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Heliopolis, Cairo, Egypt.
Ostaz Hamam: Hearty Egyptian Dishes in Heliopolis
For many of us, the allure of Egypt are the modest Cairo restaurants hidden away inside narrow side-streets and depilated alleyways; usually over-looked by passers-by, they tend to provide exceptional services. One such eatery, Ostaz Hamam, was once known for its signature stuffed and roasted pigeon dishes. Since growing in popularity, the restaurant has expanded its menu to include a wide variety of grilled items and sandwiches.
The place is by no means fancy, and in fact, could be described as kitschy. With ceramic brick walls and an eclectic mix of florescent and ornamental lamps, the decor is far from pleasant on the eye.
Most popular for take-away, we had no trouble finding a table and were immediately tended to. A complimentary basket of fresh baladi bread was served alongside an incredibly spicy, homemade chilli sauce. We began our feast with tehina (6LE), baba ghanough (6LE) and tomeya dips (6LE), all of which were deliciously savoury and seasoned to perfection. In particular, the house speciality of flavourful tomeya stood out as one of the best we've had.
Coming to the main courses, we ordered lamb kofta (26LE), chicken penne (26LE) and stuffed pigeon (30LE). The waiter kindly informed us that the lamb kofta is actually a mixture ground lamb, veal and 'kandoos' - meat from aging cow. Surprisingly, our mains were delivered in next to no time and came with a side of brown rice, French fries and decorative salad garnishes topped with a dollop of tomeya.
Served as four massive fillets, the chicken penne was a crunchy, breaded shroud, housing incredibly tender chicken breasts. Although a little oily, it was delicious nonetheless. The lamb kofta had a smoky, mouth-watering flavour that didn't rely on the pungency of the onions; its robust texture and generous size made for an incredibly filling dish. The stuffed pigeon was served whole, deep fried and complete with the spine and the head. Naturally, pigeons don't contain a lot of meat, however the mixture of fluffy, seasoned rice and liver pieces was delicious in itself.
Ostaz Hamam is another addition to the many restaurants in Cairo that truly proves you don't need to break the bank in order to have an appetising meal.
Levantine restaurants have blown up over the past few years in Cairo, but finding a good one isn’t always easy; there are so many, including local ones, which end up being a pale imitation at best.
Abu Youssef, on the other hand, is a pure Syrian restaurant, starting from the management to the chefs both inside the kitchen and on the shawerma grill outside, only leaving the waiters as locals. Hidden in Hegaz St in Mohandiseen, the venue is almost always full and even a few celebrities have been spotted dining there.
After taking our seats in the indoor dining area, we looked into the menu and ordered the Taboula (10LE) and Mesabaha (Syrian Hummus paste) (10LE) as our cold appetisers, alongside the Grilled Kobeba meal (35LE),the Shawerma Extra (40LE), Large Tawook meal (45LE), and half grilled chicken (40LE) for our main dishes.
About Twenty minutes later, we saw our waiter coming with almost all of our main dishes, as well as the grilled kobiba which came with fries, tomeyah and pickles, while the grilled chicken came with an extra mesabaha and a green salad.
After being overwhelmed with the number of plates in front of us, we started with the cold appetisers first; the mesabaha, which is basically a hummus paste, was drizzled with some olive oil keeping it light and smooth, while bursting with rich flavour which made us hurry for the next bite.
The taboula, meanwhile, was a green sensation; rich with a zesty and refreshing flavour, the salad had a good mix of parsley, mint, bulgur and onion with some chopped tomatoes topped with lemon juice and olive oil giving it a flavourful taste.
The Grilled Kobeba Meal came as four burger bun-sized pieces with fries alongside some green salad and pickles. The kobiba itself was very well cooked with a slightly crunchy outer shell and juicy minced beef filled interior, which was bursting with flavour, with a light spiciness that gave it an extra kick.
The Shawerma Extra meal comes with a plate of pickles, tomeya and fries, with the tomeya having a great garlicky taste and smooth texture that worked well with almost everything on the table. The fries, too, had a unique homemade seasoning that gave them the push they needed.
As for the Shawerma itself, it was in a rectangular form cut into six pieces; what makes this sandwich unique, however, is the addition of mozzarella and mushroom – the ‘extra’ part – which works strangely well considering it’s almost unheard of here.
The large Shish Tawook meal came with fries, tomeya and pickles similar to the previous plates, but had the addition of bread covered with chopped arugula and a salsa-like sauce which gave the bread an extra punch.
Coming on three skewers and cut into five medium sized pieces, the well-spiced shish tawook is made of chicken breasts rather than thighs, which gave them more flavour. The only downside, however, is that it was a bit dry, though that was easily solved with the pickles and the toumeya.
The Half a chicken grilled, on the other hand came, with almost everything mentioned before, the bread, salad, mesabaha, tomeyah, pickles and fries (with the option to change it to rice if required).
Grilled on coal, the chicken was tender and had an earthy flavour to it with smoky aftertaste; it was cooked well yet remained juicy, while the restaurant’s in-house spices gave it a unique edge over traditional Egyptian grilled chicken.
Although the staff were either hard to find or overwhelmed by the amount of diners, in the end the experience was a great one for one simple reason: great food that left us stuffed and struggling to make our way to the exit.