How to find the best fuul for the soul

What does the phrase "street food" conjure in your mind? For each person the thought of food bought from a vendor on the street may involve the following words: delicious, cheap, fast, food poisoning. I'm always hard-pressed to find people who actually hate street food. Most admit to at least occasionally having to run out to grab something when the urge becomes irresistible. When I lived in Canada it involved hot dogs, Pogo sticks, poutine and beavertails. I love street meat. Sure, the idea is kind of horrendous - who knows what's in that big juicy "all-beef" hot dog. But once in a while, the salty, fatty piece of meat, slathered with mustard and green garnish, is good for the soul.

Poutine is a type of all-Canadian street food. Hailing from French Canada, the dish involves golden fries, liberally sprinkled with cheese curds and coated in gravy. Mmmm, my heart goes a-flutter when I think of it. Then of course beavertails - flat pieces of dough fried to a perfect crisp and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar - best if devoured while skating on the canal in my hometown in sub-zero temperatures.

No trip in Egypt is complete without a good dose of street food. Because of the poverty here, street food actually makes up the daily diet of many people. Greasy and heavy, the food is either sold from colourful wagons on street corners, in busy bus stations or small hole-in-the-wall shops with sawdust sprinkled on the floors and people squeezing past each other, shoving their orders under the server's nose.

There are three main types of street fare in Egypt: the basic fuul, a paste made by slow cooking mashed fava beans; and falafel (called ta'meya in Cairo) stands or koshary shops. While falafel is made all over the Arab world, koshary and fuul are the national dishes of Egypt. Koshary is a high-carb meal consisting of rice, macaroni, lentils, chick peas and tiny pieces of spaghetti, topped with fried onion and a chilli tomato sauce or a sour lemon dressing. Feel full yet? A friend in Egypt eats this a few hours before he plays soccer to ensure he has enough energy for his match. The meal comes in various sized plastic tubs to go, or if you eat inside the small shops it is served on a plain metal plate. The largest normally costs about 50 US cents.

Most Koshary stands look similar. The server works behind a glass pane on a raised platform, behind huge separate bowls of lentils, chickpeas, spaghetti and rice. Given an order, he ladles the ingredients with a number of quick swipes and throws them into a tub, closes the lid and off you go. There are a couple of excellent places for fuul and falafels in Cairo. One is dubbed "Midnight Fuul" by the expats. The other is a wagon on a quiet street in the Garden City area of downtown Cairo, where you can satisfy midnight cravings for fava bean paste sandwiches, salty falafel mixed with scrambled eggs, or oily omelettes eaten with bread between pinched fingers.

The seats are colourful, mismatched and plastic littered on the narrow road, and the wagon is relatively clean, decorated with corn oil bottles lined all around the top shelf. But when I just don't feel like going across town, the little corner fuul place by my apartment building does just as well. Comprising a narrow hallway with a kitchen in the back, it has a man squashed behind a tiny booth who writes down your order and takes your money before you join the battle to be served first. Another man takes the scribbled order from your outstretched hand and goes to work, slicing open small pita breads, stuffing them with questionable salad, pickles, crushing falafals into the sandwich or spreading fuul on the sides of the bread, and twisting delicious, wet pickles into tiny plastic bags with a flourish.

The downside to this type of fast food adventure can, of course, be a dodgy tummy. The food may taste divine but the hygiene can sometimes leave a lot to be desired. But Cairenes don't let little thing like that get in the way of their favourite street food. Like all good hardcore street food junkies, they just dust off their stomach lining and line up for the next helping. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo


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