Like many other Egyptians, when Cairo Restaurant owner Magdy Hegad talks about khushari, his eyes glisten with an emotion akin to love – but when he talks about seafood, the glisten is elevated to something closer to religious fervor. “We do it differently,” he explains. “Just try it, and you will see.”
We first ventured to Cairo Restaurant with an Egyptian friend eager to show us the delights of a cuisine we had learned little about, let alone tried. As we entered the restaurant, it became clear that this was to be a very different meal than what we had grown used to in dining around the city. The entryway, appearing more like a shop than a restaurant from the outside, led to a colorful, modern interior, the smell of fresh rice and flatbread drifting in from the kitchen. We climbed the winding staircase and sat by the window overlooking the urban hubbub of Halaskargazi Caddesi and waited for our culinary tour of Egypt, handpicked by our friend, to arrive. Classic Egyptian ballads crackled from a speaker in the corner and families, conversing mostly in Arabic, dined joyously around us.
After a short wait, the meal arrived in waves. A basket of fresh, whole-wheat pita bread and tahina, a refreshingly tart and savory sesame sauce, kick-started the meal. A mountainous serving of khushari – the most soulful of Egyptian soul food – laid the carb foundation, two kinds of pasta under a layer of rice topped with chickpeas and lentils, crowned with fried onions and a hearty tomato and garlic sauce. Alongside it, we dined on molokhiya, a thick, salty and pungent broth – usually made from the leaves of a jute plant known as Jew’s mallow – that’s another Egyptian staple, best eaten with chicken or rice; fresh shrimp cooked in a coconut broth, more akin to a Thai soup than the Turkish shrimp güveç you find here; and fragrant pigeons stuffed with rice, nuts and spices. We finished off the meal with tall glasses of mango juice, thick and intoxicating.
Like many other Egyptians, when Cairo Restaurant owner Magdy Hegad talks about khushari, his eyes glisten with an emotion akin to love.
Egyptian food – like its music, comedy and television – remains distinct from its neighbors. It combines North African elements with Mediterranean ingredients, the bounty of the fertile lands by the Nile and a culinary culture literally older than the pyramids themselves. Beyond this, both the Mediterranean and the Red Sea provide a wide variety of seafood, and most major cities have developed their own cooking style. The traditional diet of Coptic Christians, who refrain from eating meat many days out of the year for religious purposes, further adds to the mix. While meat dishes are to be found, particularly liver and other kinds of offal, Egyptian food relies heavily on legumes and grains. This has been a challenge for Cairo Restaurant, as Turks are both infamously consummate meat eaters and generally quite conservative when it comes to trying unfamiliar foods. “If Turks come here, it is generally with a friend looking to show them what Egyptian food is. Arab tourists know that the taste is the best, and many want to share it,” Magdy explains. “But this is my challenge – I want to get more and more Turks to come here and get to know what our food is.”
One cool summer evening, after many happy returns, we sat down with Cairo’s owner at a table in front of the restaurant. Over steaming cups of black tea poured atop fresh mint, he shared with us the story of how the restaurant came to be. A contractor by trade, he had worked throughout the Gulf for many years before deciding to bring his family to Turkey three years ago to live with his sons, who are currently attending Istanbul universities. He, like many foreigners, soon missed the taste of home, and seeing a gap in the market for a high-quality Egyptian restaurant, decided to open one with his family. In the summer of 2018, he opened Cairo, and has slowly been building a loyal clientele since.
When we asked about the food, Magdy explains that the restaurant aims to offer a variety of different regional foods at a high level of quality. They even bring certain ingredients from Egypt, including the pigeons, duck, molokhiya and those heavenly mangoes, since these are difficult to impossible to find in Turkey. Diners arriving for breakfast or lunch will find a whole array of food not available in the evening, including ful medames, a stew made of dry broad beans in a spiced sauce cooked over a low fire for up to 12 hours, made both in Alexandria and Cairo styles. Cairo Restaurant also offers a full Egyptian breakfast, complete with coriander-spiked falafel, refreshing pickles, salty cheeses and, of course, ful. “This is what makes us distinct from any other Egyptian restaurants that have opened in the city – we aren’t just offering one kind of food. We offer all kinds of Egyptian foods,” Magdy says, smiling as his children play at the table behind us.
We left the restaurant as the bustle of Şişli slowed to its nighttime murmur, our stomachs satisfyingly stuffed as usual. As we headed home, a new glint in our eyes, we dreamt of our next visit – and the heaping plates of khushari that awaited us.