The driver, already grumpy because there were five of us joining him in the cab, wouldn’t take a left. He said the street was too small.
This Ethiopian-Egyptian restaurant is not one of these heavily designed, over-priced, fake-tasting “authentic” food places you find on Zamalek’s or Maadi’s main streets. It’s a weird two-room, street-level operation somewhere in Mohandiseen near Libnan Square. There was an excitement in finding it.
Samar al-Nil (The Darkness of the Nile) looks a more like someone’s home than a restaurant. Warm and clean, its walls are covered in glittery brown rugs and stencilled wallpaper trying to look fancy, with dark and confident colors. The place smells strongly of delicious spices.
The front area has four large round tables fitted into it. The other larger, cafe area looks a lot like a living room, with armchairs. This is where our host would collapse after finishing our meal to enjoy her after-cooking shisha and watch a funny Egyptian movie at high volume.
The staff was just her — an over-excited motherly woman — and her small, quiet daughter. We could see an open kitchen beyond the cafe area. In that way it reminded us a bit of Somaya’s in downtown.
Our friend said there should be a one-room homemade food place on every corner in Cairo, and pointed out that in such a small place the food is often much better than in larger places where food is mass-produced. We were the only customers.
The woman explained the dishes in a way that encouraged us to order a lot. She didn’t take notes or anything — just recited the orders and then dashed into the kitchen.
We were hungry and the strong smell was torture. The fairly lengthy time it took to arrive definitely made us appreciate the freshness of the meal.
Most dishes came in individual piles on the spongy, pancake-like Ethiopian bread that is injira. By eating we eventually revealed a big plastic tray with a funny picture of different types of food on it. This reminded Andeel of a tray his granny served supper on.
You have to be careful with injira — it balances the spiciness of the food perfectly, but it fills you up like a barrel. (Egyptian bread was also on offer.)
The cuisine is meaty: There are lots of different ways to cook meat in stews and sauces. Yet vegetables were equally respected, unlike in many other restaurants with similar menus. The Yemeni restaurant on Dokki’s Iran Street serves amazing fahsa and aqda and all these crazy meaty dishes, but if you order something vegetarian, Andeel says, they look at you in a way that questions your masculinity if you’re a man, and avoid eye contact if you’re a woman. Then they give you some stale stuff. But in Samar al-Nil everybody is welcome, even foreigners who accidentally order cow stomach and don’t like it, like our friend who led us here.
It’s not an elegant, over-curated dining experience where you start slowly by sipping or looking at things. The food arrives and you start fighting right away. Each little pile of food was saucy (except for some maybe slightly out-of-place green salads) and you could just wrap some in its own bubbly bread and fill your mouth with it. Andeel enjoyed eating the food as messily as he could. His fingers got covered in sauces and spices.
There was a wide taste spectrum, from sharp chilli red sauce (zaqny, made without meat for Andeel) to yellow cuminy soft meat chunks with onion (tibsy) to large vegetable chunks in a clear sauce (ilka) all the way to the quite wise spinach (spinach), used as a moment of contemplation.
Jenifer also ordered two Egyptian options: lamb fattah and lentil soup. The soup was nice but not extraordinary, but the fattah was very good, with Ethiopian spices in its tomato sauce.
The black salad was the last to arrive, and was a favorite. It’s made of mashed peanuts, tomatoes, maybe aubergine and definitely a lot of lemon, a bit like a deeper, spicier version of baba ganoush. In the Ethiopian restaurant in Dokki it’s milder, more bitter than lemony, and less blended. Here it was personalized and excited, just like the energetic woman running the place. It’s very filling.
Then the coffee trip. There was a huge contrast between the loud chaos of the meal’s flavors and textures, and the spiritual coffee moment. It’s like the difference between youth and maturity, thought Andeel. The coffee beans were roasted right before serving, and during that process the woman came over from the kitchen with the long-handled metal roasting pot, and she showed it to us and let us smell the chocolatey, popcorny smoke.
The coffee came in a black pottery pot with a leaky broken spout. Next to it was a cup of cinnamon and one of ginger, a clay thing of burning incense that got a bit too intense, and a bowl of popcorn. We poured coffee into our tiny cups with our own mix of the two spices, had it with popcorn, and thought about solutions for the world’s problems. Its taste was very nicely smooth, strong but not at all bitter, and the ginger made it spicy.
(Suddenly the TV, now on an Ethiopian channel, was showing some sort of economic summit in which Ethiopian coffee was the main conversation topic.)
At Samar al-Nil you feel the power of nature in your food. Tastes and textures are exposed to heat or mixed in a very abstract way. When things are hot, they are hot, and when you get full you get full, no kidding. It’s enjoyable self-destruction.
Some of us felt that that is wasn’t the best, most intensely Ethiopian Ethiopian food we’ve had, and the cost was perhaps slightly more than expected, with the check coming in at LE295 (LE62 each). But we left full and happy and we loved the atmosphere.
Andeel, who hasn’t eaten that much Ethiopian food, is definitely going back there soon. And Jenifer will be glad to join him.
Samar al-Nil is at 20 Hassaniy Street, near Lebanon Square and a pigeon place called Farahat (the English version of their business card is misleading: It says it’s on Most Beautiful Street and opposite a bathroom). Tel: 0111066366 or 01224502967.