Cairo’s street food has traditionally been associated with the city’s not-so-well-off residents, from taxi drivers and labourers, students and police conscripts.
Although dismissed by the affluent and fastidious as unhygienic or unhealthy, street dining is the most defining feature of the Egyptian capital’s culinary scene.
There is ample historical evidence to show that street food in Cairo existed as far back as the Middle Ages, according to Egyptologist and food archaeologist Mennat-Allah El Dorry.
“Many Cairenes at the time did not have the means to cook at home, relying on neighbourhood outlets for their food,” Ms El Dorry told The National.
The 15th-century historian Al Makrizi wrote of the broken clay food pots that littered Cairo's streets at night, she said, while travellers' journals noted that the city was filled with street food outlets.
In Cairo today, the food carts can be found on back streets and commercial areas, attracting a mostly male clientele who eat while standing. The food is served with bare hands and the dishes and cups are washed in buckets of water. Small mounds of rubbish pile up next to the carts, attracting flies and stray cats and dogs.
“We still have the man with a cigarette stuck in the corner of his mouth serving you food off these carts. But most of us don’t really care,” said Mourad Makram, who hosts a popular food show on television that focuses primarily on street carts.
“Curiously, I think the standard of hygiene at the food carts has improved a little because of the fear instilled by the coronavirus pandemic.”
Cairo’s street food is traditionally the most affordable, and arguably the most delicious, fare for most of the city’s 20 million people. The carts serve a limited fare, mostly carb-intensive or fried, including falafel, sausages, liver, kofta and koshary — a mixture of rice, lentils, pasta and fried onions.
But it is ful, a dish that has long been the centrepiece of Egyptian cuisine, that is most popular. Made of fava beans, ful is served with sunflower, linseed or olive oil and seasoned with all or some of the following: salt, pepper, lemon juice, tahini, cumin and hot red pepper.
“Some of the best food in Cairo is sold off these carts. No one prepares ful the way they do on the carts,” said Makram, whose show, Al Akeel — a vernacular Egyptian Arabic word that means a man who loves food and eats a great deal of it — was first broadcast in 2014 on the Egyptian CBC network.
The show, which reviews street carts and popular outlets with a reputation for good food, attracts millions of viewers on YouTube, with some of the more popular episodes getting as many as seven or eight million views. The highlight of each episode is when Makram sits down on site to sample the food while giving a running commentary on its texture, seasoning and taste.
What further intrigues viewers are the cart operators, often tight-lipped about what makes their food stand out, speaking cryptically of “secret recipes” they never reveal.
Some of the more successful food carts have taken advantage of their popularity to open restaurants serving their specialities.
Although street food remains the most affordable dining out option for most Cairo residents, many are visiting the carts less often after recent steep increases in ingredient costs forced vendors to raise their prices.
On the other hand, investors seeking to tap into the popularity of street food have launched food trucks and proper restaurants to cater for Cairenes with deeper pockets by offering the same fare but at much higher prices.
Zooba, founded in 2012 by American-Egyptian Chris Khalifa and head chef Moustafa El Refaey, is the most popular part of this new scene. The new wave's food trucks display menus in English and play trendy music. They offer not only traditional street food, sometimes with a twist, but also burgers, sushi, noodles and pasta — dishes that were unknown in Egypt less than 50 years ago and which remain the choice of the rich or cool.
Zooba's popularity led the chain to expand abroad, with seven branches in Saudi Arabia and one in New York city that opened in 2019.
“Street food has evolved but the problem of perception remains. We know that the food is delicious, well cooked and nicely spiced, but we also know that it may later give you food poisoning, and that kind of lays to waste the value of the food,” Mr El Refaey told The National.
“The ful on the carts is really good, but the plate on which it is served may not be clean,” he said.
“Street food does not have to be dirty or unhygienic. No one will complain if the vendors spike their prices just a little to cover the cost of cleanliness. In fact, more people will eat there,” he said, explaining that food cart operators, who work an average of 12 hours a day, must be licensed by the government and given access to running water and other facilities.
He dismisses the charge that Zooba’s food is overpriced,. He said its prices are on par with similar food outlets.
In addition to the streets of wealthy Cairo districts, the trucks have proliferated in high-end residential compounds in Cairo's suburbs and the new crop of private sports and social clubs, as well as on the Mediterranean coast, the playground of Egypt's rich and famous during the summer months.
“Food trucks are the future. Investing in a restaurant is too costly now,” Makram said. “It’s so much easier now to start a truck or a cart. Almost every cuisine is available.”
Besides, he said, Egyptians have always preferred eating outdoors.