At first bite, the flavors don’t seem that different. But then comes a rush of spice or an unfamiliar herbal note, and it’s clear that this isn’t standard Greek fare – in fact, it’s not Greek at all. It may serve a community of Greeks, but – as its name implies – the Association of Greeks from Egypt (SAE) specializes in Egyptian food. What began as a small canteen providing the familiar tastes of home for the association’s members has grown over the years into a popular local hangout, dishing up traditional Egyptian dishes to Athenians of all persuasions.
Despite the long and storied history of Hellenistic culture, which stretches into antiquity, the modern state of Greece is relatively young, and like many nation states, its story is bound up in migration. More specifically, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the state saw an influx of Greek-speaking communities who, due to political or economic circumstances, were forced to flee from a diverse number of countries where there had been an established Greek presence for centuries. These groups brought with them the traditions and customs of a different Hellenism, and even to this day they proudly retain a distinct cultural identity separate from that of their ancestral homeland.
Take the Greeks from Egypt, also known as Egyptiotes. A Greek presence in Egypt is well documented since the 4th century BC. However, it was the industrial revolution of the 19th century that saw the emergence of a prosperous Greek elite. Rich businessmen, tradesmen and bankers flourished in cities such as Alexandria, Cairo, Port Said, Ismailia and Suez. In 1833, not long after the formation of the modern Greek state, the first Greek consulate opened its doors in Alexandria; two years later, another consulate opened in Cairo. Soon, the Greeks of Egypt became an important economic force for Egypt, but also great benefactors of the newly founded Greek state by contributing money and expertise for the building of universities, hospitals, schools, museums and much more in the burgeoning nation state.
Unfortunately, these robust communities gradually started to whither in the middle of the 20th century, especially after Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rise to power and the nationalization of private businesses in the early 1960s. Many Greeks decided to abandon Egypt and either repatriate or emigrate to the U.S., Australia, Canada or other Western counters. In Greece, it was the Association of Greeks in Egypt that helped the newly arrived immigrants adjust to the different reality, even going so far as to organize the building of new apartments in the Kifissia neighborhood during the 1960s.
Housed in a block of flats on 3is Septemvriou Street, a five-minute walk from the National Archaeological Museum, the Association was established in 1933 with philanthropy as its main aim. According to the president, Mr. Costas Michailides, the association continues to help families in need, supporting 70 members (all Greeks from Egypt) through stipends and meals. They also award numerous scholarships to students wishing to study in either Greece or abroad.
Charity work aside, the Association is also an important meeting place for the community. They organize trips to Egypt almost every year, offer Arabic lessons twice a week, have musical evenings or special events for kids and do everything in their power to bring the members of the community together.
Talking to people who were brought up in Egypt, it becomes apparent that the life they lost was a beautiful one.
And what better way to get together than a table full of wonderful food? Talking to people who were brought up in Egypt, like Mr. Michailides, it becomes apparent that the life they lost was a beautiful one. “Despite popular belief, not all Greeks living in Egypt were well-off,” said Mr. Michailides. “But even those with modest means had access to excellent schools (for free) and education, sports, culture and a quality of life much higher than the average person in Greece. Life was cheaper and people’s money went much further.”
Hungering for this bygone era and the familiar flavors of their previous homeland, the association in 1986 opened a small canteen in a converted office. It initially catered for special events and one had to be a member of the association to enjoy the cooking. All this changed five years ago, when a proper restaurant license was issued and access to the restaurant opened to everyone (although they still often host special functions, like the one pictured here).
The general feel of the place is still more like a clubhouse than a regular restaurant, but that adds to the charm of the experience. The kitchen is run by Reda, an Egyptian man who has lived in Greece for many years and used to work at the association’s sailing club ENOA before it closed. The menu offers traditional Egyptian dishes such as foul medames (fava beans with cumin), kofta (kebabs), falafel and pilaf rice with nuts and raisins. We feasted on the sautéed thinly chopped liver with spices and green peppers, which is so juicy and flavorsome that even people who do not enjoy liver have been known to eat the whole plate.
For something a bit more unique, there’s molokhia, Egypt’s national dish. The soup consists of chopped mallow leaves, fresh coriander and spices cooked in a chicken broth and served with rice on the side (to add according to taste). Due to its viscous consistency and intense herbal note, we found the dish to be an acquired taste, but one definitely worth trying.
There are also more mainstream Levantine dishes on the menu like hummus, baba ghanoush, kibbeh (meat balls surrounded by a bulgur wheat crust, similar to Cypriot koupes) and tabbouleh as well as some Greek favorites, like the excellent tiny dolma from Kasos, a Greek island, and a respectable Greek salad. The desserts are all made in house, but the hareesa (also known as basbousa), a syrupy semolina cake served with or without ice cream, is particularly transcendent.
The restaurant is usually full on evenings and weekends, likely a result of the excellent fare and the fact that prices start at €2.50, so reservations are definitely required.