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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.
People have raved about IKEA’s Restaurant for years. With the Swedish home furnishing giant having landed in Cairo at the end of last year, you can be sure they brought along their restaurant which occupies an entire floor at their venue in Cairo Festival City.
IKEA’s food market is known for offering Swedish (or Scandinavian) food and groceries including meatballs and salmon. The meatballs in gravy with mashed potatoes might be their most famous dish so we decided to stop by since we were in the area.
Relatively easy to get to from the inside, we took a set of escalators up to the restaurant which is spaced out like a cafeteria. The concept is interesting; customers take a tray and are served what they want from the buffet. When you’re done, you pay at the cashier. Later you can deposit you’re tray in allocated areas. The idea takes from the same corporate attributes that IKEA employ to reduce end user cost.
So we proceeded to the buffet and opted for the 15 piece portion of Meatballs with Mashed Potatoes and gravy (35LE) and Herbed Grilled Chicken with Basmati Rice (39LE). We also tested out the Salmon Cake (12LE) and that's what we dug into first. Basically, it’s a ball of mashed potatoes stuffed with cooked salmon and covered in a layer of fried breading. The cake is hot on the inside and has a nice mix of textures between the tender salmon, creamy potatoes and slight crunch of breading.
While the meat balls were tasty, especially with the gravy, we couldn’t help but feel they were a little stale. It might the fact that we knew they were frozen and sent over from Sweden. The mashed potatoes were creamy and similarly complimented nicely by the gravy.
The Grilled Chicken, made with rosemary in the marinade, had a strong herby aroma and, along with its sauce, created a good harmony with the Basmati Rice, which has a herby flavour of its own.
All in all, a pleasant experience that definitely beats having to go hungry while shopping. Would we ever go there specifically for the restaurant? Unlikely; it’s too far out and there’s all of Cairo Festival City behind you with countless other restaurants. But for what it is - a decent and relatively cheap meal - it definitely works.