This article is part of a series we are running ahead of the Mada Marketplace event to feature the participating vendors.
In her essay in the mid-2000s Cairo Cosmopolitan volume on the new globalized Middle East, Anouk de Koning points to “the cosmopolitan referents” of foods and drinks offered by western-style restaurants and coffee shops in Cairo and the accessible cultural capital embedded in them.
Foreign foods manage to find a presence in a local context as they become markers of class, while the developing taste around some of them can become an act of “social positioning,” as coined by Pierre Bourdieu.
Culinary practices are less invasive bearers of multiculturalism, as they intersect with prevalent tastes and either find a presence, mutate and deviate, or depart altogether.
In the last 15 years, Cairo has become a growing space for culinary experimentations, with different food cultures put on offer to a curious audience. And while in the early days of their advent to Egypt, foreign foods like McDonalds were a statement of their own, in recent years, they have become more sites of testing people’s tastes, as well as what would happen if local ingredients are introduced to the mix.
In its food court, Mada Marketplace, to be held on April 25 at downtown’s GrEEK Campus, will host a number of brands engaged in processes of presenting foreign foods and fusing them with local tastes.
One of them is TBS, The Bakery Shop, named after the initials of its three co-founders. It was born in 2008 with the intention of providing fresh bread in a setting where the baking process is visible for consumers. But what grew fast to become TBS’ trademark is their croissants.
Centuries ago, croissants were born in Europe and more precisely to Austria’s Vienna. Many mistakenly associate croissants with France, but that’s a myth. The story goes back to when Austria was put under siege by the Ottoman Empire in the late 1600s. The bakers of the city of Vienna who were busy working in the middle of the night alerted the military of the Turks tunnelling underneath the walls of the city, which prompted a punctual defense. To celebrate victory and the end of the siege, the bakers of the city made a crescent-shaped pastry, which would function as a symbol for devouring the enemy as the crescent was part of the Ottoman flag.
TBS picks up this long thread and contributes to the medley of croissants on offer in Cairo, now normalized in many breakfast menus and bakery shops. It offers a mix of croissants with different fillings, such as cheddar and Philadelphia cheese, beside the plain ones and the multi-cereal ones. The pastrami and thyme croissants are orientalized versions, with the pastrami one being popular among ham and bacon lovers. They can arguably contribute some positive answers to the difficult question of whether civilizations are bound to meet or clash. The feta and mint puff and sun-dried tomato versions take the croissant in yet more directions.
In all cases, TBS croissants have grown to become some of the best in town for their buttery dough and their successful varieties.
Another participant in our Marketplace event is Lujo’s Fresh Junk, a smart attempt at capitalizing on the easiness of fast food, while adding a measure of healthiness to take away from the pejorative judgment of junk being high in calories with little nutritional value.
Food historian Andrew Smith reminds us that the emergence of fast food in America is related to the commodification of time, with Benjamin Franklin coining the famous phrase: “Time is money.” More specifically, fast food was one of the 20th-century by-products of the revolutionary flour milling technology, which helped reduce the cost of labor on one hand, and improve the food processing industry on the other. Other technologies contributing to the emergence of fast food, in Smith’s history, come from the automobile industry. Meanwhile, political conditions offered the landscape of need for fast food such as the 1861-1865 civil war, where soldiers were supplied with quick canned food transferred to them via railroads. Upon their return from the frontlines, soldiers yearned for these canned goods, which paved the way for the industrialization of American food.
Lujo’s departs from this convenience trait of fast food, while addressing the nutritional value of what can be produced quickly. Its signature has been its wraps — made of a fine, subtle tasting dough. On offer, they have honey mustard crispy chicken, crispy duck, wasabi shrimp and Mexican fish taco wraps, all of which are fresh and focused on the taste of the well-marinated meat, rather than concealing it with all sorts of dressings. Its final wrap, fatet makdous, is an interesting take on the famous Levantine dish, made of eggplants, roasted almonds, garlic yogurt and pomegranate syrup. In this version, a personal favorite, you get a quick taste of what is usually a time-consuming to prepare Arab dish.
“I used to be a pop-up chef in events and cook. One day I went to a food carnival and I decided to do wraps. And then I thought about stuffing fatta in a wrap, so I made a wrap of fattet makdous, which was a nice reconstruction and tasted amazing,” says Alia Abdel Rahman, one of the partners behind Lujo’s. She and Joe Youssef, her partner in the business, were excited about opening people’s tastes to different flavors and textures and offering affordable and accessible gourmet food, rather than people resorting to fancy diners.
But talk about fast food cannot be easily dissociated from burgers, and the Burger Deal is one of the specialty foods of the Tipsy Teapot, a Maadi-based participant in Mada Marketplace’s food medley this spring. On Thursdays, the burgers are cooked in a coal stove, which preserves the meat’s juiciness and volume. On other days, the Tipsy Burger and Tipsy Cheese Burger are similarly juicy, especially given that they are drizzled with a homemade sauce. With its subtle measure of gourmet, the Tipsy Teapot is one of those eateries that can remind you that a burger can be more than just junk food.
Tipsy Teapot’s contribution to cuisine fusion can be found in its beet hummus, a good menu item for vegetarians and vegans. Mutating the famous Middle Eastern food from a chickpea-based dish to beetroot, the place dares to add to the rich history of hummus as a proud cultural marker in the Middle East.
Sandre Vetter, one of the partners, speaks of how they thought less deliberately of locating the foods they choose in certain national cultures, as they were more interested in comfort food, “food that makes you happy.” And while the cuisine on offer is not necessarily ascribed to one place or the other, Vetter says that with all the nationalities involved, there is an inevitable influence.
Hailing from South Africa, Vetter is married to an Egyptian, who is also a Tipsy Teapot partner, and they work with a mix of Sudanese and Egyptian staff, which turns the place into a little “rainbow nation.”
The stories of food can be interesting debuggers of social theory and footnotes to grand historical events. In recalling them, we are reminded how food can certainly be matter for thought. They also serve best for a novice food journalist who felt intimidated by reading Cairo Scene’s food reviews.
Read more about why Mada Masr is organizing a marketplace event here.