Every winter, almost overnight, most of Egypt goes from warm and breezy to downright freezing. While the temperatures don’t drop as much as Europe and North America, Egypt’s buildings have zero insulation (a godsend in the summer, a nightmare in winter) so the cold strikes right into the very core of us.
So what’s a freezing person to do? Well, besides adding another layer of clothing to the seventeen layers we’re already wearing, we Egyptians like to warm ourselves both physically and emotionally with some good ol’ comfort food. And while one can never go amiss with pizza, today we’re listing our favorite local Egyptian winter classics and the best places to find them.
1. Lentil Soup
Served with croutons (or any other type of crunchy bread) and with lemon on the side, Egyptian lentil soup is a staple on most menus year-round, but winter is when we really learn to appreciate this hearty and filling soup. Like most Egyptian classics, it’s best homemade but a few restaurants have managed to nail it.
Best place for lentil soup: Abu El Sid
2. Roasted Sweet Potato
Now we’re not talking about just shoving a sweet potato or two in the oven at home, no. Walk the streets of any city in Egypt and sooner or later you’ll smell something distinctly sweet and smoky at the same time -- it’s the siren call of the resident batata (sweet potato) street cart. These vendors roast the sweet potatoes in their little portable wood-burning ovens until they’re so soft they practically fall out of their skins (the sweet potatoes, not the vendors).
Best place for roasted sweet potato: like we said, your nearest neighborhood batata cart
So technically sahlab is a comfort drink not a comfort food, but who are we to split hairs. It’s a hot milk-based drink with ground orchid roots to thicken it -- yes, ground orchid roots. Add some sugar, vanilla, shredded coconut and a sprinkle of cinnamon and nuts and voila; the winter drink of our childhood.
Best place for sahlab: while sahlab can be found in every cafe and ahwa in the city, they sometimes use the instant sachets of sahlab which are just… no. If you want the real deal, you can buy the orchid roots at an attar (a common Egyptian shop that sells all kinds of herbs and spices) and make it at home.
4. Hommos El Sham
Hommos El Sham (also known as halabessa) is an interesting toss-up between comfort food and comfort drink. It’s essentially a spicy tomato drink with chickpeas, garlic and onion, served hot and with a side plate of cumin, chili and lemon for everyone to spice as they see fit.
Best place for hommos el sham: if you want to go full local, try one of the hommos el sham carts that line the bridges and Nile Corniche in winter. Otherwise, your neighborhood ahwa should do the trick.
An old-school Egyptian comfort food, belila is a type of wheat porridge that’s a popular winter breakfast (or late-night snack). The whole wheat grains are soaked in sweetened milk and then served with toasted nuts, raisins, honey or whatever topping strikes your fancy (clotted cream is another popular one).
Best place for belila: homemade always wins when it comes to belila, but El Malky does a decent one.
6. Roz Meammar (Baked Rice)
While roz meammar is another year-round dish, its carb-y and creamy goodness is particularly enjoyed in winter. It’s essentially white rice in a flavorful cream sauce that’s baked until the sauce thickens and browns on top. You can either have your roz meammar plain or with pieces of chicken or pigeon.
Best place for rez meammar: Le Pacha’s Carlo’s (they have a Zamalek branch, Sheikh Zayed branch and New Cairo branch, but the Zamalek one is by far the best).
7. Colocasia/Kolkas/Ulass/Taro (قلقاس)
Yes those are indeed a lot of names for Egyptian taro, known here as قلقاس. For those unfamiliar, Egyptian taro is a root vegetable pretty similar to a really tender potato. It’s usually served in cube form in a stew of some sort over rice, and because winter is when it’s in season, it’s associated with cold weather and hearty meals.
Best place for Egyptian taro: at home for the most part, because every family has their own favorite way of preparing it. You can find it frozen in every main supermarket so you don’t need to go through the hassle of peeling and cutting it.
You might also like: 12 Local Egyptian Foods You Need To Try