I’m part Egyptian, which means I’m probably a tad biased when I say that Egyptian cuisine is some of the best. Okay, okay. I’m really biased. Still though, when the foundation for most dishes is a blend of onions, garlic, and cumin, can any dish really be that bad?
Apparently, according to some travelers. When I traveled to Egypt on a group tour in early 2017 after nearly a decade away, I was more than a little disappointed by the food options available. So were all the members of my group, who proclaimed that Egyptian food was “just okay.: Was the food worse than I’d remembered or was our guide not much of a foodie, and thus, not showing us the best places the cities have to offer?
Thankfully, it was the latter. I just spent the entire summer in Egypt – mostly exploring Cairo – and was delighted to discover that Cairo is indeed a foodie city if you know where to look. I thought I’d fared pretty well eating my way through local hotspots on my own and with friends, but that still didn’t stop me from turning to the ultimate Cairo foodies during the tail end of my trip: Laila and Mariam of Bellies En Route.
Table of Contents
Who are the Bellies En-Route?
Bellies En-Route is the first and only food tour company operating in Cairo and is run by two women who want to ensure that tourists don’t leave Cairo having experienced “just okay” food. They take travelers to local restaurants, many that can’t be found on Google Maps, let alone on TripAdvisor or in a guidebook. They’ll delight you with some of the best eats in downtown Cairo and you may find yourself doing an Egyptian belly dance at the end – that is, if you can move your body at all while being that full.
So without further ado, let’s get started on the tour itself. This is precisely why you should go on a Downtown Cairo food tour with Bellies en-Route.
A Review of the Downtown Cairo Food Tour with Bellies En-Route
It was a scorching August day in Cairo when a local friend and I met Laila at Tahrir Square. Tours start at 4 pm, but very few tourists brave Cairo’s summer heat, so it was just the three of us. I must admit, I was a bit hesitant to bring a local friend on the tour since he’d been eating Egyptian cuisine his whole life, but I’m delighted to report that we both left the tour with newfound knowledge about Egyptian cuisine, as well as some new favorite Cairo restaurants.
About the Downtown Cairo Food Tour
Tours last anywhere between 4-5 hours and include a healthy dose of history as well as plenty of food, of course. Laila, our guide and one of the co-founders, certainly impressed me with her knowledge of the downtown area as well as of each food and drink we tried. The tour included a sampling of five drinks and thirteen bites over the course of seven stops. In true Egyptian fashion, the “samples” were quite large and a lot more than we could eat. None of the food went to waste, however. Laila made sure that all the leftovers were wrapped up and given away to someone needy who would eat them, something I very much appreciated. I’ll save my rant about food waste for another day.
Highlights of the Downtown Cairo Food Tour
I always say that food tours should never be DIY because they aren’t just about the food. They’re also about the history of the food. Why is this dish popular, especially at a particular restaurant? How did it come to be part of the national cuisine? Is it something that’s eaten in a particular region of the country? Laila shares these food stories with us at all the stops, greeting the owners by name, who in turn wave us in with an enthusiastic “welcome!”
So take a seat, make sure you aren’t too hungry, and keep reading to discover just a few of my favorite dishes from the tour.
Fava beans, in all its forms
Fava beans are considered a staple of Egyptian cuisine, consumed in an astonishingly large variety of forms. In fact, at one stop when we were sampling breakfast foods, Laila pointed out that there were three separate dishes all made of fava beans at the table: ful mudamas, besara, and ta’ameya.
Ful Mudamas: Known as ful for short, this dish contains fava beans in their ripe and cooked form, served with a variety of spices and flavorings. This is one of the most popular street foods in Egypt; there are carts solely dedicated to serving ful.
Besara: Made with young, green fava beans, besara is probably the least common of the three fava dishes. The beans are cooked with a variety of herbs and spices, resulting in a green, hearty dip. I’ve only had this dish a couple of times in my life, but I particularly enjoyed the version we had that day.
Ta’ameya: You may think ta’ameya looks like falafel; that’s because that’s what it is. The unique thing about Egyptian falafel (besides the name) is that it’s made out of fava beans, not chickpeas like in every other country. Dried fava beans are soaked overnight, ground and mixed with herbs, then rolled into patties and deep-fried. Voila!
Macaroni with Béchamel
This was the first dish we had on the tour, and Laila was quick to explain that “macarona be béchamel” is not a strictly Egyptian dish. Rather, it’s inspired by Egypt’s Mediterranean neighbors. Makes perfect sense, considering Egypt was once part of the Ottoman Empire. I’ve had this oven-baked macaroni with béchamel sauce, ground beef, and spices many times, but usually shy away from eating it at restaurants. It’s really easy to get it wrong. But Macarona Reda had some of the best I’d ever tried (besides my mom’s, of course), with a perfect ratio of sauce to al dente pasta. Plus, they serve the dishes with a shot of “salad water” – a tangy vinegar shot with lettuce – to wet your appetite. Yum!
Up until the day of the tour, I’d probably only consumed hawawshi a handful of times in my life, and only a couple of those occasions were in Egypt. This crispy, ground beef sandwich is a seemingly simple dish, but the texture is nearly impossible to master on your own. You want the bread to be perfectly crunchy and the beef to still be tender and juicy. Hawawshi El Refaey uses both special bread and a special oven to accomplish just that. It’s not an exaggeration when I say that it’s the best hawawshi I’ve ever had, and my friend agreed. We even went back the next day for lunch. To be honest, it’s worth it to go on the food tour just for this dish alone.
Ah, koshary. The national dish of Egypt. It’s a dish that Egyptians loves to hate and hate to love, namely because they consume so much of it. Koshary is every carb lover’s delight: a mixture of pasta, rice, lentils, and chickpeas, topped with crispy onions, tomato sauce and a garlic-vinegar sauce (chili sauce is optional). Ask any five Egyptians who makes the best koshary is in Cairo and you’ll get five different answers. It’s practically a point of national debate, and I must admit that I disagree with Laila’s choice of best koshary. Not to say that it wasn’t good or anything (it was) but each person has a different opinion based on the ratio of ingredients and spices. Either way, one of my top Egypt travel tips (amongst many) is this: if you only have the chance to sample one dish in Egypt, make it koshary.
One of my favorite things about Cairo is that there are fresh juice shops all over the city, especially downtown. Drinks usually cost less than $1, which means I consumed a lot of seasonal juice (read: mango) all summer long. Admittedly, I didn’t venture far beyond my mango comfort zone, but luckily I got to do a little drink test of tamarind, carob, hibiscus, and a sweet coconut drink called Sobia. While I’ve had tamarind and hibiscus before, they tasted different (and better) in Cairo. I quite enjoyed the other two as well. I’m terrible at describing drinks but be sure to try some seasonal favorites whenever you’re in Cairo.
I’m a food tour enthusiast and am happy to conclude that the Bellies En-Route tour far exceeded my expectations. I was initially skeptical that I’d learn much about downtown Cairo or about Egyptian cuisine, but boy was I wrong. Laila brought so much knowledge and passion to the tour and included some truly spectacular places to highlight Egyptian cuisine. If you’re headed to Cairo, be sure to book a tour with Bellies En-Route. Your stomach won’t regret it – just be sure to come hungry and most importantly, pace yourself! Packing your eating pants can’t hurt, either. Book the Downtown Cairo Food Tour here.
More Egypt ResourcesPlanning a trip to Egypt soon? Check out ALL my posts on Egypt below:
- 30+ Awesome Things to Do in Cairo, Egypt: The Ultimate Cairo Travel Guide
- Egypt Travel Guide
- What to Pack for Egypt: The Ultimate Egypt Packing List
- Pharaohs and Feluccas: Exploring Egypt with Intrepid Travel
- Camping in the White Desert, Egypt: A First Timer’s Guide
- Traditional Egyptian Food Guide: 20 Must Eat Foods in Cairo, Egypt
- Egypt Travel Tips for the First Time Visitor: Expectations vs Reality
- Bellies En-Route Downtown Cairo Food Tour: The Best Thing to Do in Cairo for Foodies
- Visiting the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt: Everything to Know Before You Go
- Where to Stay in Cairo, Egypt: The Best Hotels in Cairo for Every Budget
Tell me: Which Egyptian dish would you most like to try? Let me know in the comments below!
Like this post? Pin it and save it for later!