Salma Serry

Of all the things you see about Egypt in the news, its booming hospitality scene isn’t one of them. While travellers to Egypt were, once upon a time, intimidated by the idea of eating out in Cairo, new expansions have lured key restaurateurs, chefs and bartenders to the capital and beyond. As exciting as this growth might be, equally important is protecting what came before. Through her platform Sufra Kitchen, filmmaker and writer Salma Serry works hard to ensure SWANA’s food culture and history aren’t lost. Her favourite places in her city remain those that preserve the soul of Cairo.

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Always Start With Dessert

Alban Lebnan is literally the most hidden of places. The neighbourhood it’s in has managed to keep it a secret for as long as I can remember: at least 30 years. It initially started as a dairy shop selling fresh milk, yoghurt and cheese, then began making dairy-based desserts. It has a glorious homemade crème caramel baked in little tin cups. They remind me of good summer nights when we used to visit my aunt who lives right next to it. As a kid, my dad would give me money and send me off to get whatever I could manage to carry back for the entire family. It also has an excellent Egyptian karaa aasali, a baked crustless pie of sweetened pumpkin purée with a top layer of béchamel sauce baked to golden brown. It’s heavenly.

Apricot Jam Millefeuille Plus Other French Pastries in Cairo

Egyptians have a soft spot for European and French pastries and the history of some of these pastries in Egypt goes way back. La Poire’s apricot jam millefeuille is always made fresh and is perfectly baked, glazed with jam on top. It has just the right degree of flakiness which doesn’t fall apart and make a mess when you break into it with a fork. It’s my and my dad’s favourite dessert. The store has branches in almost all of Cairo’s central quarters, but if you’re ever in Alexandria, get it from Trianon which has been serving Egypt’s best French pastries since 1905. 

A Family of Experts

Tucked in the classic and charming el-Korba is a traditional pastries shop from the 1980s called Mandarin Koueider that makes the best hazelnut-studded basbousa (syrup-soaked semolina cake). Another Koueider brother that makes all sorts of syrup-soaked sweets like baklava and kunafa is Abdel Rahim Koueider. I love going there for ice cream. I always go for the mastic flavour or, if I’m feeling fruity, the creamy and swirly yoghurt-berry.

Where To Beat the Munchies in Cairo

Salah al-Din Roastery in Salah al-Din Square sells seriously addictive lebb (roasted seeds). They’re the perfect snack for Netflix marathon weekends. Sedra’s cheese salezon is another snack that’s especially perfect for these kinds of weekends. When I go there, it’s to get myself a tray of these little, cream cheese-filled choux pastries topped with even more whipped cheese.

Inside the Popular Food Market

Early in the morning is the best time to hit the market in Midan el-Gami’ for fresh veggies and fruits. It’s when you’ll find the best spread of whatever is in season and at the best prices. It always has the freshest herbs and greens. Look for Umm Ayat when you’re there. She has been coming to the market with her little makeshift stall for years now. I usually find her by the corner of the main street selling whatever fruit is in season. Sometimes, her husband accompanies her to help her prepare, which involves cleaning and chopping the fruit heads and stems. I anticipate the little ‘fass owais’ mangos in the summer, the ‘rotab’ dates in the fall and the sweetest strawberries in spring.

“The Most Underrated Egyptian Food Ever”

Samiha is a food truck permanently parked in New Cairo and serves feteer, the most underrated Egyptian food ever. Feteer is a paper-thin layered pie drenched in ghee that’s so fluffy all-round but crisp on top. It’s a versatile pie that you can customise with different toppings and stuffings, be they savoury or sweet. The original version called ‘feteer meshaltet’ comes with standard stuffing choices like honey, cheese and a tahini-grape molasses mix. Right by the al-Hussein Mosque in the Fatimid neighbourhood in downtown is Fatatry al-Hussein, another place that makes killer feteer. Order the sugar-dusted one and ask for it to be extra crispy. Cairo is huge and very populated, so it’s impossible to be close to farms. Yet we always crave good, old-fashioned country ‘feteer meshaltet’. It’s never the same when pre-made and sold in shops. I recently stumbled upon Diar Mariam and I’ve been getting all my feteer supply from there since along with other fresh farm products. The citrus-flower honey there has wonderful notes of bitter orange blossom and comes with the beeswax. I particularly love the baladi samna (local ghee) used there. it’s produced in winter and is so fragrant and nutty. I recently ordered a big batch of it to last me the whole year and use it to make all my egg dishes and baklawa bakes. It’s stored in gorgeous traditional clay pottery containers that I reuse when baking or entertaining.

Working Class Hero

Koshari is one of Egypt’s most celebrated national dishes. It’s a popular street food of sustenance made with rice, lentils, macaroni (or any other pasta) and topped with spicy tomato sauce and crispy onions with a side of garlic vinaigrette. For a full koshari experience served in proper stainless steel plates, head to Koshary Hend any time of the day. They’re open around the clock. Make sure to leave room for the bowl of rozz bi laban (rice pudding) for dessert.

Neapolitan-Style Pizza in Cairo

What The Crust in Maadi makes what is, hands-down, the best Neapolitan-style pizza you can have in all of Egypt. Equally good is 900 Degrees in Tagamoa (the fifth settlement) and it’s closer to where I live. They use great ingredients and the outcome is wood-fired pizza with a nice and fluffy dough and great crust. Everything is made with love and you can taste it in the pizza. You feel the owner’s touch and see it in the Polaroid pictures stuck on the wall.

The Syrian Migration to Egypt

What is falafel to everyone else, is taamiya in Egypt. I remain biassed towards the Syrian version, though. Ever since the war on Syria, we’ve seen a huge immigration of Syrian chefs and restaurant workers to Egypt. For example, the Syrian community pretty much runs the whole market in Rehab, a compound in Cairo with more than one million residents. Layali el Sham makes superb hummus bi tahina, which it calls msabahha for some weird reason: in the region,   msabbaha is whole chickpeas topped with tahini. It also makes great falafel with chickpeas instead of fava which is what Egyptians usually use.

Tangy Egyptian Shawarma

Before the influx of Syrians into the country, shawarma in Egypt was always served in buns. Syrians are to be thanked for the existence of great shawarma in Cairo. Egyptians were suddenly introduced to shawarma made with saj bread, taratour (tahini sauce) and a chicken version with toum (garlic paste). They went crazy for it all. But my go-to address for shawarma in Cairo is still a classic. Abu Haidar is like a temple of shawarma love that has been around for decades. It was a necessary stop for us after swimming practice in the summer. My mom would stop and buy me, my sister and my cousins two sandwiches each and some mango juice. We would gather around outside and sit on the car hood to eat. The taste hasn’t changed one bit and you still see people leaning on their car hoods outside with a sandwich or two in their hands. Abu Haidar has a completely different take on the shawarma known in Syria and the Levant: think more tangy, more vinegary and more tahini. It’s insanely good. The shredded meat and semi-cooked tomatoes are always stuffed in a soft, plump bread roll, and no parsley. 

A Diverse Newcomer Dealing in Deliciousness

Mo Bistro in New Cairo makes beautiful, buttery bone marrow. It’s served with a nice piece of toasted sourdough that you spread it across. It’s so good in the winter, but also anytime really. The place has a menu that is all over the place and can literally go from pizza to Asian soups to foul medames and taamiya. I have to say they make a decent club sandwich with a massive portion of four chunky sandwiches and really good French fries on the side. But the bone marrow is the pièce de résistance.

Churros: Cairo’s Big (Little) New Thing

Dara’s Ice Cream opened its first shop in Zamalek and has hipster written all over it, pink interior, neon lights and all. It introduced new gelato flavours and techniques to the Egyptian market and going there became a whole outing on its own. People queued to get in so two other branches popped up in Tagamoa. Everyone goes there for the ice cream, but I go for the double-chocolate churros and always walk out with two orders of them. Churros are one of the latest fads in Cairo.

Edible Souvenirs 

Whenever I travel, I love gifting friends abroad some locally-made things from Gourmet. It has gift-size jars of classic Egyptian dukkah (a blend of nuts, seeds and spices) and Egyptian raw clover flower honey. I usually ask the deli to air-seal packets of local basturma, Roumi cheese (aged local yellow cheese loaded with umami) and pistachio halawa. They survive plane rides and draw huge smiles on the faces of loved ones. They also have excellent meat and the best fresh poultry in town.

Our guides are fact-checked and updated regularly. Read more here.

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