A green mountain of ground broad beans, herbs and spices disappeared slowly as swift hands took a bit, shaped it round and dropped it in hot oil. A couple minutes and the hands grabbed a strainer, fished out the golden brown fried ta’ameia—similar to falafel but made from broad beans rather than chickpeas—and dropped them to drain in a large paper-lined tray. Other hands, back to back in the tiny space of the food stall, lathered a spoonful of tahina (creamy ground sesame sauce) on pita bread, pressed ta’ameia on it, added pickles and chopped tomatoes and rolled it all up. At a relentless fast pace, one after another ta’ameia sandwich was handed over to the customers in line on a street corner in downtown Cairo, not far from Tahrir Square where in 2011 the Egyptian revolution began —  but I’d left Egypt long before then.

Street food vendors in Cairo seemed an integrated part of the urban landscape, wheeling their bicycles through traffic balancing fresh-baked sameet — bread rings coated with sesame seed — stacked around poles on a larger board. Carrying trays on their heads with tea ready for serving. Parking a push-cart on a street corner to sell ful medames hot from the simmering pot. Ful  (the ‘medames is often left off) are small, round brown fava beans cooked until tender. Spooned in a bowl, you top them to your liking with anything, from chopped onions and tomatoes to a pinch of cumin, fried onions, chili and fresh herbs. Flipping stretchy dough to make fateer, that irresistible folded pancake powdered with sugar.

frying pan fatayer flinging
this image of a fateer maker was taken in Old Dubai but it’s a scene I recognized from Cairo eateries.

I lived in Cairo from 2002 for three years in a quieter tree-lined street in Heliopolis, an older part of Cairo. In season, a vendor came around our neighborhood and stopped whenever someone emerged from a house to buy his prickly pears. He expertly peeled them and handed them over. In mango season another vendor did the same, but with mango trees in every other garden (ours as well), his call didn’t get much response.

We arrived in Cairo with a toddler and learned quickly that as much as I was advised to sanitize my vegetables, it was perhaps even better to have him grow a “strong stomach”. Dirt in Cairo is everywhere, and in too easy reach of tiny hands. Not that I didn’t wash my veggies — of course I did. I just didn’t rinse them with a tablet that rendered everything tasting of chloride. Having said that, I typically ventured out to local open-air markets without the toddler in tow — but that was largely because (and every mother who has ever tried to get stuff done quickly in kid company) it was a lot easier.

Not my husband. He enjoyed taking his son along, even (without me knowing) to one of the largest, dirtiest markets around. I don’t remember where exactly that was, but this picture says it all:

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Not too far from where we lived was a hole-in-the-wall place that served up a steaming heap of koshari — that Egyptian carb-rich concoction of lentils, rice and macaroni topped with a spicy tomato sauce, fried onions and whole chickpeas. I couldn’t tell you now where that spot was, or if it’s even still there. It doesn’t matter: koshari is a national staple in Egypt and if you find an Egyptian restaurant near you, chances are you’ll find koshari on the menu.

Cookbook Suggestion

When it comes to Egyptian food in particular, and Middle Eastern food in general, for me The New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Cairo-born-and-raised Claudia Roden is my absolute go-to. She explains ingredients and regional variations, introduces a food and where it originated or how it developed,  how it is eaten and/or when, and includes many delightful personal anecdotes and stories quoted from regional literature: even if you never cooked from this book (which would be crying shame), just read it, you’d still feel as if you were right there, tasting it! This is her recipe for ta’ameia, adapted for the blog.

Makes about 30

  • 1 pound dried skinless split broad beans, soaked in cold water for 24 hours
  • 2 teaspoons salt (or to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper (or to taste)
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 large white onion, grated fine
  • 6 large cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/3 cup finely chopped green onions
  • 2/3 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 2/3 cup finely chopped cilantro
  • Vegetable oil for frying

Drain the soaked beans and dry out on a towel. Then put them in a food processor (trust me: a blender doesn’t work to get the proper consistency) and process into a doughy paste, adding salt, pepper, cumin, coriander, cayenne and baking soda as you go. The paste should be smooth and soft so it will hold together when you fry.

Let the paste rest for at least 1/2 hour. Meanwhile, mix together onions, garlic and chopped herbs and strain in a colander to rid excess liquid (if the paste is too liquid it will fall apart).

Add the rest of the ingredients (except the oil of course) and knead the mixture well using your hands. Take small lumps (about 2 inches in diameter, flattened to about 1/4 inch thickness). Rest them on kitchen paper for 15-20 minutes.

Heat oil to sizzling hot. Fry the patties in batches (don’t crowd the pan) until crisp and brown, turning them over once. Take out with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper.

Claudia Roden suggests to serve them hot with tahina sauce, baba ganoush, tomato-and-cucumber salad, and hot pita bread (recipes are all in her book The New Middle Eastern Cookbook)

PS.

As always with street food: be savvy. Watch how things are prepared, stored, heated. Is it a popular stall or are you the only customer. And if you don’t want to end up writhing on the bathroom floor: eat raw vegetables only if you were sure they were washed — and not in Nile water.

This is a post in a series of Street Food Stories — from Puerto Vallarta, Bangkok and Miri to Dubai.

Have you been to Cairo recently? Tried any street food?