Being Vegan in Cairo
By Yasmin Radbod
I lived in Cairo, Egypt for two seasons. Exploring many parts of Cairo, such as the beautiful Islamic Cairo, and areas outside the city, like El Fayoum and Dahab in Sinai, were the highlights of my time. When I first was leaving the United States for Egypt, many people warned me about the food. Several people told me it would not be pleasant living in Cairo. I was surprised; I think for most vegetarian and vegan Americans, when we think of Egypt, images of common Middle Eastern vegetarian cuisine come to mind, like smooth and creamy hummus, tabbouleh, baba ghanoush, etc.
Sadly, they were right. I was living near Saint Fatima in Heliopolis, Cairo, and the food options lined up and down the streets nearby were mostly meat and starch. From what I could see, most Egyptians were eating beef, chicken, potatoes, milk, and lots of oil. I was so disappointed. I had a kitchen in my apartment, so I rushed to the nearest big supermarket, Alpha, to buy fresh vegetables. The selection of vegetables is slim in Cairo and they are usually not very fresh. I relied on buying a frozen medley of vegetables (carrots, peas, broccoli, and cauliflower) to sustain my diet. When I went out to eat with friends, I usually ate French fries or bread.
You can find hummus and other Middle Eastern classics but only at Lebanese restaurants, which tend to be expensive. Taboula is a very good Lebanese restaurant in Heliopolis. There are some Indian restaurants that do serve vegan food, too. Also, the closest thing to a national dish in Egypt is koshari. Take a second and look it up online. It's fried onions, chickpeas, macaroni noodles, and rice mixed together in tomato sauce. I ate that for about three weeks until it made me nauseous, but at least it's vegan friendly, and you can find it in the busy areas of the city.
Now, all that being said, there were some rare vegan finds that I couldn't get enough of in Cairo. Alpha is the best supermarket in the city and carries Alpro vegan products from the United Kingdom. I even found some canned mock meat made in Egypt. There are taamiya (Egyptian falafel) stands around the city; one fast-food chain that is very popular is called Gad. They make delicious taamiya and pita sandwiches that are vegan friendly.
In Egypt, fava beans, rather than chickpeas, are used to cook what we normally call falafel. Fava beans are also the staple for cooking ful, a delicious alternative to hummus. In Bedouin areas in Fayoum I celebrated Eid and ate delicious fried vegetables, ful, and fresh pita bread with endless Bedouin tea. I highly suggest visiting Fayoum, going sand surfing, and staying a few nights camping in the desert or staying at an eco lodge. Fayoum is only a few hours outside Cairo and is easily accessible.
Eating such delicious food made me want to learn how to cook taamiya and ful myself. My Egyptian roommate's grandmother so graciously gave me her recipes, and now they are just below for you to enjoy, too.
For both of these recipes, it is your choice to buy dried fava beans (with or without skin) or canned beans. I prefer to use dry beans. For ful, I use beans with the skin because I like the texture of the skin; I don't like my ful very creamy. For taamiya, however, it is easier to use dried beans with the skin already peeled because the skin is too tough for blending all the ingredients together.
Also, for both recipes, use your own discretion on the spices and herbs follow your taste buds. Maybe cook a small amount first to see if you like the flavor, and then cook a larger amount when you know what flavor you prefer the most. For example, I love lots of garlic, fresh parsley, and lots of coriander in my taamiya. For some people, the flavor is too strong, so vary your spices according to the tastes of those for whom you're cooking.
- 4 cups dried fava beans
- 6-8 cups water
- Cumin, salt, and pepper, to taste
- Chopped fresh parsley, to taste
- 2 cups diced tomatoes
- 1-2 cloves garlic, minced
- Fresh lemon juice, to taste
- 4 Tablespoons olive oil (optional)
Soak dried fava beans for one day. Drain the beans. Boil 6-8 cups of water in a large pot. (This depends on how creamy or thick you want your ful to be, and of course you can add water later if it gets too dry.) Boil the fava beans, with cumin, salt, and pepper to taste, until the skin is very soft. Stir and mash the beans.
When the beans start to clump together, resembling mashed potatoes, add, to your liking, fresh parsley, diced tomatoes, minced garlic, and lemon juice. Optionally, you can add olive oil to make it creamier and richer. Serve with pita bread or rice.
|Total calories per serving: 353||Fat: 2 grams|
|Carbohydrates: 61 grams||Protein: 27 grams|
|Sodium: 16 milligrams||Fiber: 26 grams|
- 4 cups peeled fava beans
- 4 Tablespoons each dried chives, diced garlic, diced spring onion, cilantro, cumin, and dried coriander
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Chile pepper, to taste (optional)
- ½ cup chopped fresh parsley
- 3-4 cups olive oil for frying
Soak peeled fava beans for one day. Drain the beans. Put all of the beans into a food processor or blender and each of the following: dried chives, diced garlic, diced spring onion, cilantro, cumin, and dried coriander. Add salt and pepper to taste. You could add chile to make it spicy, also. Add fresh parsley. Blend for a few minutes to make the green paste for frying. It should be very smooth.
Put olive oil in a wok or pot. Use enough oil to submerge the taamiya balls fully. Boil the oil. Using a tablespoon, make round balls out of the mixture. Carefully place the balls into the oil to deep fry. Turn over each ball until it is golden brown. If you like it very crispy, let it get dark brown. Using a slotted spoon, remove the cooked balls and place them onto a paper towel over a plate.
Once they are cool, enjoy immediately or make a delicious pita sandwich with fresh tomatoes, parsley, hummus, ful, peppers, and/or lettuce.
The fat content will vary depending on the cooking temperature/time, and other factors.
|Total calories per serving: 244||Fat: 17 grams|
|Carbohydrates: 18 grams||Protein: 7 grams|
|Sodium: 65 milligrams||Fiber: 5 grams|
Translations & English transcriptions for essential vegan phrases:
Fasoulia (fava beans)
Ma bakolsh el lahm (I don't eat meat)
Ma bakolsh lahm oo samak oo beed oo 'asal wala laban (I don't eat meat, fish, eggs, honey, or milk)
Ma bakolsh lahm el hayawanaat (I don't eat the flesh/meat of animals)
Yasmin Radbod is a former Vegetarian Resource Group intern and a Fulbright recipient.