So, I've returned from a great, eye-opening two weeks in Egypt, and wanted to give fellow Chowhounds who travel that way info from my trip.
'hounds had already warned me that it's not a great food place. In general, I would agree, but there were some stand outs.
1. Ahwa a la Turk--turkish coffee. WONDERFUL! You say that first word sort of like agua, but replace the g with the ch of chanukah. That's not quite right, but always got me what I wanted. If you ask for simply coffee or cafe or even, I think, ahwa, they bring you nescafe. Ahwa a la Turk may not be authentic Turkish coffee, but hmm, is it yummy. Spiced with cardamom, generally served sweet (if ordered "masboot" that's an attempt at phonetic spelling), and strong enough to grow hair on your palms. I ordered it pretty much everywhere I went, no place stands out as being particularly good (although the first place, near the Khan al khalili bazaar, around the corner from the Egyptian Pancake House (I don't make these names up), was quite tasty. A hole in the wall with nobody sitting there save for the gentleman working there and a woman who must have been a relative, but delicious.)
If you're desperate for a cup of coffee that is not turkish, the Brazilian Coffee Shop at 38 Talaat Harb serves a reasonable cappucino.
2. Tea. Yes, tea. I never figured out quite how to ask for it, but they often serve tea where the boiling water has fresh mint steeping in it. Then, this is poured into the cup with the tea bag. Makes for a delicious combination.
3. El Abd bakery in Cairo. Two "branches" I know of: 35 Talaat Harb and the corner of 26th of July and Sherif. Delicious huge croissants, reasonable cookies, and AMAZING Egyptian sweets--most of which are a mixture of some kind of phyllo dough, nuts (often pistachios, sometimes hazelnuts, sometimes almonds), honey and usually cardamom, often coconut. Sort of like baklava, but in many different shapes and forms. SOOOOO good. Supposedly they have good ice cream, I could never be tempted away from trying to sample all of the sweets. The basbousa (again, an effort at phonetic spelling) was wonderful. It's a zoo at night, packed with Egyptians buying things and that can be daunting because the way to order is difficult if you don't speak arabic (request what you want and pay for it first, then pick it up).
4. Couscous as a dessert. Yup, as a sweet. I was skeptical, but completely converted once I tried it. I couldn't tell if it was called "couscousiere" or if that was the name of the gadget it was cooked in. Regardless, one puts couscous in a bowl, and then tops with any combination of following: powdered sugar, ground pistachios, shredded coconut, milk. Hmmmm. I was only served this at the hotel restaurant at Beau Site in Marsa Matrouh, a beach town approximately 100 km east of the Libya border. Otherwise, the food there was unremarkable, but this was an eye opener.
5. Fittir. Hmmm, fittir. These are sometimes translated as pizzas, sometimes translated as pancakes. They're really neither, but hard to explain. Dough that is sort of like a phyllo dough is handled like pizza dough and thereby made into an incredibly thin circle. Somehow, it's then folded in a way that maintains its circular shape, and savory or sweet toppings are put on top. Then baked in an oven much like a pizza oven. The best place I had this was at:
Fatatri al-Tahrir, 166 Tahrir Street in downtown Cairo. The place is a total hole in the wall with, perhaps, 12 seats, but incredibly cheap and quite yummy. Don't be put off by the unappetizing photos of fittir cum pizza.
6. Kushari (sometimes translated as Koushary, it depends). It's a bowl of pasta topped with lentils, dried onions and a tomato sauce--carbo load. I loved it. Unfortunately, was driven to the place I tried it with my Egyptian hosts. I couldn't for the life of my explain where it was, and nothing was written in English. Most of the guidebooks have recommendations, almost all of which focus on the cleanliness of the kushari-joint. I have the feeling that cleanliness is important it these places. Also, try to go to a place that specializes in kushari--they do it better.
7. Bread. Hmm, the bread. Most of the bread I was served was pretty mediocre (bleached flour product, minimal flavor). Occasionally, however, I was served wonderful, whole wheat bread, sort of in the shape of pita, but much softer and with a wonderful nutty flavor and often slightly charred on the outside. When served any of this bread, snatch it up. The best I had was actually in the restaurant of the Hotel Windsor at 19 Alfy Street in Cairo, as well as on the cruise ship I took on the Nile from Luxor to Aswan. My waiter there realized that I was a bread freak, and he promised (inshaallah) that he would get me some real Egyptian bread. Oh, did allah deliver!
8. Pomegranites (sp?). Often one would be served the seeds of the pomegranate already removed from the shell. All the work has been done for you, so all you have to do is enjoy. I don't like watermelon, but those who do said it was great.
9. Not surprisingly, the baba ganoush was wonderful almost everwhere I hate it, as well as the tahini. Always flavorful.
I ate falafel (called taamiya there) all over the country. Nothing stands out as particularly good or bad. I will admit, the falafel at Felfela, 15 Hoda Sha'rawi, was pretty good and quite cheap. It's a good lunch spot after touring the collection at the Egyptian Museum because it's not too far a walk away.
Groppi's is often mentioned as a wonderful place with loads of history. Unfortunately, history is all it has (that plus the beautiful tile mosaic entry). I wouldn't bother. Everybody raves about Fishawi's coffee shop in Khan al-Khalili. I walked past and was overwhelmed by the tourists sitting around looking like they were waiting for something to happen. Couldn't bring myself to stop in. It might have been good, but the atmosphere bummed me out.
In Alexandria, I tried Muhammad Ahmed Fuul, at 17 'Abd al-Fattah al-Hadari St. It gets high marks from the guide books--was WAY too greasy for me. Everything served with oil slick, and not very clean. The Brazilian Coffee Store at 44 Saad Zaghloul St. only serves coffee standup, but they do a delicious cappucino. And they're practically next door to Delices, a delicious pastry shop that I thought actually did a better job of the french pastries than the Egypian pastries/sweets I tried there. Got a great Napoleon there.
Final (non-chow) piece of advice, if you're a woman, definitely cover yourself as much as possible. I got a great deal of unwanted attention in the form of (sometimes quite hostile) stares, and I felt as though i was dressed quite modestly (always in pants, never shorts or skirts, always had shoulders covered). I can't imagine what it was like for the tourist I saw in a sheer skirt giving a good view of her thong underwear. It's just common sense to dress modestly, and it's more respectful.
Bottom line, I loved it, and would recommend people go (and not just for the ahwa a la Turk!).
re: Paula Sindberg
Nope, if I had it, I didn't know it! However, there were definitely times when one simply had to accept the wisdom of those who knew the language/food/culture better than oneself, open one's mouth and chew, without ever quite knowing what it was you were eating! Hence, it's certainly possible I had Om Ali and didn't even know it.
Ahh, if only I had a cup of ahwa a la turk now, my day would be so much brighter!