What can I say about Koshari, Egypt’s national dish? Koshari was a pillar of support during my first days in Cairo. This simple dish actually helped me come to terms with the fact that I had committed the next 6 months of my life to living in Egypt’s magnificent yet hectic capital city.
I’m no stranger to exotic travel, but no matter how many times I’ve settled in a strange and foreign land, the fusion of excitement and terror always hits me like a swift kick to the pants. My first few moments in Egypt were a case in point. I landed in the middle of the night at Cairo International Airport. Just beyond its slick sliding doors, the airports comforting modernity gave-way to a scene of utter chaos and confusion.
My taxi driver, who almost caused by death at least 4 times, brought me to my hotel in the Garden City district of Cairo. In search of adventure, I decided to stay at the storied Garden City House hotel. Back in the 1900’s, the Garden City House was a hotbed of activity catering to European Egyptologists and explorers. Today, while rundown, the hotel maintains a certain sense of old world charm along with absolutely no water pressure. The hotel was situated right near the now famous Tahrir Square (Freedom Square). Protests and politics aside, Tahrir Square is a crazy place even at the calmest of times. Amongst the throngs of people and oppressive heat, cars, trucks, busses, and scooters flow omnidirectionally (not even sure that’s an actual word) with no apparent rhyme or reason.
Jetlag and fatigue had gotten the best of me, it took me two days before I could muster the strength to go outside and face the elements; but I had little choice. I had to venture out in search of real Egyptian sustenance. I had been told that if I were to find any food during Ramadan it would be on the legendary Talat Harb Street. Problem was Tahrir Square stood between me and food. When I finally stepped out of the hotel it was barely 10am. The summer sun was merciless and the temperature was hovering around 47 degrees Celsius (that’s bloody hot in Fahrenheit). As I approached the madness of Tahrir, the temperature slowly began to rise amidst the thousands of Egyptian bystanders and heavy-metal emitting cars. Despite the abundance of traffic police, all of whom were either napping in the shade or drinking tea, I realized there was no safe way to cross the square. A crossing could be considered an act of blind faith. Taking my life in my hands, It took me no less than 15min to cover the roughly 200ft traverse. When I arrived at Talat Harb Street I was mentally exhausted, hungry, and on the verge of heatstroke. In my heat and stress induced haze, I stumbled upon what at that very moment would prove to be my salvation. It was a fast food joint called Felfela (they also have an awesome sit-down restaurant). I walked in and was immediately drawn to the man putting together a mix of rice, lentils, elbow macaroni, fried crispy onions, chickpeas, and some sort of tomato sauce. He slapped everything together in less than 5 seconds, all the while maintaining a memorizing percussive beat with his metal spoons and metal pots. I ordered up a serving to go and reluctantly began the treacherous and death defying journey across Tahrir and back to my hotel. Relieved to be back in the relative serenity of my room, I said to myself that there was no way in hell I would ever attempt that crazy again. With that in mind I began eating. After the first bite a sense of calm came over me. This had been the first time since my arrival in Cairo that I forgot about the chaos and confusion which surrounded me and focused solely on the koshari. Before I knew it my wonderful meal had been consumed in its entirety. Problem was I was still starving. I had two choices; stay hungry or go out and brave the streets of Cairo one more time. My stomach had already usurped my brains authority and demanded a second helping of Koshari. Without a thought I got up and left for a second serving, only this time it took me 5 minutes to make the crossing, and rather than exhaustion, I felt exhilaration. I may still have been a lightweight by local standards, but I knew right there and then that Cairo and I would get along just fine.
I’ve added a great video on how to prepare this dish. Between this and the recipe card you should be good to go.
If I may add a little epilogue to this story, I discovered a few days later that Tahrir Square benefited from underground walkways.