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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.
Over the last few years, Lebanese cuisine has continued to take over Cairo’s dining scene at a rapid rate, owing to Egyptian’s love of regional variations of Oriental food. Unfortunately, there’s little outside of that and the standard western cuisines that are rife. That’s why we were immediately taken aback by Yerevan - an Armenian restaurant.
Located on the ground floor in phase two of Heliopolis shopping mall, Citystars, the venue has a simple and casual elegance with neutral colours melding in with dark woods and touches of colour that do a good job from taking you away from the hustle of the mall. Going into the restaurant, we noticed the wood oven where all their bread and pastries are baked.
After going through the menu, we realised that, although Armenian cuisine is similar Lebanese, every dish had a significant twist to it. Despite every Armenian word on the menu being translated, we still had to turn to the helpful staff for guidance. From the appetisers we opted for the Armenian Vine Leaves (35LE), the Armenian Makanek (43LE) and the Mix Mouajanat (40LE).
We were first served some complimentary delicious Baba Ghanoug dip with steaming freshly baked bread. The appetisers then followed shortly after, starting with the cold vine leaves, which were moist and topped with some pomegranate seeds, giving them a sweet taste. Smothered in a perfect sweet pomegranate sauce, the Armenian Maknek, meanwhile, was outstanding and was complimented perfectly by the warm bread. The Mix Moujanat was an array of minced meat kebbeh and pastries including cheese puffs, Pastrami Cheese rolls and Armenian Hats.
Said pastries were all made of fresh tasty dough and a cheesy filling with the Armenian Hats standing out thanks to a stuffing mixture of cheese, olives, onions and spicy sauce topped with yet more pomegranate seeds.
We also tried the Mixed Shawerma (55LE), Mante (70LE) and Fishne Kufte (87LE). The friendly waiters promptly brought the mains after we were done with the appetisers. The Shawerma Plate came as four small sandwiches stuffed with chicken, beef, cheese and soujouk served with French fries and mouth-watering tomeya. The stuffing of the sandwiches was succulent which made up for the dry and slightly burnt bread.
The Mante, a traditional Armenian dish, came as small pastry shells stuffed with minced meat, drenched in tomato garlic sauce and topped with yoghurt. The sauce and the minced meat stuffing were very well seasoned, though the shells themselves were slightly dry and chewy. The Kufte plate featured four pieces of round kofta meat on a bead of crunchy bread bits with Fishne sauce – an Armenian yoghurt sumac sauce – but unfortunately, the over-cooked kofta pieces brought the dish down.
However, the appetisers were markedly better than the mains and the portions of the former are relatively small. All in all, though, Yerevan’s – and Armenian cuisine’s – middle ground of providing discerning Cairene diners familiar dishes with unfamiliar twists suggests that the restaurant should do well and is a unique edition to Citystars.