Cairo practice

Middle Eastern is this year's cuisine. But how to tell what's authentic? Lesley Downer tours the cafes of Cairo, while on page 43, the queen of Middle Eastern cooking, Claudia Roden, offers four of her favourite recipes. Photographs by Thomas Hartwell
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Around the corner from where I was staying in Cairo, there was a butcher's shop that offered duck, rabbit and turkey. The ducks and the rabbits lived in, or on top of, bamboo cages, stacked one above the other inside the shop. The turkeys strutted around on the pavement, awaiting their fate. Once, I watched in fascination as a veiled woman in spectacles and an ankle-length gown ordered a duck. It was out of its cage, neck wrung, stripped of its feathers, dunked into water and oven-ready in what seemed to me like a disrespectfully short matter of minutes.

Egyptian cuisine is nothing if not real: nature red in tooth and claw. As a squeamish type, I was not inclined to try certain dishes, though there was a perverse pleasure in reading some of the recipes, which are short and to the point. The recipe for boiled sheep's head, for example, begins: "Remove the brain from the head"; for jellied sheep's head: "Break skull lengthwise". I pictured myself at the chopping board, wielding a cleaver. As for the brains: "To clean brains, soak in salted water. Gently remove skin and fibres, taking care not to spoil shape of brain or break it..."

Yet, fearsome though they may sound, for the vast majority of Egyptians, such dishes are a sublime luxury, enjoyed maybe once a week or on feast days. Egyptian cuisine is, almost by definition, the food of peasants and largely, therefore, vegetarian. The ruling class and the decadent ex-aristocrats, who spend their days conversing with each other in fluent English, French and Italian, are far too grand to eat ful or ta'amia.

Paradoxically, it was a splendidly Wildean, French-speaking aristocrat of 85 who, on hearing that I wanted to try Egyptian cuisine, invited me to his palatial, if rather faded, quarters and ordered his cook to prepare Egyptian food. We tucked in, and his cousin, also octogenarian, and moustachioed like a brigadier, was heard to grunt: "I've never seen this food here before!"

Ahmed, the cook (our host had never seen fit to find out his surname), had prepared dishes you would find in any Egyptian home. Pride of place went to ful - the brown, broad beans which the Egyptians claim as their national dish. One of my fellow diners quoted the old Arab saying: "Ful has satisfied even the Pharaohs." I discovered that it can be served in a myriad of ways. On this occasion, it was a thick, dhal-like paste, with a strong tang of lemon and garlic, garnished with crispy fried onion and garlic shreds.

There was also ful in the form of ta'amia, which is akin to falafel, familiar from Middle-Eastern restaurants in Britain. While falafel is made from chick peas, ta'amia is made from beans ground with herbs such as parsley and coriander leaf, then dipped in sesame seeds and deep-fried. It looks as round and brown as a McDonald's burger, but inside it's green and moist, whilst staying crisp on the outside.

Then there was bissara, an intensely green paste of ful mashed with herbs which, according to my host, used to be considered soldiers' food and contained special ingredients to make them brave. Kishry - rice and pasta under a thick layer of gunpowder-green lentils - he describes as real peasant food, though he couldn't say how it came to be called "kishry", which means "kosher".

Besides these, there were several Middle Eastern staples: tahina - rich and creamy sesame paste; baba ghanoge, also known as baba ghanoush - smoky- flavoured, grilled aubergines pounded with lashings of tahina, garlic and chilli; sambousa - crisp filo pastry triangles filled with salty, white cheese; vine leaves stuffed with mincemeat and rice; moussaka, pronounced moussa'a in Egypt; a salad of chopped parsley, coriander leaves and tomatoes; and a basketful of hot, puffy flat bread.

Effectively, there is one cuisine throughout the Middle East, with variations in each country - and every one insists that theirs is the original and best. "Don't forget," harumphed the moustachioed cousin in his best, Sandhurst- style English, "we're much older than all these Middle Eastern countries;" adding, for good measure, that "the Turks came and pinched all our cooks - that's why Turkish food is so much like Egyptian food."

Lebanese cuisine is generally considered the pinnacle of Middle Eastern cuisine. The difference, as an Italian Cairene of my acquaintance explained, is that Lebanese dishes are made with olive oil, whereas Egyptians use clarified butter, much like Indian ghee, so their cuisine is heavier. It is also distinguished by its lavish use of tahina.

Some specifically Egyptian dishes go back to the time of the Pharaohs. One is ful. Another is molokhia, a green, slimy soup made of meat stock with finely chopped pieces of the molokhia leaf (or "Jew's mallow") suspended in it. Apparently, there are pharaonic tomb paintings showing the cultivation and making of molokhia - which has to be described as rather an acquired taste.

I had it three times: once in a bar famous as an artists' hangout in downtown Cairo; once in a gracious country house outside the city, overlooking some crumbling and little-known pyramids (the ex-aristocrats again); and once in an outdoor restaurant near the Giza Pyramids, which were splendidly lit at night. Each time, it was different but always rather bland and unpalatable. Having heard, though, that molokhia is exported to Japan, where it is sold as a miracle health food, I dutifully downed large quantities. No doubt, the Pharaohs held their noses and ate it, too.

Evening is when the city comes alive. We took a walk along the Nile to enjoy the cool breeze by the river and discovered that half of Cairo was there, pushing and shoving, either to board one of the neon-bejewelled boats which cruise up and down, or they were simply couples out courting, hand in hand - the girls cowled like nuns, the boys in jeans.

Along the river are boats known as "casinos" (though they are nothing to do with gambling). Some are floating nightclubs, others are restaurants. And on the bank are cafes. The most famous is Oma Kalsthoum, named after a legendary singer (a great favourite, incidentally, of Bob Dylan). Her pictures hang around the walls, and her singing throbs melodically through the air while you sit at a table under a ceramic "parasol", watching the boats and the people.

Many of the customers seem to be there primarily for the beer (Export or Stella local) and shisha, the hubbly bubbly. Smoked with fervour by all Egyptian men and many Egyptian women, it is packed with nothing more lethal than tobacco, plain or apple-flavoured. As it got later, more and more people - hooded women, men in long robes or Western dress - joined the throng, puffing quietly as the full moon rose above the water.

Besides the inevitable ful and assorted small dishes of mezze, we had ordered stuffed pigeon, a famous Egyptian dish. First, the bread arrived. It was hot and puffy, and quite the best I had in Cairo . The beehive- shaped brick oven was in a corner of the veranda, where a woman squatted, shoving in flat dough rounds on a long-handled tray and pulling them out when they were puffed and crisp.

The pigeon, when it came, was all too real. It lay on my plate, complete with head but denuded of its feathers, and charred as if it had been in a fire (which it had). But it tasted unconscionably good. It had been roasted and stuffed with rice, which absorbed the juices nicely. It was a skinny bird with not a lot of meat on its bones, but what was there was rich and oily. I crunched up even the small bones. The whole meal, mezze and all, set me back 50 Egyptian pounds, about pounds 9.

Cairo nights are long. Later, we retired to Khan al-Khalili, the main Cairo bazaar, where (the gold and silver merchants and other predators having left), the teashops overflow with men and women, chatting, laughing, smoking hookahs and drinking black tea or tiny cups of gravelly coffee. In one cafe, named in honour of the much-loved Egyptian Nobel prize-winning novelist, Naguib Mahfouz, we sipped karkadieh, a golden hibiscus drink, and tamr hendy, dark and tamarind-flavoured, while a couple of strolling players entertained the gathering with lute and tambourine and plaintive folk songs. When we finally headed home, there were still children running around their parents' feet.

There was one Holy Grail I had yet to find. The best ful in Cairo, I had heard, was at a little backstreet dive called Al Gahsh, which was open all night and became more lively as the night wore on. In the end, I stumbled upon it almost by chance in one of the holiest parts of Cairo, behind Sayyida Zeinab Mosque, where the streets throng with pilgrims and legless beggars.

It is a shabby little place which, at first, looks distinctly unpromising - indistinguishable, to the non-Arabic speaker at least, from the millions of other little ful shops around the city. I climbed the rickety stairs to the blue-painted upstairs room, and was looking around uncertainly when three men dining there invited me to join them. They found a plate for me and started piling it with food.

The first mouthful was unforgettable. It was ta'amia but different from anything I had ever had before: a golden round of ful mixed with eggs and chopped coriander leaves, deep fried, very soft, sweet and herby tasting. After that, I was eager for more. There was another, crisper ta'amia, without eggs but with plenty of parsley. Then there were three bowls of ful, all different, all freshly made and very hot. One was brown, beany and sweet, mixed with tomatoes and with a layer of oil on top. Another was made with ghee ("oil, very pure, different from oil motor," enthused, if imperfectly, one of my fellow diners). The last was a creamy ful, mixed with scrambled egg and tomato.

There was also aubergine, cut into small pieces and deep-fried, soft and sweet; salads of chopped onion, tomato and parsley; vinegary pickled carrots, turnips and green pepper slices; a very rich, oily tahina with chilli: onion slices served with halves of tiny lemons; a bowl of dried chilli for seasoning and, of course, plenty of flat bread. It was the best food I had in Cairo.

Despite the shabbiness of the place, my fellow diners turned out to be extremely distinguished. One was a general ("very important man in the Egyptian police"); another a sheik with a beard and white takia cap ("very important man in Islam"): and one was a doctor of physiotherapy. "Al Gahsh is a specialist in this kind of ful food," they told me. "All kinds of people come this place This not five star, not three star - minus star! But it is very specialist food. This kind of food is all vitamins, ideal-est food for any time!"

Before I left, I met the proprietor, an elderly man in a takia and long, white gown, who, if I remember rightly, had no teeth at all. He posed proudly for me to take his photograph while one of his staff ladled ful out of a huge urn.

And the cost? Dinner for four might cost six to 10 Egyptian pounds (pounds 1- pounds 1.75); and a good filling lunch of a round of bread stuffed with ful, ta'amia and salad comes to 50 piastres, about 9p. "Price food very easy," as my fellow diners put it, "and, at the same time, it's important eating"

Oma Kalsthoum Cafe, Il Farah boat, 40 El Nil Street, Giza (tel: 573 1597); Naguib Mahfouz Coffee Shop, 5 El Badistan Lane, Khan al-Khalili (tel: 590 3788/593 2262); Al Gahsh, 1-3 Marisina Street, near Sayeeda Zeinab Square. No phone, but taxi drivers know it. Open 24 hours, 365 days, even at Ramadan.