Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1419, (22 - 28 November 2018)
Tuesday,21 May, 2019
Issue 1419, (22 - 28 November 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Street food in the limelight

Mai Samih observes some evolving trends in the food and beverage industry in the busy streets of Cairo


Illustration: Tamer Youssef
Illustration: Tamer Youssef

The streets of Cairo have always been occupied by street food carts like for hummus (chick peas) and termmis (lupin beans), charbroiled corn, or even sweet potatoes and fuul (fava beans), one of the most essential. These food carts have always been a source of cheap Egyptian staples, but at certain times one can also find teen shoky (prickly pear) carts gathering people of different social classes.

A selection of such carts used to occupy the sides of the 6 October and Qasr Al-Nil Bridges in Downtown Cairo, accompanied by a few plastic chairs for people to sit down on.

However, today the authorities wish to keep the pavements clear for pedestrians as well as from the cars that used to make a stop on the bridges to buy from the carts.

Some people were always against eating from such carts due to their sometimes poor hygiene and the fact that these food products were polluted with car exhausts. But the fuul carts in particular are still one of Egypt’s signature food sources, with workers gathering around them in the early morning for their breakfasts across the city.

Some of them are also famous for their food, such as the Hamada Sheraton (it became famous due to its location in the Sheraton neighbourhood in Heliopolis) or Mahrous in Garden City, and these carts attract large gatherings of people from diverse backgrounds, often drawn as much by the experience of eating from the cart as for the food itself.  

Some famous food shops also started as food carts, as is the case of the Abu Tarek koshary restaurant in Downtown Cairo. This was once a koshary cart with a baladi café nearby.

Later, its owner, Abu Tarek, managed to take over the café in the building to have his own food shop. He built a medium-sized building on the site, and this is his headquarters today. Malek Al-Kebda that serves kebda (liver) and sogoq (sausages) in the Downtown area was also once a food cart before its owner managed to take over the shop in the same street.

Carts today have begun to make simple sandwiches that do not necessarily need cooking in addition to their traditional fare. One such is Sameh in Hoda Shaarawi Street in the Downtown area, which offers cheese and cold cuts in sandwiches that are given the customers’ names. They can then be recommended to other people who order the same sandwich as the name that appears on the menu. Sameh started in his grandfather’s kiosk in the corner of the street, but now he owns a small shop.

A new generation of middle-class Egyptians have also wanted to spend more time roaming the streets of Cairo looking for a bite to eat or a drink from newly sophisticated food carts presenting a variety of foods like liver and sausages or shawarma and burgers and hotdogs in other parts of the city, including in Heliopolis. The latter suburb and New Cairo have seen many of the new carts setting up in recent years, and there has even been a new trend of setting up coffee machines in the trunks of four-wheel-drive cars in the streets of Heliopolis that offer customers good-quality coffee. They may also offer other hot and cold drinks as well.

The new carts might be an effect of the tough financial circumstances facing many today, with some middle-class people no longer going to fancy cafés and preferring such food carts for reasons of expense. They may no longer have the money to pay the charges of the fancy cafés, but they can still enjoy a good-quality drink or food from one of the new carts.

With this in mind, a project called Sharei Masr (Egypt Street) has been sponsored by the government to give the young owners of food and drink bikes and carts a place to stand for a reasonable rent instead of working in the streets. Governor of Cairo Khaled Abdel-Aal has signed a protocol with the Tahya Masr Fund to support the projects of young people in this regard, especially restaurant bikes in the capital.

It is designed to give young people the right to start their projects on empty pieces of land in the Nozha, Maadi and Heliopolis districts and give them the licences needed to work. They are under the supervision of the governorate through a company that manages the project in terms of marketing, maintenance and cleaning.

EARLY BEGINNINGS: It all started when two young women got into a fight with the police in the Nozha district of Cairo because they had removed their burger bike for blocking the road.

The then governor of Cairo, Atef Abdel-Hamid, met the girls and promised them that he would find a solution to their problem. The governorate later provided them with a space for their bike on an empty piece of land in the Nozha district. It was meant to be a solution for young people with bike restaurants to work in and was named Egypt Street.

But the business of food carts is flourishing in other areas too, and carts can be spotted in New Cairo and Sheikh Zayed city today, including in the Water Way Alley in the former city, one of the most famous cafés and restaurants assemblies in New Cairo. However, this cart, called Shocks and offering burgers, is not cheap, with an average burger sandwich costing some LE60. However, the hygiene there can be guaranteed as you see workers preparing your food, and Shocks has no counterparts nearby.

“The food carts in the streets of Cairo often don’t have permits, and things are done on a friendly basis,” one food cart owner said, refusing to give his name. “But the food carts in a place like Water Way have permits, which is why they don’t face the predicaments we face.”

One German University in Cairo graduate who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly said that she went to the Water Way for “the special soft ice cream with lotus biscuits from Shocks. It’s really delicious, and their burgers are good too.”

“My friends and I used to go to Casarol for the kebda Iskandrani [Alexandrian liver]. It’s one of the best I’ve ever had, and it became like a routine for me and my friends to go there and have our sandwiches in the car, which was perfectly fine for us. My friend loves their sakalans [made from sesame seeds, cream, jam and honey], and she also loves the sakalans with sugar cane. They’re heavenly,” customer Rania Hamed said.  

Ahmed, 30, is the owner of a fancy food cart in a street in Giza and is waiting for his turn in a place in the second phase of Egypt Street. “I graduated from the Faculty of Tourism in Cairo and then started working for a Saudi company. Last year, I applied for a place in Egypt Street. I even left my job for it, but then the governor decided to freeze the project after I had my bike ready,” he said.

“I decided to work in the street instead,” he added, saying that it had taken him a year to prepare the bike and had cost him about LE95,000. He had been working in his career for many years before he decided to start his own business. So far, he has been working on the bike for three months, in anticipation of a more permanent location.  

Ahmed believes that some 80 per cent of passers-by are not familiar with what he is doing. “They find it unusual that I’m working with such high-quality products at the prices I sell my products for. Most people are not familiar with the concept of smoothies and milk shakes that I serve,” Ahmed said, adding that customers buy all the drinks he serves. His customers come from all age groups, and they arrive at around 6pm and stay until 9pm in the evening.

There is a contrast between the inhabitants of Giza and those of Nasr City in terms of understanding what he does, he said. “I used to work in places in Nasr City, where people understand what they are buying. Here, some people think that the bottles I have on display are wine, when I don’t serve alcoholic drinks at all. These bottles are for flavours and sauces. Some people think that I sell fuul and falafel sandwiches as well,” he added.

It is not easy to cope with some customers. “I originally intended to work in Egypt Street, not in my current place. People ask me why I am working on the street and tell me I am spoiling the image of the street with what I am doing, just like a street pedlar. After about a month, they got used to my presence in the area, however,” Ahmed said.

“Some people bother me during my work. People come and have a drink, and then leave without paying. This has happened many times,” he complained.

CUSTOMER VOICES: The municipal authorities have made no comment on the status of young people like Ahmed in the district.  

Samah, an English teacher who likes to hang out in the area with her sister Samia and her niece, said she had found Ahmed’s bike by chance. “We have been customers here from the beginning. We were passing by, and we wanted something to drink because the weather was hot. We tried the smoothies and the coffee with chocolate sauce. We now come two or three times a week. What is unique about the place is that you deal with a respectful person who can help you choose what you want to eat or drink,” she said, adding that this kind of service was equal to what they would get in a café.

“We are also able to sit in an informal way near our home. Open-air outings are much better than indoor cafés. The atmosphere is better than at the café. You could even come here in a training suit for some coffee. It is good because of its simplicity. We want the governorate to make the place legal. We don’t want him to leave,” Samah said.

Her sister Samia, a marketing manager in a company, agrees. “The bike is very clean, and we can come down any time for a drink. We want Ahmed to have the opportunity to stay and to have a permanent place. I think that if there were tables here, many more people would come, particularly as not everyone can afford to sit in cafés. You get the impression that the bike is something between an oriental café and a fancy one,” she said, adding that both those who can only afford to sit in regular cafés and those who can go to fancy ones would have a good time.

“I think this kind of work may be better than working in a company since it is a way of increasing the incomes of young people. The government should support it more. If this is successful, many more young people will be encouraged to start similar projects. Despite the difficulties they face, we should encourage them,” Samia said, adding that Ahmed’s prices were affordable.

“We should encourage young people to start such projects since there are many who can’t find work. If we did so, the economy would improve,” she added.

“I would like to see the municipal authorities finish the second phase of Egypt Street. We left our work to join this project, but then we were told last year that the project had been frozen. Standing in the street is not easy, especially since we would like the bike to turn into a proper café,” Ahmed commented, adding that another advantage of Egypt Street was that it is in a safe and secure setting.

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