Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1302, (30 June - 13 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Reimagining street food

Colourful food carts selling new takes on traditional street food have been a feature of this Ramadan in Cairo, writes Omneya Yousry

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Ramadan tent has become one of the main features of the holy month of Ramadan across the Arab world, as venues are erected to provide convenient meeting places for people to gather after sunset when the daily fast is broken.

Those who do not want to enjoy the entertainments offered by the Ramadan tents might want to have sohour, the meal before the start of fasting, with families and friends from a modern street food cart. These new carts can now be found in almost every neighbourhood of Cairo this Ramadan.

Instead of stopping by a traditional fuul or sweet-potato cart this Ramadan, many people are opting instead for the new catchy carts the young people are using to sell traditional Egyptian food but made according to new recipes and presented in new ways.

Marbouha is a fuul cart owned by Mohamed Habib, a 30-year-old former accountant from Alexandria who decided to start his own business in Heliopolis.

“I’m a Faculty of Commerce graduate, and I worked in finance until I reached a managerial position in a big company in Alexandria. I had to move to Cairo in 2012 and decided to start my own business in the shape of a food cart,” he explained.

Today he focusses on delivering traditional meals in a creative way. He uses healthy ingredients and adds special touches to his Ramadan sohour meals. The Marbouha team use new equipment.

Habib says that all his customers have come to him by word of mouth or through his Facebook page. One of his friends posted on Facebook about him, and when this went viral a lot of people started asking where they could try Marbouha’s Ramadan sohour.

Marbouha only operates during Ramadan. Anyone who wants to try its meals should go directly after taraweeh prayers because the carts attract long lines. Few people will want to miss Marbouha’s special beans with ketchup, fried cheese and potatoes. The prices are reasonable and competitive with those of popular restaurants.

Habib’s project also seems to have inspired other young people. A group of four neighbours in Heliopolis decided to cook their own sohour meals during Ramadan as they gathered every night to have sohour in different places and ended up paying too much money.

Mostafa Shaheen, one of the four, explained how the project took off. “One of our friends is really talented in cooking and already has his own sandwich place, so we decided to exploit his capabilities and open a place for sohour,” he said.

“First we thought it’d be a neighbourhood project, with a cool setup in the street. But then we found people who we didn’t know coming to join us, so we got the idea of making it a real sohour place for everybody and called it Fatouta,” he added.

What’s special about Fatouta is that the owners cook what they love to eat, meaning the food is always delicious and made with passion. It’s a friendly place where most of the people know each other. A group of four can have sohour for around LE70, and the restaurant also offers traditional recipes like fuul and eggs, as well as beleela, or wheat grains with milk, with marshmallows, M&Ms, or caramel or chocolate sauce.

“Everything this Ramadan is bigger than last year. The tables, the plates and the cart are all bigger in order to offer sohour to more people. Even so, we still get crowded, which is why we ask some customers to check out another cart nearby. We are all neighbours here,” Shaheen explained.

Dina and Maram, both of whom are 21 years old and studying business administration, have also started their own project, The Cart, which sells sweetcorn from a newly decorated cart.

“Unexpectedly, our parents encouraged us, even our mothers, who used to cook most of the items we sold at first,” Maram said. “But now we do the cooking ourselves while using our mothers’ equipment and kitchens.”

“It was Maram’s idea, and she also came up with the cart’s design. We run it from in front of our homes in Heliopolis, and there has been a lot of positive energy from everybody,” Dina said.

The Cart offers sweetcorn, baked potatoes, manaa’esh and grilled marshmallows. “We decided to offer sohour in Ramadan as well and added our special dish of kebabs with beans. We also serve desserts like konafa with pineapple, Nutella, Mars or Kinder chocolate, and katayf.”

Meanwhile, another area has got a little brighter with the appearance of the Joy Cupcakes bike that does the rounds selling cupcakes to passers-by. Mina and Gina Raafat, the two siblings behind Joy Cupcakes, have added desserts to the mix and have been working to change older streetcart concepts.

They have been roaming the streets of Cairo with their bright pink food bike, adorned with flowers and trailing the scent of freshly baked desserts.

“When I was working in HR in Dubai I saw a street for food carts and loved the idea. When I came back to Cairo, Gina already had a cupcakes business, so we just put two and two together. We wanted to start on a low budget, buying the bike for LE2,500 and then adding some simple decorations,” Mina said.

Joy Cupcakes offers its special cupcakes at half the price of some other providers and also caters for birthdays and special events. For Ramadan it offers something new every day, like konafa with mango, or Nutella with Maltesers, or konafa with marshmallows.

Ahmed Mohsen and Noha Magdy are just like any other young couple planning to get married, but are preparing for their marriage in a different way.

“We were looking for a different source of income so we decided to create By Bike, a creative take on the traditional sweet-potato cart. It has been very satisfying — reaching out to clients, selling products and having the privilege of moving between districts as if we had multiple branches,” Mohsen explained.

By Bike is a new way of selling sweet potatoes by serving them with toppings such as fruit, nuts, caramel sauce, chocolate chips or Nutella. The potatoes are sold in plastic boxes, not wrapped in old newspapers as traditionally done. Prices range between LE10 and 20 according to the topping.

“People love the concept, especially as it’s not available in restaurants. We now have a team of 18 with three franchises. We offer sohour in Ramadan, serving around 1,500 people per day, and our main products for the holy month are sweet potatoes with mango konafa and potatoes with tiramisu,” Mohsen added.

When thinking of street food in Cairo, images of men crowding around old carts selling fuul or sandwiches in the streets are now less likely to come to mind. Chances are that people will now think more of the new breed of colourful carts selling new takes on traditional street food.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

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