This does not pretend to be a full digest of foods grown in Egypt, or cooked in Egypt. It is a simple explanation of a few of the dishes you may see on the menu in restaurants that tourists might visit. It is just intended to help you to decide whether to order something.
Most foods in Egypt will be familiar to tourists.
Popular meats are lamb, beef and chicken - not pork although pork, especially bacon, can be found. Pigeon is a popular delicacy, usually stuffed with rice.
Vegetables are also mostly the well known ones including potatoes, carrots, onions and tomatoes. A less familiar vegetable is Molokhiyya, a summer leafy green vegetable, similar in many ways to spinach but not as strong.
Molokhiyya is also made into a thick soup by stewing chopped pieces in chicken stock and served on its own or with small pieces of meat. Lentil is the most popular soup familiar to tourists. There are other soups made from meat, vegetables and fish.
Bread ('aysh') is plentiful with virtually every meal. There is a wide variety of breads. The most common is a form of pita bread. It is known as aysh shami if made with refined white flour, or aysh baladi when it is made with coarse, whole wheat. Aysh shams is bread made from leavened dough allowed to rise in the sun.
Beans, especially fava beans are another mainstay of the Egyptian diet. Boiled whole fava beans, sometimes with vegetables, and mashed with spices, onions and tomatoes, are known as ful medammes (or medames, mudammas or midamess). Ful medammes is often served with egg at breakfast time but without for the rest of the day.
Another way to serve fava beans is to soak them, mince them and mix them with spices, then form the mixture into patties which are deep fried. You will often see these patties, flavoured with tomatoes, lettuce, and tahina sauce, stuffed into bread and sold by street vendors.
Although the foods themselves are mostly familiar foods, they can be prepared differently. Most restaurants whose customers tend to be tourists, will normally prepare foods in the way that will be familiar to their clientele. However, local restaurants serving local people, or serving tourists but promising 'authentic' egyptian cuisine, may prepare them differently.
The most obvious differences are that meat in stews will not normally be trimmed or boned so well, so you may find extra fat and you may find chicken bones, for example. Salads tend to be the vegetable cut into slices - not shredded or tossed. So a salad may be two or three slices of tomato, slices of cucumber and slices (not battens or shreds, but round slices) of carrot. Similarly, a fruit salad may be an orange and a banana on a plate.
Some dishes you are likely to see
There is no 'proper' way to spell Egyptian (arabic) words using 'western' characters. The words you see are not translations, they are 'transliterations', in other words they are the arabic word sounded out in western characters. There is more than one way to do this and you will certainly see more than one spelling of most words.
Om Ali (Umm ali).
Raisin cake soaked in milk and served hot.
Egyptian rice pudding, served topped with pistachios.
Shredded beef, lamb or chicken meat, usually rolled in pita bread with tahina sauce or hummus. Shawarma means 'turning' and gives its name to the dish because the meat is roasted slowly on a vertical rotary spit - like a kebab.
Made from ground sesame seeds, lemon juice, and garlic and served as a paste, spread or dip, usually with pita bread. This is usually listed in menus under 'salad' so be careful! You may expect to see some green leaves and be surprised to be served a dip.
Tagine (also tajine, tagin)
This is essentially a stew. Tagine is the name of the heavy clay pot it is cooked in. In some north African countries these pots have their own designs and elaborate lids, but in Egypt you are most likely just to see a round clay dish with higher sides than the Moroccan and Tunisian tagines and without a lid - rather like an oversized ramekin. They may be glazed on the outside, but they are normally unglazed inside.
The pot can contain just about any meat or fish, vegetables, spices and, in some recipes, even nuts and raisins. Although they have the same name, tagines can vary hugely from one restaurant to another, simply because of the variety in ingredients, especially the spices, so you may like one more than another - just as casseroles can vary back home.
The ingredients are cooked together, in the pot, in a hot oven and brought to the table still in the same pot and usually steaming - quite possibly bubbling. You would normally have a tagine with rice or local bread may be dipped.
Restaurants that cater mostly for tourists will normally prepare the meat by removing bones and trimming fat, but restaurants offering tagine the egyptian way may not prepare the meat in the same way, so you may find bones and a little more fat than you are used to.
As well as meat tagines, most restaurants will offer a vegetable tagine - which is the same thing but without the fish or meat
Updated April 2013