Striking a blow for local food
Can the invasion of foreign food be stopped and the hamburger held at the gates? Mohamad Mursi finds out
The constellation of restaurants to the east of Tawfiqia Square contains establishments that are not just affordable, but are also authentic and reliable. They are one of our last bulwarks against the invasion of foreign-owned food chains.
These restaurants specialise in local cuisine, from molokhiya and okra to fuul, falafel , and koshari. If you think Egypt is fast losing the fight for culinary independence, try the now-pedestrian section along and near Alfi Street. Some of the restaurants in this area have been there for decades.
In the larger scheme of cultural rivalry, it is often assumed that the vanquished are made to eat the food of the victors. Standing up for local cuisine, as the restaurants in Tawfiqia do, is therefore a mark of distinction.
Egypt is not the only country fighting for survival in the merciless world of culinary competition. Italy, for example, is fighting against burgers with the mighty pizza. Moreover, the European Union as a whole has been looking for ways to repel the steady onslaught of American fast food. The French have restricted the use of English. The more we hang on to our language, the more we'll be able to protect our cuisine, they think.
Nawal Soliman, a professor of community health at Ain Shams University in Cairo, is all for local cuisine. A globalised cuisine can be detrimental not only to a person's health, she said, but also to his or her pocket. To buy a hamburger, a worker in Tokyo needs to work for around 12 minutes, while in Berlin 18 minutes is necessary. However, in Nairobi, a burger costs nearly 150 minutes of labour, and in Cairo an ordinary worker will have to work for 82 minutes to buy a burger.
"US-dominated globalisation treats the world as a big supermarket that is waiting to be flooded with the products of the major industrial countries," Soliman said. For her, the expansion of McDonald's at the expense of traditional restaurants such as Naama, Lux and Al-Tabei in Tawfiqia is nothing short of a catastrophe.
"Globalisation is not an attempt to unite the world economically. It is an attempt to promote one lifestyle -- that of America and the West," Soliman said.
Hassan Amra, a specialist on the food industries, also believes that Egyptian cuisine should be defended against foreign domination. "We should register koshari and taamia as Egyptian food brands, just as Italy did with pizza and Turkey with shawerma," he said.
During a recent trip to Germany, Amra noticed that a sandwich of Egyptian taamia was selling for two euros, nearly 15 times its price in Egypt. Egypt's cuisine is one of the best recorded in history, with pictures of the country's food appearing on the walls of Ancient Egyptian temples. "Since ancient times, Egyptian cuisine has depended on fresh legumes and vegetables, stuff that the Nile has allowed us to grow in abundance," he commented.
According to British writer Winifred Blackman, author of a 1927 study of The Fellahin of Upper Egypt, Egyptian cuisine is characterised by three traits: food is cooked slowly, mesabbek style, in sauce, it relies heavily on legumes, and recipes are relatively stable.
However, in fact Egyptian cuisine has changed quite a lot over time, with Arab and Turkish influences being noticeable. Western influences have also seeped into Egyptian cooking over the past century or so.
More recently, however, American food habits have infiltrated the country, with Hanaa El-Shorbagi, who teaches nutrition at the Home Economics College, saying that many young people today have developed quite an appetite for soft drinks and hamburgers.
Nevertheless, in Tawfiqia this western onslaught has been held at the gates, at least for the time being. The Nagah restaurant, established by Mahmoud El-Shorbagi in the '40s, specialises in tomato sauce-cooked meals, such as okra and messakaa (fried then cooked aubergines). Its speciality is molokhia, and the chef claims that no one in Cairo, not even in Tawfiqia, can compete with his recipe.
The Al-Alfi restaurant, an even older establishment, prides itself on its interpretation of dishes such as fatta (rice and bread soaked in soup), moza (meat on the bone) and stuffed vegetables. Many customers are foreign, the owner says. "Some foreigners say that our local food is the best in the world," he added.