If it’s your first time in Egypt, then you’re probably already feeling a little overwhelmed, and we feel ya -- it’s a lot to take in and get acclimated to. But fear not -- Egyptian food is not something else that will stress you out. Au contraire, most of our local Egyptian favorites are a) extremely tasty and not frightening, b) cheap, c) nutritious and d) vegetarian and vegan friendly. Who would’ve thought?
Now because the foods below are our local favorites, you can find at least one provider literally on every block in every main Egyptian city, whether in the form of a little hole in the wall, a street cart or a more established stop-and-eat kind of joint.
If, however, you’re wary about eating ‘street food’, then these comfortable and 100% vouched for restaurants provide an awesome array of Egyptian street food.
(For more of Cairo’s best restaurants, head here).
So are you ready to dive in? We hope you’re hungry:
It’s hard to find a single Egyptian who doesn’t love koshary (and keep in mind we’re around 100 million people, so that’s saying something).
Koshary is a dish comprised of rice, lentils and macaroni, topped with chickpeas and crispy fried onions, all covered in a spiced tomato sauce. It’s always served with garlic vinegar sauce and hot sauce on the side, because each Egyptian has their own preferred garlic-vinegar-spicy ratio.
It’s extremely filling, and very high in protein and fiber due to the lentils and chickpeas. The most famous koshary restaurant is Abou Tarek, but you can find other koshary providers in just about every neighborhood -- for super cheap.
Ah, the number one, uncontested Egyptian breakfast staple (although to be fair, we Egyptians also eat it at any time of day or night too). Fuul is essentially fava beans stewed for hours over a low flame, and the most ubiquitous type of fuul (the plain cheese pizza of fuul) is mixed with some olive oil, lemon and cumin. It can be served either in a sandwich (don’t forget to try our fresh ‘baladi’ bread; a whole wheat pita bread), or in a dish where you scoop up each bite of fuul with a piece of that same baladi bread.
And just like there are dozens of different toppings you can add to your pizza, the same goes for fuul: onions, garlic, tomatoes, chili pepper, tahini, vinegar, parsley, a ton of spices, you name it. Fuul is obviously extremely nutritious due to its protein and fiber, and will fill you up for hours on end.
You can get fuul at any street cart in the city, or can order it from big fuul powerhouses like Gad or El Shabrawy Arabiata.
Move over, milk and cereal -- there’s a new breakfast duo on the scene: fuul and taameya. Taameya (Egyptian falafel) is almost always found in the same places where you can get fuul, because nothing makes fuul better than a little taameya and vice versa.
The main difference between Egyptian taameya and other falafel elsewhere is the main ingredient -- falafel is usually made out of chickpeas, while taameya is made out of fava beans (we Egyptians just can’t get enough). The soaked beans are mixed usually with parsley, coriander, garlic and onion and then fried with a light coating of sesame on top, leading to a taameya that’s crunchy on the outside and soft and signature green on the inside.
We locals either eat the taameya in a sandwich with some tomato and tahini, or just plain straight from the plate.
Vegetarian: yes (if served without chicken/meat)
This dish is hard to describe because you really have to see it to understand it. It’s essentially a vegetable soup or stew eaten over rice, made out of the leaves of a plant called Jew’s Mallow or jute. The leaves are chopped finely with garlic and coriander and then cooked until it’s a soupy consistency.
It always smells amazing but what some people, non-Egyptians especially, have an issue with is the consistency. When cooked, the leaves develop almost a slimy quality to them that some people don’t like.
Molokheya is always eaten over rice, and lots of people like to add chicken, meat or some other animal protein to the mix (rabbit is actually pretty popular over here). Obviously if you want to keep it vegan, just order your molokheya sans animal protein.
Molokheya is usually a home-cooked dish best prepared by someone’s Egyptian grandma, but if you’re interested in trying it, Abou El Sid does it justice.
Vegetarian: yes (if without minced meat)
Most Mediterranean countries love themselves a stuffed vine leaf or vegetable, and we’re no different. Stuffed vine leaves are apparently a rung higher than the rest of the stuffed vegetables here in Egypt, because they have their own name: waraq einab, which just translates into ‘grape leaves’. Any other stuffed vegetable is referred to as ‘mahshi’, which basically just means ‘stuffed’. We apparently favored straightforwardness over creativity when it came to naming the dish.
Our favorite vegetables to stuff besides grapes leaves are zucchini, peppers, cabbage and eggplant, and sometimes tomatoes and onions to a lesser degree. They’re stuffed with a mixture of rice, tomato sauce, dill, cilantro, onion and spices galore and then cooked in a tomato broth until the vegetables are soft.
Heads up to the herbivores amongst us: while mahshi is usually vegetarian/vegan, some people like to add minced meat to the rice mixture, so you might want to double-check with the restaurant you’re ordering it from.
6. Om Ali
Ah, the first dessert of the list. Making up for the lack of creativity in the naming of mahshi, Om Ali literally translates to ‘Ali’s mother’. We’re not exactly sure who the Ali in question and his mother are, but some stories say Ali’s mother was the first wife of a 13th century sultan. All righty then.
Either way, the Om Ali of modern day is essentially a bread pudding of sorts made with puff pastry, milk, cream, sugar, coconut flakes, nuts and raisins. It’s baked in the oven until the pastry soaks up the sweetened milk and the top gets crispy and brown, which is our personal favorite part. The nuts are usually a mix of hazelnuts and pistachios, and the raisins are the sweet white kind. If you see Om Ali on a dessert menu at a restaurant, we strongly urge you to try it.
While fattah is a popular dish across the Middle East, each country gives it their own twist, so if you’ve tried it before in Lebanon in Morocco, ours is a bit different. It’s also traditionally eaten during the national holiday of Eid El Adha, but obviously you can eat it whenever throughout the year.
Egyptian fattah is essentially a dish of four layers: the first layer is crunchy pita bread, followed by rice, followed by meat, and then a garlicky, spiced tomato sauce pulls it all together. During Eid, most people use mutton for the meat, but otherwise usually beef shank is used.
This is another dish best done by an Egyptian grandma, but restaurants like Abou El Sid or Cairo Kitchen will have it on their menu.
A food that needs little introduction. Grilling meat on a vertical spit and slicing off pieces while it cooks first started in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, and evolved into modern-day doner kebab, shawerma, gyros and even tacos al pastor.
The Egyptian version of shawerma is either chicken or beef, which are marinated and spiced then grilled for hours.They’re sliced off the spit and served with thin grilled peppers, onions, tomatoes, parsley and either a garlic sauce (tomeya) or tahini in either a wrap or a bun (kaizer).
Most shawerma places are to-go joints on the street; you won’t find many sit-down restaurants. They’re also a very popular after-hours food in Cairo, so you’ll find a lot of the shawerma spots open until the early hours of the morning.
9. Stuffed pigeon
This is one beloved Egyptian food that gives a lot of tourists pause, because of the misconception that pigeons are winged rats. The pigeons we cook here are raised and fed in specific towers, so not dissimilar to chicken. Taste-wise, if you like duck, then there’s a big chance you’ll like pigeon too -- go ahead, try it!
Stuffed pigeons (hamam mahshi) are filled with rice, or fereek (Google tells me that this is bulgar wheat). The filling mixture is usually spiced with cinnamon, nuts, cumin, onion and pepper, and then the whole pigeon is grilled until the skin is a crispy golden-brown. Because the bird is so small, most restaurants will serve you two.
Again, Abou El Sid is a good place to try it (we’re not sponsored by them, we swear!).
Vegetarian: depends on the toppings you add to it
Feteer, or its longer name, feteer meshaltet, translates to ‘cushioned pies’. It’s essentially a flaky layered pastry that can either be savoury or sweet, depending on what you stuff the feteer with.
For some bizarre reason, they called feteer here both ‘Egyptian pizza’ and ‘Egyptian pancakes’, which in my personal opinion is just… not true lol. So if you see that written on a feteer shop, take it with a grain of salt.
For savoury feteer, Egyptians love layering the feteer with mixes of cheese, sausage and ground beef. For sweet feteer, you can find it as simple as feteer with honey or molasses, or as extravagant as feteer layered with Nutella, bananas, clotted cream and sugar.
11. Kebab & kofta
Now obviously we’re not claiming that kebab and kofta are originally Egyptian or anything like that --grilling meat on skewers is prehistoric-- but modern-day Egyptians really embrace and love their local kebab and kofta. So if you’re a meat-lover, make sure you try our grilled meats (a restaurant like Abou Shakra is good for that).
Kebab and kofta are usually served in the same places, with small differences between the two. Kebab are small pieces of meat on a skewer, alternated with chunks of vegetable, and grilled. Kofta is more a ground, mixed-meat meatball which is also grilled on a skewer, and sometimes served in a type of sauce (usually tomato).
12. Roz bil laban
Roz bil laban is an Egyptian rice pudding, and pretty simple but very tasty -- it’s essentially cooked rice in a sweet milk pudding, flavored with vanilla and coconut and served chilled.
For some reason, you can always find them in any koshary shop; apparently roz bi laban is the preferred dessert post-koshary.
But a local favorite place to get roz bil laban from is El Malky, a dessert shop that’s been open for 50+ years and serves some of the best in town.