commends a cool café serving cuisine sourced only on Cairene back streets
The very idea of devilled liver atop a mound of brown rice, pasta, chickpeas and lentils drenched in fiery hot tomato and garlic sauce perhaps sounds somewhat abominable, yet it is anything but distasteful.
Everybody knows that koushary is a travesty of Egyptian street food. However, Cairo Kitchen, or CK for short, near the intersection of 26th July and Hasan Sabri in Zamalek, presents a contemporary take on koushary, Cairo-style. CK also serves koushary Eskandarany, the Alexandrian version, which is equally delectable. And, 25 salad options to boot.
How far is too far to go in experimenting with and improvising on local gastronomic culture? There is something in the chili and garlic sauce that certainly put the heat scale -- already pretty high on a popular level -- up by quite a few extra notches.
"Boiling on the open next to the large tannouras are our sauces and our 'Tagin of the Day', freshly prepared with the freshest of organic ingredients, prepared in the restaurant and simmering away in front of you," extrapolates Director of Operations of the La Bodega Group Nadine Beshir.
According to Suzanne El-Zeidy, co-owner of CK, "the canteen-style format recognises that Cairenes today lead busy lives. What we are offering is a healthy and satisfying meal for modern people on the run, who may not have time for long, sit-down meals, but are still not prepared to compromise on taste or the nutritional value of the food they eat," El-Zeidy expounds.
Hassan Abouseda, one of Egypt's most talented architects designed the interior décor with innovative interpretations of the authentic atmospheric ambiance of Egypt's street cuisine culture. He ingeniously fused calligraphy and floral motifs to enhance the feel of the local culinary classic.
Arresting arrays of eye-catching colourful dishes are on display along the long counter and open hob. The kaleidoscopic intensity vies for the connoisseur's attention with the bold and vibrant colours of the décor.
Everything is inextricably intertwined. CK is a futuristic vision come true. There may have been a time when koushary and salad were deemed incompatible, but not anymore. CK re-interprets the traditional so that even if one can't work up the appetite for the full koushary fare, one can still savour the salads discerningly furnished with a tantalising twist of pomegranate and sesame seeds in crisp cream ceramic bowls.
Integrally engrossed in gourmet dishes one is oblivious to the fact that the eatery is not much tighter on space than the traditional street food stalls. This, though, is not a restaurant where the customer could spread out on a divan with riotous children who would much rather go for a run.
Cairo's countless stalls are strangely satisfying because they do not sell fusion cuisine, and nor does CK. Every Egyptian is familiar with cottage cheese, gebna arish, a bland dairy product invariably reserved in popular imagination for the frail and ailing geriatrics and anorexic weight watchers. In CK one can toss it over bell peppers stuffed with cracked wheat, or green couscous salad that combines coriander and thyme sprinkled with roast almonds.
As it happens, red-hot chili sauce is not restricted to the "first stop" on the CK culinary counter. Try it with fatta bel moza, stewed veal shank, rice and garlic drenched toasted bread. Or, better still douse the koftet roz bel shareya -- traditional rice meatballs with vermicelli.
Expatriates in Egypt constantly extol the virtues of curious cuisine of the Cairo street stalls but they have traditionally balked at the notion of sampling the dishes primarily because of the health hazards of indulging in such adventurism.
Koushary is a house special at the CK but we had already devoured four very different hors d'oeuvres -- Alexandrian liver, Dawoud Pasha meatballs, red bell pepper mahshi (dolmas), and koushari -- when our waiter approached our table with a broad smile.
As befits a traditional Cairene kitchen the koushary had to be excellent to top the preceding plates. The comforting flavours of lentils and brown rice were offset by the potent kick of the chili and garlic sauce. We could have easily stayed for dinner.