Introduction

Introduction

By
Suzanne Zeidy
Contains
0 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742708027
Photographer
Jonathan Gregson

For me, the dishes that we serve in the Cairo Kitchen restaurants are all about Egypt — the food we grow and the food we grew up with, the food of my childhood. My dad is from Port Said and he has always loved to cook. I can remember him there in the open kitchen when I was young, cooking and grilling, especially fish, he loves fish, putting food out onto little plates and inventing bite-size mezza, while me and my brother, cousins and friends sat and watched the kitchen entertainment. In Egyptian families, one figure usually gathers everybody together and in my family that was my dad’s sister, Abla, another major food influence on my younger self. Every Friday, we would have these large, late family lunches at her house with traditional Egyptian food, the molokheya and the kabab halla, real home-style cooking.

The food of Egypt mirrors both the outside influences the country has experienced alongside a remarkable continuity of ingredients and cooking methods. Cairo Kitchen reflects this too, mixing up the inventiveness of my father’s cooking, the incredible raw ingredients the country has to offer, with the history stirred into my aunt’s food. It is extraordinary that the country has managed to keep some of its food traditions for such a long time and Egypt is perhaps unique in this respect. The pharaohs themselves would recognize the bread we eat today: the grains husked, the dough risen and the loaves baked in the same way they have been for centuries. At the same time, Egypt has also long been the cosmopolitan centre of the Middle East and its food bears the influence of its Arab neighbours, while French, English and Italian expatriates have made béchamel sauce and macaroni, crème caramel and milk puddings part of Egypt’s rich culinary history.

At the end of 1997, I came back to the Cairo of my childhood from America, fresh from finishing up my MBA and a culinary course, and then working in various New York restaurants. I had returned to work for my father and to help build up his canning factory, but I had been inspired by the small restaurants I had seen in New York and my food ideas and passion were endless. Along with my childhood friends Maher and Dagher, I immediately started working on a project to open a restaurant.

Cairo at this time was in thrall to the cooking of Europe and America. We were importing food and restaurant ideas and everything was based around the city’s five-star hotels. It was really old-fashioned and much of it was posh and fancy — if you were going out to dinner, you certainly put on a tie. We wanted to create somewhere not stuffy, but casual and fun, with good food, music and nice décor, because nothing like that existed. It was such an inspired project to work on and finally, in 2000, La Bodega, our casual French bistro, Bar and Lounge (later to become Aperitivo) opened on the second floor of a beautiful, grand old building in the Cairo enclave of Zalamek. Neither Maher, Dagher nor I, along with our astute and shrewd manager, Danielle, knew that this would mark the beginning of a long partnership in the food world. Enthused by our success, we went on to create the first local coffee shop chain, Cilantro, selling cakes, sandwiches, salads and coffee. By 2005, with the help of our friend Nader, Cilantro had grown to 14 branches and we sold it on.

In 2010, the idea came up to create a concept inspired by the street foods of Egypt: fuul, taameya or koshary. This time, we wanted to embrace the culture of Egypt and the food heritage it has to offer. Maher, myself and Nadine, our third partner, began exploring ways to present the common street food, koshary. This was to be a local concept we could expand and take outside of Egypt. By then, we had changed our perspectives and the country we lived in had changed too. Back when we created Bodega, it was all about what we could bring into Egypt from the places we had visited. By 2010, it was more like what do we have in Egypt and what can we take from here and expand outside. It was a different mindset.

We toyed a bit with the concept, but in the end decided to cook koshary. It’s a great dish, a simple thing, and a very well-rounded meal — it’s got rice and lentils, chickpeas and tomato sauce and kids like it because of the pasta. You can spice it up if you want and it’s very easy to customise. If you like fried onions, you add them, if you don’t, you don’t. The idea was that we would make koshary the basis of the restaurant, but our customers would eat it how they liked.

So koshary was to be the starting point, but we felt we needed more variety too. At that time I was feeling very inspired by grains, so I started experimenting with barley, bulgar wheat and freekeh. Healthy and wholesome, they are very traditional Egyptian ingredients, but I wanted to use them in new ways — to put barley in a salad rather than a sweet; freekeh in a soup rather than stuffed into a pigeon. Reinterpreting the past in a fresh, original way now became part of Cairo Kitchen’s story.

Koshary is as popular today as it was in my youth, but there are lots of Egyptian dishes that people grew up with and are nostalgic about that they might not cook at home and not many restaurants serve them. Molokheya is our top seller at Cairo Kitchen and people come in on Fridays, the day we serve it, just to eat molokheya. It may not have been forgotten but, like many Egyptian dishes, molokheya is not so easily found unless you are in someone’s house. Egypt is not like Italy, where you have all these great restaurants with dishes that everyone knows. Egyptian food is found in the home, so it’s hard to access. People learn to cook from their mothers and it passes on in that way, not through cookbooks and chefs. Provenance is of course important too. The ingredients we use in the restaurants are almost all local, fresh and seasonal. Vegetables like broad beans and red carrots have a very short season, so when they are around, we try to use them in our cooking.

From the very beginning, we knew that the whole feel of the restaurant should be inspired by the koshary carts you find on every busy street, whose white lacquered wood and coloured glass make them easily identifiable to a hungry clientele. If you look closely, you’ll see that the facade of Cairo Kitchen restaurants is reminiscent of a koshary cart, with squares of glass in a sixties-inspired pop-art palette. The restaurant interiors, designed by Hassan Abouseda, are fun and modern, yet strongly influenced by authentic koshary culture too. Traditional koshary shops and carts feature an abundance of Arabic script on walls, mirrors and ceramic tiles. At Cairo Kitchen, we’ve used Arabic script on the walls, echoing this longstanding design tradition, but in a contemporary way.

And finally, what about the name? I like to think that Cairo Kitchen is at its heart a kitchen, rather than a restaurant. You come in and it’s as though you’ve walked into a home. You look at the food, a lid is lifted by the friendly staff to let you peek inside a pot, and you choose by picking what you fancy.

The first Cairo Kitchen opened in Zamalek in April 2012, with a few more opening the following year and several others planned. More than anything else, our Cairo Kitchen restaurants are about the food and we wanted to share that by creating this cookbook. We have tried to present the food we love to cook and eat in a very visual way, to tell the stories of koshary and fuul, feteer and kunafa, and put Cairo Kitchen in the context of a wider food scene in Egypt and throughout the Middle East. This is a snapshot of Cairo’s culture and food as it is today.

I hope you enjoy reading about our food and cooking it!

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