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Abbasiya, Cairo, Egypt.
Al Azhar Chinese Restaurant: Authentic Chinese Cuisine, Uyghur Style
True foodies are forever exasperated at the fact that most Chinese restaurants in Cairo serve a westernised version of the cuisine. Some Chinese students at Al Azhar University came to the same conclusion and opened up their own restaurant close to their dorms, where one can experience traditional Chinese food for great value.
The students are of Uyghur decent, a populace that is predominantly Muslim and therefore the food is ‘halal’ and pork-free. Al Azhar Chinese restaurant is very small and typifies its, ‘hole in the wall’ nickname. Finding it is quite difficult but if you follow our instructions you should be fine. Take Saleh Salem Road in the direction of Al Azhar Park leaving Heliopolis. Don’t take the flyover but stay underneath it. Halfway underneath the bridge and close to the tunnel, take a right. This street leads up to the Taki Mattress building. At the building, take a left into the street right across from it. Then, within two minutes, you will find the restaurant on your right hand side. It is identifiable by the Chinese characters on the signage.
Apart from not having an official name, it also lacks a toilet so make sure to go beforehand. The staff hardly speak English; they only speak a bit of traditional Arabic , as well as Chinese of course. The menu is made up of a Pharaonic photo album featuring pictures of the dishes; we have no idea about the actual names.
We opted for a random mix of the options, most of which were priced between 10LE and 20LE each, and ended up with beef, fish, chicken and tofu. In addition we also ordered several soups (also 10-20LE each). The soups were the biggest we’ve ever encountered in our lives and easily make for a meal on their own. The extremely spicy noodle soup with beef was particularly filling. The noodles were succulent and obviously homemade. The noodle soup is not for the fainthearted; it was super spicy and had us tearing up a bit. We also tried the beef broth which was very good although a bit on the salty side, resulting in a thirst that could only be cured by their delicious green tea.
The absolute best dish we tasted was the beef with garlic in a spicy tomato sauce. The meat was succulent and the flavours were fresh and well balanced. The fish was also prepared well and was covered with cumin – a popular herb in the Uyghur cuisine. The winning dish, however, was the tofu. It came prepared in a tomato based sauce and seduced even the strongest carnivore in our group.
In the end, we paid 249LE for a group of seven people. This price includes a few soft-drinks and tea. Overall, the restaurant is definitely worth a visit as it is quite the experience.
While restaurants in Cairo open in all corners of the city, there continues to be a concentration of creative, original eateries at the city’s many shopping malls. One such example is Chef’s Market, located in the new Mosaique Dining area of Heliopolis’ Citystars.
The spacious venue is split into three stylish seating areas, with bare brick walls and contemporary-chic decorations overlooking an open kitchen area. One of the brains behind the operation is Wessam Masoud, who aside from being a notable chef, is also host of Kitchen 101 on CBC.
His experience in gastronomy is reflected in the menu; complex and varied, the dishes - and the general mis-en-scene - are inspired by the bustling food markets that are a cornerstone of cooking with our Mediterranean neighbours.
The menu is concise, firmly emphasising quality over quantity, and offers salads and appetisers, along with a selection of beef, poultry and seafood dishes. Fresh juices and hot drinks are also available, along with two types of desserts – as we highly recommend the freshly squeezed tangerine juice (21LE).
The herring, shrimp and roasted beetroot salad (48LE) was fresh, flavourful and overall delicious. Served in a deep bowl, the beetroot was diced along with cuts of cucumber on a bed of lettuce. The herring was plentiful, along with three fresh shrimp, drizzled with a light lemon dressing. Though it’s rare to find dishes across Cairo’s restaurants that use beetroot with anything other than feta cheese, the sweetness of the vegetable balanced the seafood elements perfectly, maintaining both the integrity of the herring and the shrimp.
From the beef section we opted for the tenderloin steak (96LE); perfectly cooked cuts of beef that really did have a melt-in-your-mouth quality. Wrapped in strips of beef bacon and sweet caramelised onions, a remarkably well-suited lemon dressing added a dash of acidity. Served on the side was a portion of spinach and chickpeas, along with a freshly baked potato and zesty pickled tomatoes.
At the recommendation of the waiter, we also enjoyed the unusual pairing of duck breast with fereek and red pepper relish (70LE). The cuts of duck were cooked perfectly – a rarity in Cairo – and the fereek was infused with aromatic spices that made a great canvas for the red pepper relish.
After our meal we were served a complimentary dessert of heavenly custard topped with konafa crumbs, cinnamon and raisins; this signature dessert has mustered quite a reputation, with patrons coming from all over Cairo to Citystars just to enjoy it.
The idea of dining at a mall conjures up images of noisy food-courts and the location doesn’t exactly work in the restaurant’s favour. But despite this, Chef’s Market has exceeded all the expectations its ambitious team set forth on what has been a long, hard, but ultimately fruitful, road.