“Small, medium or large?”, the young waiter asked us from behind his mask. El Tahrir, an Egyptian chain restaurant, serves only one item: koshary, a traditional Egyptian dish that is a popular street food and that also happens to be vegan.
Within a short time, a medium bowl appeared with a bed of noodles, lentils, crispy onions, rice and chickpeas served with a bowl of tomato sauce and packets of garlic sauce and chili sauce. You are meant to use these to adjust to your own taste. I poured the entire bowl of tomato sauce on my koshary and squeezed some of the chili sauce from its packet.
I had posed the question “How do you enjoy your koshary?” to the Vegetarian/Vegan Egypt Facebook group and got back over 70 varied responses. The majority seemed to use a combination of garlic and chili sauce. A few liked theirs with more tomato sauce. I left El Tahrir wondering how I would prepare mine the next time I tried this delicious Egyptian vegan dish. I also knew that next time I would order a small as the carb and protein packed meal filled me up quickly.
I discovered quite quickly that it is rather easy to be a vegan in Egypt. If you like ingredients like lentils, chickpeas, rice, eggplant, okra, mint and more, you will have no problem finding something delicious to eat. Also, many in the food industry understand the concept of veganism as “no animals and no animal products” because the Coptic Christians who live there fast about 200 days out of every year. Many of these fasting days means vegan meals only. Hence, the idea of veganism isn’t completely foreign for the average Egyptian. Check out this blog to learn more about the Coptic fasting days – it even includes some tasty-sounding vegan recipes.
My culinary experience in Egypt began with a restaurant named Taboula, located in Zamelak near Tahrir Square. This sit-down Lebanese eatery in the basement of an unassuming building set the bar high for the rest of the trip. There were many vegan options on the menu, the menus were available in English and the waitstaff understood veganism. The tables all come with vibrant pillows and the decor included colorful jugs, instruments and sculptures to look at while you wait for your meal. We ate at Taboula twice during our stay in Cairo.
I really enjoyed the taboula salad, hummus beiroti, tabouli fattoush, cold eggplant with pomegranate sauce, okra stew with lemon (a dish a member of the Vegetarian/Vegan Egypt Facebook group had recommended) and grapes leaves. And nothing beat the refreshing home-made mint lemonade after walking around in the heat all day.
As amazing as the cuisine at Taboula was, it wasn’t my favorite vegan experience in Egypt.
Koshary El Tahrir
There are locations all over Cairo including the popular Zamalek and Dokka neighborhoods. There is seating upstairs with wait service. You get a little ticket and pay downstairs as you leave. Our total meal of two medium bowls and a pepsi cost only 56.01 Egyptian Pounds (about $3.50 US).
Like El Tahrir, Felfela fast food is ubiquitous in Cairo. During the day, it was easy to get served quickly, but as the sun set, hoards of people flocked to Felfela for a bite to eat after a whole day of fasting for Ramadan. We went to Felfela a few times, always ordering French fries and the fried eggplant (our favorite). We also tried the ta’amia (Egypt’s answer to falafel) sandwich, foul with flaxseed oil, tahina and the Felfela mix. In short, we tried everything vegan on the menu. The food was good for the price and the convenience, especially on evenings we wanted to stay in.
You can’t miss the vibrant blue front doors when looking for Zööba in the northern section of Cairo’s Zamalek neighborhood. This eatery specializes in Egyptian street food and even has vegan items clearly marked on the menu. After a hot day of exploring the Giza Pyramids, Memphis and Saqarra (the Step Pyramid), it was nice to enjoy a refreshing mint lemonade in this small sit-down location. After much deliberation because everything looked so good, we ordered the pickled lemon ta’amia sandwich with beetroot-hibiscus tahini, house fries, fried eggplant and peppers, and tahini fries with baladi salad. Every dish tasted very flavorful, but my favorite was the ta’amia sandwich.
Eish and Malh
We had just arrived back to Cairo after our several day jaunt in Luxor and we were ready for a nice in-house eatery. Eish and Malh fit the bill perfectly, even more so than we could have expected. Not only was the food delicious, but while we were waiting for our dinner, two musicians, one on the oud (Middle Eastern stringed-instrument) and the tambourine began to play. What a great surprise! Quite literally dinner and a show. The windows were open bringing in a nice evening breeze and the restaurant was decorated for Ramadan with streamers and the traditional lanterns.
We tried the vegana pizza with mushrooms, zucchini, peppers, onions, spinach and olives. It said it included pesto on the menu but did not come with any, at least not that I could see. I enjoyed this pizza pie just the same! We also ordered risotto alle verdure, a slow-cooked vegan risotto with fresh veggies, and the fereek salad, a mix of green wheat durum and grilled vegetables. The food was delicious and washing it down with their iced tea, the perfect blend of local hibiscus, rose, lemongrass and mint, made our evening perfect. Eish and Malh was also one of the only places we saw that offered non-dairy coffees such as lattes and cappuccinos (with coconut milk).
As excellent an evening as this was with a mix of delicious vegan cuisine, traditional Arab music and Ramadan-filled happiness in the air, this still wasn’t my favorite vegan experience in Egypt.
Vegan in Our House (Via 82)
When I learned that Vegan in Our House (otherwise known as Via 82) was the only vegan sit-down restaurant in all of Cairo, I simply had to check it out. In addition, being located only 450 meters south of Ma’adi Metro station on the M1 line, I figured this would give me the opportunity to finally experience Cairo’s subway.
Together, Chrissy and I ordered the vegan nuggets for an appetizer. They were made with zucchini, potato, peas, mushrooms and mixed Mexican hot spices, and served with BBQ sauce. We also got a bowl of cream of mushroom soup. For our main meals we tried the Beyond burger with cheese (Violife) and the mushroom Alfredo pasta with fettuccine. The meals weren’t much to look at, but they were filling and sure did taste good.
Yalla (vegan delivery)
After finding Yalla on Facebook by accident, we ended up ordering from them twice. We were even happy to pay the extra $5 US delivery charge. It seemed like we ordered everything on their vast menu, from French fries to sandwiches (both chicken schwarma and kofta) to pasta (fried noodles with vegetables, vegetable glass noodles, mushroom Alfredo pasta) to soups (coconut mushroom, broccoli and mushroom and okra stew called bamya) to vegetable dishes (vegetable rolls, mixed vegetable barbecue, quinoa with grilled vegetables, sweet and sour eggplant, black-eyes peas with mushrooms and zucchini with hummus). We liked the variety on the menu and everything tasted very good.
Alfa Market has several locations in Cairo and is apparently where expats go to shop. I visited the one in Dokka. This typical European market was bigger than a 7-Eleven, but smaller than a typical American grocery store. On offer were fresh fruit and vegetables, peanut butter, fresh hummus, lots of canned fruit and veggies with the pop top (perfect for traveling) and an olive bar. There was a ridiculously large assortment of juices and drinks towards the front of the store and in the back I found almond milk, soy milk and even my favorite, hazelnut milk.
If you have access to a kitchen while traveling, you could also buy pastas, dried beans and rice at Alfa Market.
Luxor (East Bank)
Literally putting the “luxor” in “luxorious”, the small town of Luxor (formerly known as Thebes in ancient times) should make everyone’s Egypt itinerary. Exploring Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, Queen Hatshepsut’s temple and so much more on the West Bank of the Nile are not to be missed. Equally, Luxor’s East Bank has plenty to see as well: namely Luxor Temple and Karnak. Regardless of where we enjoyed the day, our evenings were spent on the east bank due to the location of our AirBnB. And with so many eateries offering vegan options to choose from, there was really no reason to make the trip across the Nile again after the sun went down.
The owner of Gerda’s Garden, Wael Shahwan, greeted us wholeheartedly despite the frenzy of trying to get out numerous orders in time for iftar (breaking the fast of Ramadan). He lived in Heidelberg for 7 years and seems to really enjoy what he does. He speaks Arabic, German and English. It was fun to practice my German again after so long of not speaking it on a daily basis. Gerda’s Garden specializes in Egyptian and German cuisine.
We tried the bratkartoffeln (fried potatoes), foul, oriental salad, okra in tomato sauce, and pasta with mushrooms in a light tomato sauce. I loved the variety on my plate and everything tasted as though great care went into making it.
Snobs is a 1920’s style sit-down restaurant with fun decor, a vegetarian menu available in English and a very fluent English-speaking staff. Because we arrived shortly before the sun went down, we were given a plate of very fresh and sweet dates, as is customary when breaking the fast.
We ordered the babaganoush, hummus, sweet and sour fried veggies with rice, fried stuffed mashed potatoes and garlic (minus the cheese), and ta’amia. Every item was delicious and very filling.
Located in an unassuming side street only 9 minutes from Luxor Temple, we walked by Sofra without even noticing it. The inside, however, revealed a beautiful more upscale restaurant with an upstairs dining room. There was not only lots of vegan options to choose from on the menu, but a large variety of freshly-squeezed fruit juices. I tried the banana juice and later in the meal some guava juice – we watched them make it at the bar.
I decided to try their koshary as I was curious to see if it was different than the kind I tried in Cairo. This carb-heavy dish was very delicious (and filling) and unlike the koshary I enjoyed at El Tahrir, it already came already seasoned with the chef deciding on the amount of tomato, garlic and spicy sauces. As a result, it was a bit dry for my taste.
We also tried the roz hab’a wa hab’a, an Egyptian-style rice with both white and brown grains, betingan bil tom, baby aubergines stuffed with parsley, dill and garlic and spiced with lemon, and khodar makly, mixed seasonal vegetables (cauliflower, baby aubergine, sweet peppers and zucchini) fried in oil, served with vinegar and olive oil dressing. I very much enjoyed the very bold and distinct flavor combinations of the the latter two dishes.
As superb as this meal was, it wasn’t my favorite vegan experience in Egypt.
Camping in the White Desert
An absolute highlight of the trip for me was camping in Egypt’s White Desert. After searching for a company to take us out there and reading that the standard Bedouin meal included BBQ chicken, we made an inquiry to see if it were possible to opt for a vegan meal instead. It turns out that this is a common request and they were happy to oblige. When we arrived to the Bedouin camp, we weren’t sure what to expect for food for the next two days.
It turns out that our lunch at the Bedouin camp was the envy of other travelers going out into the desert. And what was not to envy?! Our table was covered with colorful and interesting dishes, some that were completely new to me. We had orzo soup (traditional Egyptian soup usually made with chicken broth but was changed to vegetable broth to accommodate us), lubia (white beans), molokhia (a green soup sometimes translated to Jewish mallow), Egyptian rice, pickled vegetables, pita bread and honeydew and the cutest peaches for dessert.
Our dinner, cooked by our Bedouin guide named Ayman over the fire in the White Desert, turned out to be vegetable soup, Egyptian rice and grilled vegetables (potatoes, zucchini and carrots) with fresh dill. Eating this delicious food around a camp fire under a super moon in Egypt’s White Desert was a fantastic way to complete an amazing day of exploring.
We began the next morning after watching the sun rise (now there is an experience I will not soon forget!), with bread, foul and some sweet options like fig jam. And strangely a bowl of potato chips were on the table next to some oranges and guava. So, I made a little sandwich with the foul and bread and put some of the potato chips in the there for some added crunch. It tasted great!
After exploring more of the White and Black Deserts, we enjoyed our final lunch at the Bedouin camp before heading back to the hustle and bustle of Cairo. Again, we left with our bellies full of yummy food.
With all the amazing vegan dishes we experienced during our two-week stay in the Land of the Pharaohs, you might be surprised to discover that my most favorite vegan experience had nothing to do with food. After seeing so many enslaved camels at many iconic sites, my heart leaped when we happened upon three wild camels in the Western Desert, simply being camels and living for themselves with no one riding them, no one whipping them, no one yelling at them. According to our Bedouin driver, wild camel sightings are extremely rare. This was backed up by our guide from Cairo who had never seen a camel in the wild in the 14 years he had taken visitors out to the desert.
I enjoyed watching the camels walking through the sandy terrain, checking out the vegetation and wondering about us. I could have watched them all day, wishing this weren’t such a rare occurrence.
If you are hoping to lose weight on your vacation, Egypt is not the place to go! There is such an abundance of vegan food options, that your hardest decision on a daily basis will be which restaurant to try next.