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.

Canada Dry

Doing tourist things in Egypt with my parents the last couple of weeks, I’ve had more chances to study the strange social behaviours that arise from the tourist industry. From the humble camel tout (“good price”) to the more elaborate story (“I work at the hotel restaurant, I saw you yesterday…”), many people who live off tourism will say anything to provide you with wares or services you usually don’t need in exchange for some of your money. Taxis, calèches (horse-drawn carriages), and boat rides abound especially in Luxor, where walking along the corniche becomes something of a joke that we then repeated amongst ourselves to lighten the mood.

“Hey, mister! Madame! Where you going? Where you from? Taxi? Good price! Calèche? Need a boat? Five pound. Market this way, market this way.” Some will stop once you say no thank you, many will persist, making you feel even less like saying yes. The pestering is constant, but it’s all part of the tourist game.

Of course, one of the strategies these sellers employ is to try and start a conversation with you. The easiest way is to ask you where you’re from. Ignoring the question is a bit too impolite for our Western sensibilities, answering the truth will inevitably open up some kind of opportunity for further questions or conversation. Sometimes I lie and say Bhutan, which inevitably gets quizzical looks. Apparently not many Bhutanese make it to Upper Egypt.

Whenever we say we’re Canadian, we inevitably get the same response: “Canada? Canada Dry!” It was funny the first time, it got old really fast.

But in fact this ubiquitous response leads to more questions. Do other nationalities get their special response, or are we the only one? Also, how did camel tour sellers and site porters and taxi drivers all come to say the same thing from Giza to Aswan? Moreover, I don’t think I’ve ever seen ginger ale sold anywhere in Egypt. So what gives? How do they even know about this brand? Who started this thing and how did it spread?

Looking a bit online, it seems that many fellow Canadians got a similar response: “Canada Dry, Never Die!” It sounds like Canady Dry used to run some kind of successful marketing campaign in Egypt that caught on and worked too well.

Hibiscus G&T

It’s been hot in Cairo lately, so my mind naturally turns to ice-cold drinks.

One of the most popular (non alcoholic, of course) drinks in Egypt is an infusion of karkade, or hibiscus flower, which are grown in Upper Egypt and Sudan. The beverage can be drunk hot or cold; it has a vivid red color and a deliciously tart taste.

One of our local grocery stores in Cairo sells pre-made hibiscus juice, and G. had the genius idea of mixing some of the juice into one of our favourite cocktails: the gin and tonic.

The G&T is one of the only cocktails that we’ve found is easy to make here in Cairo, so I should include a few words about the other ingredients.

First, the gin. In Egypt, alcohol can only be bought from specialty stores such as Drinkies. But alcohol production is heavily regulated, and most of the beverages you can buy in these stores are Egyptian-made, or at least Egyptian-branded—that includes the beer, of course, but also the wine, the gin and, yes, the whisky. They have alluringly appropriate names like The Auld Stag and Butler’s and Château Granville, but you must not be fooled. The quality isn’t great, but we’ve found the gin, in particular, tastes fine when mixed. Also, at 200 Egyptian pounds (just over 10 USD) for the 750 ml bottle and hour-delivery, I won’t complain.

Second, the tonic. We were a bit disheartened when we first moved here because we couldn’t find tonic anywhere in corner shops or grocery stores. When the grocery store nearest to us finally did get some after a couple of weeks, we bought all the bottles on the shelf. Since then, we think we broke their ordering system by creating high demand and they’ve had entire shelves stocked full of tonic, so we never run out (yes, we do drink a lot of G&Ts).

So what about the cocktail? Drop in a small lime cut in half and a couple of ice cubes. Then add a healthy pour of gin and a splash of hibiscus juice. Top with tonic. The tart hibiscus flavour melds with the citrus and balances the sweet quinine of the tonic, and the bright red colour—just nudging towards pink when diluted in the drink—sets off the green of the lime. As refreshing as it is beautiful.

When we were last in Upper Egypt, we purchased a bag of dried hibiscus flowers at the souq so that we could make our own karkade infusion back home when we leave Egypt and replicate the drink, this time playing around with different kinds of gins and tonics.

The Mystic of Abydos

When we visited the beautiful temple of Seti I at Abydos last month, we were more interested in the beautiful reliefs, ceiling decorations, hypostyle* halls, and chapels than in the other tourists who were there.

Except some of them were acting a little strangely.

One woman with a big backpack was walking around barefoot in the area near the sanctuary, and I could’ve sworn I caught a glimpse of her lying down on the ground on a yoga mat amid the columns afterwards. When we went outside to check out the remains of the now partly flooded Osireion behind the temple, three women were sitting there, eyes-closed, humming.

Egypt has long been a magnet for all matter of hippies, mystics, illuminated, and crackpots (sorry for putting you all in the same category—you know I love you). But, as I learned from an offhand remark in my guidebook, there is one case related to this temple in particular that stands out among all the others.

Dorothy Eady was an Englishwoman of Irish descent born in 1904. After a fall down a flight of stairs as a child, she started behaving strangely. When she visited the British Museum, she became obsessed with Ancient Egypt and eventually moved to Egypt as an adult. I won’t detail her whole life here (although I suggest you read the Wikipedia article devoted to her), but the essential thing to know is that she believed that she was the reincarnation of a priestess of the Temple of Osiris at Abydos who was forced to commit suicide after sleeping with the pharaoh.

The strange thing is that Eady, who was definitely a little strange, also displayed an excellent knowledge of Ancient Egypt. She conducted first-rate ethnographical studies, mastered Egyptian hieroglyphs, and shed light on many aspect of both contemporary and ancient Egyptian culture by studying daily life in the villages around Abydos. She was able to trace the evolution of certain customs in these villages back to ancient times.

So, were the meditative tourists we saw that day in the Temple of Set I trying to commune with the spirit of a reincarnated temple priestess? I didn’t ask. Whatever they were doing, I hope they found what they were looking for.

By the way, there’s another weird detail about the Temple of Seti I at Abydos, which one of the site guards pointed out to me. Near the ceiling of the first colonnaded hall, there is a set of hieroglyphs that look like they depict a helicopter, an airplane, and a tank. The strange shapes of the hieroglyphs are actually due to the fact that they were re-carved, but they’ve fuelled the theories of many UFO enthusiasts over the years.

*it means it has rows of pillars.