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Dokki, Cairo, Egypt.
Al Shebani: Simple, Quality Yemeni Cuisine in Dokki
About a hundred metres away from the Tahrir Street intersection, the outside grill and the waiters bustling in and out with plates of food makes the restaurant easy to spot.
Al Shebani is a small place, but their food is far superior. We got a spicy tomato and feta blended dip (free), a simple cucumber and tomato salad (2LE) and some chicken broth topped with fenugreek (free) to start off. The dip was good, although a bit on the watery side, whereas the salad was a little dry. The soup tasted like a standard chicken broth; admittedly we were a bit suspicious of unidentifiable floating bits, but assumed they were just pieces of chicken.
As a main course, the fusuleyya (5LE) - a vegetable stew with either red or white beans - comes highly recommended. Aside from the beans, it had tomatoes and just a hint of coriander. For 17LE-25LE you can add meat or chicken to the dish.
Chicken with rice (40LE for a whole chicken, 20LE for half and 10LE for a quarter) is another favourite. It didn't look like much, with the chicken carelessly piled onto a heap of yellow rice, but the meat was juicy and the skin nicely crisp. Beware of the bones though.
Make sure to order a big slab of the delicious Yemeni flat bread (5LE) to scoop up your food with. Delivered straight from the oven, the bread is warm and soft, yet pleasingly crispy.
With the place being so small, the friendly waiters are just a wave of your hand away. Most of them don't really speak English and the menu only comes in Arabic, but hand-gesturing and pointing works just fine. An easy solution to lack of communication is to order a mix of their staples (fish, chicken, vegetables and rice) and they will fill your table up mezza-style. The food is served quickly and delivered to your table piping hot.
Bear in mind that Al Shebani is a simple place; don't expect super clean tables or a freshly swept floor. You'll get a plastic spoon to eat your food with - they don't even have forks - and a sheet of blank paper will serve as your tablecloth. The food from the grill is served in chipped stew pots on worn wooden trays and the cold food and side dishes are served on metallic plates.
Soft drinks (3LE) are drunk from the can, the tea (2LE) is served in a plastic cup and you'll also get plastic cups for water (2LE). The place has air-conditioning, but its effectiveness strongly depends on where you sit; so on hot and sweaty days you might want to move around a bit to find a good spot.
Aside from the tasty food, Al Shebani is a great value for money; a table filled with enough meat, rice and vegetables to feed four people only set us back a mere 65LE.
Traditional Palestinian dishes are not easy to come by in Cairo restaurants, but El Owda – a family business run by Gazans – serves up the region's specialties with meticulous attention to detail and gracious service.
Nestled on a quiet street in Nasr City, the restaurant has a modestly elegant and clean outdoor dining area framed by green plants and trees, and a logo featuring Jerusalem's gold-topped Dome of the Rock Mosque. There are a few tables inside, but the outdoor area is much more spacious, with half a dozen tables that are set far enough from each other and from the street to ensure comfort and privacy. Traffic is quiet and the atmosphere is relaxed.
We came for the delicious falafel sandwiches (1.50LE), which were made the Levantine way, with chickpeas instead of the fava beans, as used in the Egyptian version. We stayed to order a smorgasbord of various dishes we couldn't resist.
"Whatever your eye desires", the Palestinian waiter told us after taking the order.
The falafel sandwiches were crisp and slightly lighter and tangier than the Egyptian taameya. The sausage sandwiches (3LE) were made with finely-minced beef that is so soft that it melts in your mouth and the spinach sambousek (2.50LE) were crunchy on the outside with a chewy and hearty filling. Other options on the menu included minced meat, oregano and cheese sambousak, at 3LE each.
The side dishes at El Owda are the stars of the menu, rather than an afterthought to a meal. The green salad, which looked like an unassuming pile of tomatoes, cucumbers and spring onions, was spectacular. A vinaigrette dressing with a hefty dose of garlic and a hint of cumin brought out the freshness of the vegetables and gave them an extra kick.
Good hummus isn't easy to come by, and we are mostly forced to buy it in cans from a supermarket and mix it at home. At El Owda, however, we ordered two different delicious varieties to eat with pita bread (baked off-site) and satisfy our craving. At 7LE each, the regular hummus was creamy with a dash of olive oil, while the misabahah version was chunkier with a slightly fuller flavour.
After the meal, we could hardly move, but got up anyways to buy a jar of Sinai olives, said to have a similar flavour to the world-famous Palestinian olives. Pickled vegetables were also available to take-away from the sparklingly-clean kitchen. They ranged in price from assorted pickled vegetables for 5LE, to pickled eggplant stuffed with nuts or makdous, for 40LE.
El Owda, or "the return" in Arabic, is named after the principle that says Palestinian refugees and their descendants have a right to return to what is now Israel. Although that possibility might seem like a pipe-dream to many, this little restaurant in Cairo is sure to bring back at least a taste of home to the refugees who know its flavours and introduce many Egyptians to this tasty cuisine.