serious lemonade-consuming countries. There is fuchsia karkade, or hibiscus juice, an Egyptian specialty. And there is a coconut milk that is so absurdly good I took obscene advantage of the free refill policy.
And then, dessert. There is rice pudding with cardamom – it’s what your gran would make if she had grown up in the Nile Delta watching Nigella Lawson. There are sweet potatoes with caramel, and apricot-ginger pudding. Each is under $2. It will be difficult, but I suggest you save room for two.
The space itself is small, tucked into a side street on the leafy island of Zamalek in the middle of the Nile, an upscale Cairo neighbourhood. There are three tables out front on the sidewalk, excellent for people-watching although a bit loud from the city’s ever-present traffic – and a quieter little terrace out back, plus a handful of tables inside, where the walls are half tiled in turquoise, and covered in brilliant red and blue murals of Arabic script. The front windows are paned in yellow, red and blue glass, evocative of the street-vendor’s kosharycart, and the calligraphy mimics the slogans, with boasts about how hot the peppers are.
If Cairo isn’t in your travel plans, you can have a bit of the Cairo Kitchen experience vicariously, by following their blog at blog.cairokitchen.com. But that eggplant salad – it’s almost worth the trip to Egypt in itself.