Last week, all eyes were on Egypt as 18 tourists were killed in a tragic balloon crash following a gas explosion near the city of Luxor. The world continues to watch as clashes in Tahrir Square intensify; Egypt is a country in transition – since the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and resignation of Hosni Mubarak, it seems like everyone is always talking about Egypt. But what about the food? There must be something worth talking about, right?
Someone once told me not to bother trying Egyptian food – but someone also once told me not to go kayaking in the middle of a lake during a thunderstorm. Did I let that stop me? Of course not.
Meya Meya Cafe (that’s right folks, no website) may not look like much from the outside. Says Time Out: “Lord knows how many people have slogged up Edgeware Road to Meya Meya, only to stand aghast at its santised takeaway interior before turning and shuffling off back down the street.” I was determined not to be one of these people, because, the review goes on to claim, this small, dingy looking cafe is also where those in the know come to dine on authentic Egyptian cuisine in its downstairs dining room.
Let me start by saying that the trip up to this coffee house is no slog. It is right around the corner from Edgeware Road tube station. Like literally, right around the corner, you lazy jerks. It is, however, not actually called Meya Meya anymore. When we arrived at 13 Bell Street, we stood facing a bright white sign that read “Ahl Cairo, Egyptian Cuisine. Sitting downstairs.”
“Is this it?” Duncan asked wearily.
“It has to be,” I answered unconvincingly. “At least, I think it is.”
All signs pointed to yes. I could see that Duncan wanted to leave. Check. “Sitting downstairs.” Check. “Egyptian pizza.” I’d read about this in the reviews as well – three strikes, we’re in. I love pizza.
We decided to treat the evening’s festivities as “grabbing a bite” rather than “going out for dinner.” Though unlicensed, we’d heard that you could bring your own wine to Meya Meya/Ahl Cairo, but decided not to bother, and went in. If only we’d known then what we know now.
We were greeted (I suppose you could call it that) by a surly looking Eastern European woman behind the takeaway counter, who agreed with us when we indicated that we wanted to eat downstairs, but did not feel it necessary to show us the way. Down a narrow linoleum staircase, we found the dining area, which is comprised of two separate rooms, both adorned with basic furniture and large televisions.
There were no other diners, as we’d arrived very early in the evening. In fact, we’d arrived just after sunset, and the first thing we noticed when we reached the bottom of the staircase was a man performing his evening prayers at the far end of the dining room. We took a seat at one of the tables closer to the stairway – the waitress brought us our menus, and turned on our private TV.
The man finished his prayers and came to greet us. “I’m so sorry he said – please, I will help you move your things into the other room, it is much nicer.”
I, in return, apologised profusely for interrupting his prayers – I don’t know much about Islam, but walking in on a private moment like that made me feel a little bit humbled. I also didn’t really see much of a difference between the two dining rooms, although in fairness the one we were being moved to had a bigger TV. Also, he carried my gym bag. Poor guy.
The menu was a lot more extensive than I’d bargained for, and with mains running from £4 to £8, it took a whole lot of self control not to order more than one.
The waitress came back down to take our order, and turned on the TV for us. This is the type of place, I imagine, that Egyptian ex-pats come to grab a quick bite on their way home from work and watch the news. In Arabic – for some reason I was transfixed, although the only thing I understood from the pictures was that something was on fire.
We decided against the tender cows’ feet with roasted bread covered with white rice and garlic tomato sauce. The sheer thought of something like this is what had made me afraid to try Egyptian food in the first place – but I need not have worried. Duncan opted for the shish kebab – a reliable choice – and I felt compelled to try the fiteer, or “Egyptian pizza” for which this place was supposedly so well known.
To start we ordered a plate of falafel – the best I’ve had, ever, by a very long shot. Crispy on the outside, each little chickpea patty was green and fluffy on the inside, and accompanied with a small pot of tahini sauce, which we possibly could have used more of. The waitress also brought out a bowl of pickled vegetables – some of them were pink. This I wasn’t so sure about.
To wash it down, in the absence of alcohol I ordered a fresh orange juice – again, pure quality. I’m pretty sure the waitress just puréed an orange into a cup for me – there was even a bit of complimentary peel. I thought about getting one to go when we left – and when I didn’t, I talked about it all the way home and nearly went to Sainsbury’s to buy some oranges to make some for myself. Laziness prevailed though – thanks, Tropicana.
Duncan’s shish kebab was well received – the man likes his lamb. My fiteer – I’d opted for the spinach version – really did look like a pizza, although tasted nothing like one. Made with layers of filo dough and butter and filled with spinach, parsley, tomato, olives and egg, its only likeness to pizza was the way the waitress sliced it up to resemble one.
There was a lot of nodding involved in this meal. And in between nods and chews, utterances of: “Fuck, that’s good.”
My only regret is that I didn’t try more things. For example, I was longing to try the kushary, a traditional Egyptian vegetarian dish comprised of rice, brown lentils, tomato sauce, chickpeas and fried onions. At £10 a head though – I’m more than sure I’ll be back.