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A Foreigner's Guide To Being Vegetarian In Cairo

Maintaining a vegetarian diet can be difficult for expats if they don't know the rich culinary history of Egypt's vegetarian dishes. Good thing Skot Thayer's here to save you all the hard work of, y'know, Googling it.

I'm a vegetarian sometimes. Not always - I have a severe weakness for chicken wings - but most of the time I try to limit my consumption of meat. Before I moved to Egypt I was a little concerned at how feasible my semi-veggie-picky-weirdo diet was going to work out. At first, I was a little nervous that everything I tried to eat was going to be loaded up with beef or lamb or god knows what kind of mystery meat. When you talk to native Egyptians and tell them you don't eat meat, if it's not for a religious fast or some kind of allergy then you're going to raise some eyebrows.
 
Luckily after spending some time here, and exploring the amazing markets that provide cheap fruits and veggies, I realised - hot damn! - this is even better than back home. The produce section of grocery stores that I used to go to were always a little hit or miss as far as quality goes, and I wasn't into the whole tofu business. Farmer's markets were a special, once a week occasion that required me to get up early on a weekend (mega-boo!). These minor inconveniences, and the excuses I used to exacerbate them kept me from eating as much fresh produce as I should have been. Now, I live around the corner from a street market where I can buy almost anything I want. Getting a bunch of ingredients together and eating them all separately is great, I guess, but gnawing on raw carrots isn't very satisfying. Looking into Egyptian recipes, I was blown away by how many of them are natively vegetarian or even - gasp - vegan! So, I came up with this guide on how to get the full Egyptian culinary experience without sounding like a colonialist every time "I don't eat that" comes outta your mouth. 
 
Ta3meya
Falafel satiates all the same urges I get that usually cause me to eat a bunch of gross, unhealthy, delicious fried food. Full of that satisfying, deep-fried crunchiness and actually still kind of healthy (I said kind of), the Egyptian variant is by far my favourite. Tons of spices, and that beautiful green coloring. Great, now I’m hungry. If you have the proper setup, it can be super easy to make at home.
 
Foul
A mainstay of any proper Egyptian breakfast. This mashed up fava bean paste was definitely not the most appetizing dish I saw when I first got here. After I saw everyone else in the office ravenously devouring it first thing in the morning, and how ungodly cheap it was, I can officially call myself a “foulnatic.” Make it a sandwich, mix in some eggs and you’ve got a cheap source of foul fuel to power you through the rest of your day. Try it out at home for even more cost effectiveness. 
 
Feteer
Pizza is my favourite food group. It’s delicious, versatile, and back in the States it was cheap as hell. Pizza in Egypt is often expensive and, frankly, pretty terrible. Feteer allows me to project all my repressed pizza feelings onto a new food. A flaky, bubbly, pastry that is layered upon itself with pretty much anything you can think of. Just like pizza, feteer’s possibilities are endless. Fill it up with olives, mushrooms, peppers, and cream cheese or make it sweeter and fill it with honey and sugar and pour cream all over it. 
 
Samosas
Puffy, doughy little triangles normally filled with spinach and feta cheese but you can put whatever you want in them. This recipe makes great dough for these babies.
 
Tabouleh
Usually salads are terrible and I hate them. A boring, bland, soggy salad is worse than being punched in the face by a grizzly bear. Tabouleh is a pretty much a failsafe way around all the stupid terribleness that can happen when you wanna be healthy and eat some green stuff. The finely chopped ingredients and overall freakin' deliciousness make you almost forget this is technically a salad. Add this to some pita bread and throw in a couple of other mezzes (small dishes, kind of like tapas) and you’ve got a platter full of freakin' delicious. This lady will show you how it’s done.
 
 
Hummus
Chances are you're already well aquatinted with this as it's probably the most famous culinary export of the region. The degree to which you can customize yummy paste keeps it from getting old and it’s crazy easy to make yourself. Just smash up some chickpeas and mix in whatever you want, chili and red peppers, pine nuts, and garlic, are some of my favorites but you can totally put anchovies or whatever in there too, weirdo. If you need help this is a great video for the basics.
 
Baba Ganoush
God, I love dips. Pita bread with baba ganoush though, is on a whole other level. Eating this stuff in Egypt gives me a new appreciation for this mushy, tasty eggplant setup. Here's a great resource for making your own at home. 
 
Koshary
I have a weird love/hate relationship with this bowl of starches. When I first got here I made it a point to try the most famous of Egypt’s street foods. It sucked. After a few days though I found myself hankering for this mish-mash of pasta, rice, lentils, and onions something fierce. I guess every once in a while I’ve got to take a trip down to carb city. Most of the Koshary joints I’ve tried are obnoxiously inconsistent so the best trick is to make your own and customise it to taste.
 
Molokheya
A green leafy veggie that's a lot like spinach. The texture can take some getting use to if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing. Said to be a delicacy of the pharaohs, Molokheya was served with rabbit. Making it meatless doesn’t diminish the deliciousness or the nutritiousness of this dish. Make it a soup or serve it over rice and you’ll be full for days. 
 
Ma7shi (Rice stuffed vegetables)
OK, One of the drawbacks to being a vegetarian sometimes is that you don’t get many chances to satiate the primal instinct to rip something apart and devour its delicious insides. Mahshi does the trick though, without meating it up. Easy to make and nutritious enough to make you doubt how great it tastes. 
 
Wara2 Enab (Stuffed Vine Leaves)

More rice inside stuff. This Egyptian take on the Mediterranean staple is especially epic if you then dip in in yogurt with mint.  
 
Mesa’ah (Spicy Eggplant)
Eggplant makes a great substitute for meat without getting into the weird homogeny of tofu or other soy based alternatives. This spicy take on the tried and true combo of eggplant and tomatoes is crazy easy and cheap to make. Add some cheese and pasta and you’ve got yourself a cross-cultural masterpiece akin to eggplant parmesan. 

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