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Egypt - Food and Drink
Recipes handed down the generations make use of the beans and pulses that were widely and cheaply available to families existing on limited budgets. However, don’t dismiss Egyptian food as basic and worthy; the high calories of fried ghee added to varied and perfect blends of herbs and spices means each dish will surprise and delight.
You probably already know some versions of Egyptian food. You are likely to have eaten falafel; ta’myr is the Egyptian version, although freshly served from the kitchen of a specialist chef it will be far more delicious than any falafel you have warmed from a supermarket packet at home. Tahini is fast becoming a supermarket offering across the world; in Egypt they have been using it to top salads for generations.
Street food is popular and easily found. Kebda Iskandarani is liver cooked in a spicy and peppery sauce, served with lemon and bread. Butchers sell hawashy, which is warm baked bread containing pieces of meat.
Western foods such as pizza, pasta, omelettes, steak, fries and fast food can be found in any areas with a tourist or expat presence, so you won’t go without if you feel a craving for familiar foods from home.
However, don’t expect pork products to be widely available, as the majority of residents in Egypt are practising Muslims. Other meats will be halal.
Vegan And Vegetarian Foods In Egypt
Egypt doesn’t have a strong reputation as a vegetarian and vegan hotspot. However, a look at popular blogs such as Vegan Travel, Happy Cow and Alternative Egypt shows that you don’t have to be hungry to stick to your principles. If you are cooking at home, you can enjoy all the fresh fruit and veg harvested from nearby regions, whilst traditional Egyptian fare contains enough meat-free options to make any restaurant or street food experience accessible.
Often referred to as the Egyptian national dish, koshari is a vegetarian meal which originated in Egypt’s 19th century French community and was quickly adopted by Egyptian soldiers and local neighbourhoods.
To make koshari, mix rice, macaroni and lentils together, then add a spiced tomato sauce enhanced by garlic vinegar. The dish is topped with chickpeas and onions which have been fried until they are crispy, adding further rich flavours and texture. If a vegetable-based oil is used for frying, then koshari makes a wonderful vegan meal.
Koshari is traditionally a staple food enjoyed by working families and sold as street food. However, over time it found a place on restaurant menus, often selling at very affordable prices. At 800 calories a serving, though, it is best to avoid eating this too often if you care about your waistline!
According to data from the World Obesity Federation, a third of children in Egypt are obese. Adults too are getting larger; according to a 2011-12 survey by the World Health Organisation, 62 percent of Egypt’s adults are overweight, with half of those falling into the obese category. This is due to a mix of sugary foods, fried savoury foods, the lack of an exercise culture or facilities, and easy access to sugary desserts.
When you see the desserts on offer, you will understand why people overindulge. The range is huge, and puddings are found anywhere food is served or sold.
Om ali starts with Egyptian flat bread, soaked into a mixture of whole milk, sugar and nuts. It is then baked before being topped with cream.
Baspusa and harisa have semolina, butter and yoghurt as their core ingredients, and a sweet syrupy mixture is added after baking.
It’s easy to find ready-to-eat kunafa in any sweet shop, or the basic shells in a supermarket. The shredded wheat shell is filled with cream or nuts, before being smothered in sugar and lemon syrup.
As if doughnuts weren’t sweet enough already, in Egypt you can buy them covered in a sugar syrup coating. Known as zalabia or lockmet el-qady, these are available from any supermarket or local sweet bakery.
Gulash starts with thin layers of pastry cut into squares, and then filled with nuts, custard and sugar syrup of any combination you or the chef chooses. It’s easy to make at home but is also widely available in shops and eateries.
During Ramadan, most Muslims observe a fast throughout daylight. A tradition has sprung up in Egypt to sell atafy pancakes for breakfast before the sun rises at this time of year. Spread with honey or syrup and filled with cream and nuts, this dish helps start the day with a strong calorie boost.
Kakh is a traditional gift from a woman to her relatives to celebrate Eid-al-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan. This is a cookie which comes in many forms. Ghee, semolina, honey, walnuts, pistachios and plenty of powdered sugar are typical ingredients, although you may also come across unusual additions such as rose water.
Egyptian Wedding Food
Egyptian weddings are an important event for any family regardless of social position, and are not approached casually. Although some Western traditions have crept in, such as the cutting of a cake, the celebrations are on a larger scale than most Western weddings. Food, music and entertainment for large groups of relatives and friends can last throughout the night. The food at the heart of this can only be described as a feast.
Food Hygiene In Egypt
It is an unfortunate reality that good food hygiene standards in Egypt have taken a long time to become the norm. Clean water, sanitary facilities and consistently applied staff and storage hygiene practices require significant investment in premises, appliances and staff training.
However, a National Food Safety Authority has been recently established in Egypt. This is a regulatory body with responsibility for the inspection and enforcement of food safety regulations amongst a range of other duties. International experts including US food safety guru Christine Ellen Testa have trained Egypt’s existing inspectors to a high level before recruiting and training a larger inspectorate workforce.
Alcohol In Egypt
Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country, with significant areas of deprivation. Traditional values prevail in most communities there. It is rare for a woman to appear in public without her head covered by a headscarf, hijab or niqab. A survey by the UN Children’s Fund in 2016 found that 87 percent of women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 had suffered female genital mutilation. This usually happens in or near their own homes without anaesthetic, medically qualified staff, sanitary conditions or aftercare. The procedure was banned in 2008 and then criminalised in 2016 in an attempt to force cultural attitudes to change.
The majority of people in Egypt view consumption of alcohol as unacceptable. Tourists have been generally unaware of this as hotels, bars and restaurants have been licensed under strict laws that allow them to serve alcohol as part of the economically important tourism market. Some are licensed to purchase their stock from a small number of business-only duty-free stockists, albeit within strict quotas. Only about a thousand licenses have been issued, and they are clustered around tourism hot spots and upmarket areas.
There are domestic alcohol products available. The Al-Ahram Beverages Company, nationalised by President Gamal Abdel Nasser, was bought by Heineken in 1998. It owns vineyards, distilleries, factories, distributors and the Drinkies chain of shops, all used to produce and sell their wine, beer, larger, whiskey, vodka and gin. Its dominance of the market means there is little in the way of price competition.
For expats, government restrictions and import taxes on alcohol made drinks expensive to buy compared to the general cost of living in Egypt. Bringing duty free drinks into the country was one way to keep costs down, but requires regular travel.
There are plenty of counterfeit products available if you know where to ask. Unfortunately, it is possible to seriously damage your health drinking some of these illegal liquids. You can go blind if you unwittingly drink something containing methanol, for example.
Egypt has a tipping culture. It can be hard to work out the amounts and the best practice when you aren’t used to this. If a member of staff in a hotel gives you a gift part way through your stay, it can leave you feeling confused and embarrassed about the etiquette.
Wages in Egypt are very low, and the population has been suffering from political and economic instability over the past decade. Many families live in conditions which are far removed from modern Western households. That does not mean you have to hand over huge tips for unremarkable service, but you should consider the tip as part of your spending budget when going anywhere. Some restaurants will just add a service charge and then you don’t need to consider a tip on top.
Be aware of how much each tip is worth in local purchasing terms, and how much of a difference the member of staff has made to your day. That is a better guide than a strict percentage.
If you slightly over-tip or overpay for something, try not to worry; the chances are it meant an insignificant amount of money to you, but the person who received it can now put more food on their family's table.
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