My Favourite Restaurant in Egypt

You rarely see Egyptians eat. They have small breakfasts on the go, traditionally a ful medames (stewed beans) or falafel with some bread. Their biggest meal tends to be late in the afternoon, where they have salads, dips, bread, pickles, and some kind of saucy meat or vegetables. They’ll eat whatever is left over for dinner.

Egypt is not really a renowned culinary destination, but for truly exceptional meals the best is to stick with local food. I’ve read in a few places that the best place to eat in Egypt is in someone’s home, and short of that, the best meals I’ve had in Egypt are in a restaurant called Toutankhamon, on the west bank of Luxor in Upper Egypt.

It was an Egyptologist friend of ours who recommended this restaurant, and at first we were a bit put off by the touristy name and the décor: you eat on an empty terrace on the roof of the building. The only atmosphere is provided by the whirling fans overhead. At least there’s a nice view of the Nile.

Things get better when the owner comes to take your order: he’s exceptionally kind and welcoming. There’s no menu: you choose from whatever his wife made that day. This is an unfussy family business. The fresh lemon juice is delicious and not too sweet, exactly what you need after a hot dusty trundle down the Valley of the Kings.

Then the food arrives: salad, dips, fresh bread. Always a couple of vegetable dishes, such as spinach with chickpeas, or potatoes with tomato sauce, or ratatouille. G., who doesn’t eat meat, is always happy. The main is usually some kind of stewed meat, expertly spiced. I’ve tried duck à l’orange, a beef and vegetable stew, curried chicken with bananas and coconut, meatballs in tomato sauce. Everything is outstanding. It’s a joy to dip your bread in the flavoursome sauces and even the rice, served in a large earthenware dish and speckled with vermicelli, is tastier than expected. Desert—usually a piece of fruit or a bit of pastry—and coffee or tea are included.

We’ve been to Toutankhamon four times now and have never been disappointed. We always leave happy and bloated. Definitely one of our Egyptian highlights, and a “must” for any trip to Luxor.

Where to Eat in Cairo? Zööba!

Zööba doesn’t particularly need additional advertising: the place is always packed, you can see their delivery mopeds everywhere, and it boasts six locations throughout Greater Cairo. Still, it’s the restaurant we keep going back to (and ordering in from) again and again, so it deserves to be celebrated a little here.

We love Zööba because they serve dishes rooted in traditional Egyptian street food and made with fresh ingredients, but modernized with a little bit of zing. People come here for their takes on local classic dishes such as pickles, salad, koshari (Egypt’s national dish of pasta, rice, lentils, chickpeas, tomato sauce, and fried onions), the fuhl (warm bean stew served with bread), and tameya (Cairene word for falafel). Everything is delicious.

G. usually gets a tameya sandwich, served in baladi (local) flatbreads and offered in different flavours such as spicy pepper, eggplant, or pickled lemon. I can’t get enough of their chicken shawarma plate, which is served on perfumed rice with fresh argula, pickled beetroot, lightly pickled cucumbers, lots of veggies, and tahina sauce.

The Zamalek location is stylish but small—you sit down at a shared zinc table in the middle of the restaurant and try not to elbow the other diners in the face. I love the counter at the front, which is where the koshari gets made: a giant beaten metal bowl of carbs, smaller pots over bricks and flames to keep the spicy tomato sauce nice and hot.

If you want to try out delicious, quality Egyptian street food without any risk of indigestion, this is definitely the place to go.

Zamalek

Since we arrived in Cairo, we’ve spent a lot of our time in Zamalek, a central neighbourhood located on Gezira Island. Gezira means island in Arabic, so Gezira Island basically means Island Island. At least it’s straightforward!

Gezira Island is sliced in half by the 26th July flyover and the corridor underneath it. The top half of the island is occupied by a district called Zamalek, while the lower half is dotted with many famous Cairo landmarks, such as the Marriott Hotel (on which more at a later date), Cairo tower, the Cairo Opera House, and the legendary Gezira Sporting Club.

Zamalek is a leafy, upscale neighbourhood, somewhat quieter than other parts of the city, although you still get lots of local flavour (read: honking). Many foreign embassies are located in beautiful mansions in the area, often surrounded by gardens, and sometimes impressive concrete walls, which means that many expats call the area home. They’re usually at work during the week, but on Friday afternoon and Saturday you can spot them walking about or going to the grocery store. There are several supermarkets in Zamalek that are popular with expats because they offer a good selection of foreign products.

A couple of things I like about Zamalek: Helwan University’s Faculty of Fine Arts is located on the corner of two main streets, so during the week the nearby sidewalks are flooded with art students carrying their rolled-up works. One of my favourite places nearby is a traditional ice cream and pastry shop called Madarine Koueider, where the service is a little mad (you have to order, pay, and get your pastries wrapped at three different counters) but the sweets are delicious, chock-full of butter, nuts, and honey.

For tourists visiting Cairo, there might not be many things to see or do in Zamalek, but it’s a nice place to walk around, shop in fancy boutiques, snoop in the numerous art galleries, and stop for a coffee or a meal. One of the best places to go is Pottery Café, where expats and well-off Cairenes come to drink mint lemonades and suck on shishas by the Nile.