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Maadi, Cairo, Egypt.
Maharaja and Zen Zen: Four-Cuisine Asian Restaurant in Maadi
There’s no shortage of Asian-inspired restaurants in Cairo. Thai, Korean, Indian or Chinese cuisines are found everywhere and Maadi is no exception. However, choices can be a double-edged sword; where picking a single place to eat can be challenging. So when we heard of an Asian restaurant in Maadi that serves four varying cuisines - essentially hitting four birds with one super hungry stone - we were instantly curious and set off to discover what it’s all about. Welcome ladies and gentlemen to Maharaja and Zen Zen.
Located on the ground floor of a residential building, the restaurant was empty – very large and very empty. The furniture was old and the walls covered with generic Asian art; the stained and ratty-looking tablecloths left much to be desired and the marble flooring looked like it hadn't seen a mop in years. It looked like a typical Chinatown restaurant and when Celine Dion began playing on the stereo, all was complete.
The menu presented us with the first pleasant surprise of the evening - over five pages of options. After looking through the menu for several minutes, we decided to try both the Chinese and Indian food; ordering a bowl of hot and sour soup (12LE) and an appetizer of vegetable samosas (12LE).
The Chinese menu was the most extensive with a lot of appetisers, including popular items such as spring rolls, going between 12LE and 20LE. The selection of beef and chicken was also quite impressive; including known dishes such as sweet and sour, chop suey, beef with broccoli and kung-pao. We settled on chicken kung-pao (43LE) and the more health-conscious option of vegetarian Dal Maharaja lentils (26LE).
The food arrived a few minutes later, piping hot and smelling delicious. The portion of the soup was generous and extremely flavoursome, spicy and full of sliced vegetables. The vegetable samosas were three to a platter and were perfectly crunchy; they accompanied the soup surprisingly well, with their potato filling evening out the spicy tang of the soup.
The chicken kung-pao was colourful and perfectly cooked. It had a nice amount of sprinkled peanuts and the spiciness level was just as requested. The Dal Maharaja lentils, despite being made of only a few ingredients and nowhere near as complicated as kung-pao, held its own in flavour. The lentils were puréed just right, and despite not being served with traditional Indian naan bread, the dish was filling and light at the same time.
The dessert was fried bananas, topped with vanilla ice cream and honey. Although it was not as awe-inducing as the previous courses, it gave the much needed warm and sweet ending before having to step back out into the cold.
Our waitress, the only waitress in the place, was chatty and an absolute delight. We discovered that Maharaja and Zen Zen has been in Maadi for over nine years with another branch in Rehab City. However, most people don't visit and have their food delivered instead. This might be due to its unappealing ambiance. Since we can‘t find a reason to warrant going back there, apart from the food, the delivery menu will most certainly be given its place on our fridge.
With restaurants in Cairo becoming increasingly samey, we love new cuisines with a story. The already popular Nawab, a famous Indian ruler, and Begum, his wife, are the names of the two stalwart restaurants, in Zamalek and Maadi respectively, that enjoy a pretty steady popularity when it comes to foods of the East. Begum recently opened a sister venue, China Town, serving what’s called Desi-Chinese Cuisine or Indian-Chinese Cuisine.
Developed by a small Chinese community living in India, the cuisine is a combination of their own techniques and spices with Indian tastes. It has since expanded to other South East Asian countries and, most recently, Maadi.
Located in the same building as Begum, China Town is a modest sized restaurant with dim and comfortable lighting, friendly staff and a cosy atmosphere that lets you know it’s okay to eat heartily.
We explored the menu, intrigued by how our favourite dishes could be done differently. We opted for some classics; Spring Rolls Chicken (18LE), Chicken Sweet ’n Sour (43LE) and Vegetable Fried Rice (20LE).
The Spring Rolls were served first, and while we appreciate speed of service, no one likes rushed food. The rolls were unfortunately soggy, having soaked up more frying oil than needed and completely lost the crunch factor, but the vegetable and chicken stuffing was actually quite tasty with the hint of the caramelised vegetables shining through.
The Sweet ’n Sour Chicken was the biggest surprise. While we’ve seen crunchy sweet and sour chicken with varying amounts and recipes, this one definitely stood out as the most unique, served in a rich sauce closer to a curry, tastefully spicy, with bell peppers and onions. The chicken was not fried but rather cooked in the curry, infusing the rich flavour into the chicken. While it can catch you off guard with no warning of it being spicy, it’s definitely a variation that’s worth a try.
The Vegetable Fried rice, meanwhile, was a little disappointing, tasting quite bland and lacking the flavours of being cooked in oil alongside the vegetables and instead tasting like plain steamed rice.
On a sidenote, China Town's menu does not offer dessert of any sort.
While overall a pleasant experience to try a new cuisine, it’s important to note that there’s plenty of room for improvement and we would love to see that extra mile of attention being paid to the food.