Tucked away in an alley in Cairo is a restaurant that claims to have the best stuffed pigeon in town. While many cultures like to stuff poultry for dinner - think turkey, chicken, turducken - Egyptians pride themselves on having mastered the art of preparing pigeons in this manner. And while you can order it at many different restaurants, the best in the city is in this alley, in a place called Farahat.
We were warned by a restaurant worker on the phone to arrive as early as possible, at least an hour before sunset, when it would be time to break the fast. Rushing to make it on time, we arrived at the start of the Hussein neighbourhood and were met with a large crowd. People and sounds and smells competed for space, everyone anticipating the call to the prayer that signaled it was OK to drink a sip of water or light a cigarette.
We weren't exactly sure how to find the restaurant, but soon saw a large plume of white smoke rising from a corner shop. Where there is smoke, there is grilled meat, we said, and walked towards the plume. Dozens of tables spilled out of the alleyway and onto the sidewalks, patient diners already seated, their plates filled with grilled meat, salads and what we had come for: stuffed pigeon. Waiters made their way through the crowded dining area, delivering cans of soda and bottles of water, taking orders for more rice, bread and pigeon, and shouting orders back to their home base.
The boss was the only one who looked as if he had taken a shower that day; he was dressed in a traditional blue galabeya, his face shining under a tightly wound white turban. The smoke from the grill was suffocating, but smelled delicious as we walked through it. We quickly realised there wasn't room for us to sit, and were passed from one waiter to another, everyone impatient with our last-minute arrival. We waited patiently as one of our companions tried to talk the boss into giving us a table for four. Just then the call to prayer rang out; I broke my fast, standing up, with a plastic cup of water, all the while squeezed between two families ripping into stuffed pigeons and bread.
After some haggling, our friend was successful in obtaining a table, and we were led to the back of the cafe, past what seemed to be a kitchen, up some filthy stairs lined with dirt and into an open-air space, in which families seated at plastic tables were eating their meals. We took a table in the back, and a few minutes later a skinny waiter came to take our order. Before too much longer we were enjoying grilled meats and warm Egyptian bread.
A waiter walked by our table balancing over his head a metal tray filled with the glistening cooked pigeon. Each bird was on its own plate, but the tray was overloaded, and only the waiter's skilled arms kept them all from falling on the floor. When we called for a couple of the birds, the waiter slid our orders on two metal plates and haphazardly dropped them in front of us. The headless birds, browned from frying, were shiny, taut and filled with rice. The air around us was pleasant and peaceful, in stark contrast to the restaurant's busy loundess.
Farahat isn't exactly known for its ambience - several metres from our table a load of laundry was drying in the air, and as soon as one family finished their meal and left, waiters dressed in dirty smocks, cigarettes hanging from their mouths, noisily cleaned off the table, making a racket. We ate our meal watching the waiters sweep up the messes left behind by the families, all of it ending up in huge barrels near our table.
I imagined bringing my mother to a place like this, a literal hole in the wall that specialised in the making of good, honest food - you came to eat, so leave your worries about perfect hygiene, customer service and getting exactly what you want at home. The food was excellent, it came on time, it was cooked with care ... what more do you want? And while it wasn't an experience for the faint-hearted, Farahat makes some of the best grilled meats and stuffed pigeon in town. And when you go there, you can be sure you will know what dining in Egypt can really be like.
Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo.