Offering tamarind juice, pickled vegetables, corchorus leaves, hibiscus, fava beans and loads more, Egyptian food is one of those untapped culinary adventures in the UK, with only a handful of restaurants and eateries open across the country. But change is ahead, as caterers, both old and new, drive a new foodie future for Egyptian cuisine, starting in London
Despite presenting an eclectic mix of African and Middle Eastern influence, with a dash of the neighbouring Mediterranean Sea, Egyptian food has long drawn a blank in our national consciousness, with most Brits not being able to name a single Egyptian dish.
It’s also overshadowed by Lebanese cuisine, with which it shares a few similarities as well as dishes – like Tabbouleh, the Arabian salad of chopped parsley, tomatoes and bulgur wheat; or Turkish fodder – meaning diners generally opt for the slightly more familiar over the completely unknown.
Nevertheless, Egyptian food is in a league of its own, encompassing so much for consumers and suppliers alike to discover. Another quiet revolution for our taste buds is ahead.
Admittedly, until recently it has been a little difficult to discover Egyptian food in the UK, and writing this article was troublesome due to the lack of wide availability of Egyptian food businesses. You really have to want to find some ‘Molokhia’ (a broth packed with spinach-like corchorus leaves) and ‘Foul’ (fava or broad beans in lemon and garlic), but when you do, it’s well worth it.
Over the last 30 years, London has by chance developed a ‘little Egypt’ around the Edgware Road/Baker Street area, with long-standing independent and family-run Egyptian restaurant, Ali Baba, and a couple of Middle Eastern food shops that sell Egyptian fare.
Nationwide, various other Egyptian restaurants and cafes have gone in and out of business; notably Lola’s in Preston, modern Egyptian eatery Arabesque in Sunderland and the traditional shisha-using and belly-dancing Nur in Glasgow.
Although Marwa Moustafa, marketing manager at restaurant Ali Baba, believes attitudes towards Egyptian food have changed since the restaurant opened in 1979, the family-run outfit is aware there is still a long way to go until the average Brit starts craving some ‘Koshari’ – Egypt’s national dish.
“People generally love the restaurant because it is something different, but it also offers something very similar to Lebanese cuisine, which is more familiar to most,” says Moustafa, whose restaurant serves traditional Egyptian dishes like Fettah (or Fattah) – rice layered with toasted bread, lamb and soup – as well as a few familiar ones, like Moroccan couscous.
“My family is originally from Egypt and both my parents share a passion for food and cooking. So, 37 years ago they decided to open a little restaurant, which they called Ali Baba. London has become a lot more cosmopolitan since we opened in the late 1970s and people are generally more open to trying new cuisines now.”
To the streets
As is life, the next generation of Egyptian restaurateurs is emerging. Building on the foodie foundations of traditional restaurants like Ali Baba, Koshari Street is eager to strike more of a rapport with the British diner by bringing Egypt’s most popular street food, the Koshari dish, to the table (or trendy, pop-up style canteen bench).
“Egyptian food as a cuisine is not very well known in the west and most customers have no idea what to expect when walking into an Egyptian restaurant,” says Jean-Philippe Leclef, manager of Koshari Street, which has evolved from a street market vendor to a restaurant that serves mainly Koshari, a vegetarian dish of rice, lentils and vermicelli with tomatoes, chickpeas and caramelised onions, as well as various deli-style salads, like white Tabbouleh and ‘detox Tahini’, plus Egyptian soups.
“We have been and are continuously working hard to accurately communicate to the people of London what Egyptian food actually is, and we believe we have made a big impact, in the area we operate in, to educate and tantalise the taste buds of our customers.
“Egyptian food, like most Middle Eastern cuisines, stems from the Ottoman Empire and therefore has a lot of similarities with other more well-known cuisines like Lebanese, which helps.”
The team at Koshari Street has seen attitudes to Egyptian food change swiftly, with many Londoners looking for the next foodie discovery. So, after various successes at Borough Market, Southbank Market and Camden Market and with a permanent 1,000-seater restaurant on St Martin’s Lane in London, Koshari Street is now working on opening a further store in the capital, as well as shortly launching a new extended menu at its Covent Garden site.
“Koshari Street opened with the intention of selling the staple dish of Egypt, Koshari, which, as a result of its cheap and plentiful ingredients, is eaten all over the streets of Egypt,” explains Leclef.
“We first opened in [London’s] markets, just to introduce the dish to the western palate. That yielded incredible results which led to the opening of our store in Covent Garden. Since then, we have been introducing new variations of Egyptian food and we’ve seen the same reactions.
“We are now expanding our menu to accommodate what we believe to be the best Egyptian street food dishes, as we are sure there is a market for it. Egyptian cuisine will be popular in the future; it will just be a matter of educating and communicating with the public."
Leclef claims Koshari Street has created a modern Egyptian street food offer. “Koshari is like the equivalent of fish and chips in Egypt,” he says. “Our Koshari is a street food dish that’s been Westernised to the UK tastes in a Prêt-style experience, but also enables people to familiarise themselves with Egypt’s national dish.”
Leclef reveals that the plan for Koshari Street now is to expand the menu and take advantage of those British diners who are seeking out Egyptian food. “People were suspicious of the food at first, but comfortable with Lebanese,” he points out. “So, we have successfully managed to do what no one was doing and made Egyptian food accessible.”
Sourcing the best
When it comes to procurement, fruits and vegetables are essential to Egyptian cooking, according to Moustafa at Ali Baba. “We use a lot of different vegetables in our cooking: garlic, onions, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, grape leaves, aubergine, green beans, peas, courgettes, peppers – the list goes on,” he explains.
“We also use a lot of corchorus leaves, also known as jute leaves, which are a species of leaves similar to spinach used to make the Egyptian dish Molokhia. We have specialised suppliers for that but most of our ingredients are common and therefore easy to source."
Moustafa says Ali Baba’s menu is a refined selection of popular Egyptian and Middle Eastern dishes, and hasn’t changed significantly since the restaurant opened, which makes it easier to stick with the same suppliers since they know what he requires.
“We are lucky that most of our suppliers have been with us for a long time,” he says. “Generally, we find everything we need, so we can continue to make fresh, delicious food and share a taste of Egypt.”
Fellow Egyptian restaurant Koshari Street also prides itself on sourcing from suppliers who are the best in their field, including those that serve top chefs in London. Such demand presents opportunities for more of the capital’s wholesalers and foodservice operators to tap into the Egyptian food scene.
“We may serve food fast, but we certainly take no shortcuts in shopping for and preparing ingredients,” says manager, Leclef, who concludes that quality is key to all the fruits and veggies he serves to his customers.