For the past two years, Mourad Makram has reviewed restaurants for the viewers of the independent TV channel CBC Sofra’s Al-Akeel that vary from fine-dining to highly economic and from typical Egyptian cuisine to the most atypical Sushi selections.
Today, as he goes into his annual Ramadan recess, as he is convinced that Ramadan is a month for family gatherings and not really for restaurants, Makram is planning his new season in which he will be looking for “restaurants that have something different, some kind of twist to offer clients.”
“Originally, the reason I thought we could have a programme in the form of a restaurant review was exactly because I thought that more and more people liked to eat out, and the more they eat out the more they look for something different,” Makram said.
According to his observations and the remarks he gathers from his tours of restaurants across the country, people now consider eating out to be a key leisure-time activity. “This might not have been the case before, but I think it is safe to say that during the last ten years or so eating out has become something that many people opt for, for leisure obviously but also for many other reasons,” he said.
One of these reasons is an interest in exploration. “I guess it is obvious that over the last ten or so years many new cuisines have found their place in Egypt,” Makram said. Chinese food is a good example. “But also Japanese food – I mean who would have thought that we would have so many Sushi bars just 20 years ago? The idea of eating raw fish – think about it – this would not have gone down well just a couple of decades ago.”
There are also new Tex-Mex and Korean restaurants. “I was introduced to Korean food recently. I was not sure about it at the beginning, but a few times down the road I developed a taste for it. I thought it was different, but also tasty, healthy and light,” he said.
“Food is all about acquired taste and throughout their history Egyptians have again and again been introduced to many different cuisines. Think of Greek, Italian, and Syrian cuisines, for example,” Makram said. “Today, with a much higher exposure to the world as more and more people go to work, study and live overseas, obviously we are learning more about new types and styles of cooking.”
“For a long time, only three or four cuisines, essentially the French, Italian, Levantine and Greek, were known to the Egyptian market, but now you can find many other different choices. There is an element of wanting to try something new, which is why I make a point of looking for and reviewing restaurants that have something new to offer on my programme, even if it is just a new twist to an old recipe,” he said.
Many Egyptians like to try bits and pieces from here and there. “This is how we generally like to eat — we have two bites of salad, a bit of rice, some vegetables with meat, and then some stuffed vegetables with rice. The average Egyptian is not content with a piece of steak and fries on the side, at least not on regular basis.”
“There is also the fact that more couples eat out because they don’t know how to cook the dishes they like to eat. Because of work and new lifestyles and because there are a lot of more couples today who did not pick up the elements of cooking before they got married, you are seeing more and more people eating out.”
“So while eating out is more expensive than preparing your own meals at home, you also have to take into consideration that working women are keen on their careers and they find them part of their independence,” he said, meaning they are less likely than ever to be confined to the kitchen.
Makram added that he has found another economic side to this growing trend of eating out which started around late 2005. This was that the standard of living was improving at the time, at least for some. While over the last few years there have been shared economic woes across the socio-economic spectrum, eating out remains a key economic activity and opening new restaurants a safely profitable business.
“This has been beautifully proven by the fact that the Syrians who have come to Egypt during the past few years have managed to successfully establish a niche for themselves, essentially with quite limited means even if they sell easy to make and well-known recipes in their restaurants,” Makram said.
Born to a mother who was an excellent cook, he himself never picked up cooking. His spouse, equally born to another excellent cook mother, is also not in the same line as her mother. “I think interests are different and priorities are different,” he argues. This may go some way to explain why there are today more restaurants that serve traditional Egyptian food as people want it, but do not want to have to cook it at home.
He hastened to add that these new restaurants generally cater to the upper middle and upper classes because traditionally there have always been restaurants that have served regular Egyptian dishes, though generally to people from the lower end of the economic spectrum. “Some Egyptian dishes need considerable time to prepare, and it is easier to just go out and eat them. Of course, this is not the case for everyone, but I am talking about regular restaurant-goers here,” he said.
“As Egyptians, we look at food as a mode of expression. We celebrate the birth of a child with particular desserts and drinks, we celebrate engagements and weddings with large banquets, and we even mark the loss of dear ones, especially in rural areas, with food. Of course, each holiday and feast comes with its own recipes as well,” Makram said.
Because he thinks of food as an integral element to the Egyptian way of life, he has throughout his career hosted TV shows that bring together cooking and talking about social issues. Now he is considering an innovative version of this same theme.
Makram has observed a growing trend to start new small-scale food businesses, some of them managed by young men selling food off small roving carts and ranging from burgers and hotdogs to the more typical fuul and taamiya in big as well as small towns and cities.
“It does not cost much if someone is really into it. You need about LE3,000 to buy the cart and maybe LE5,000 to get started. This is much less than the LE50,000 that some young men pay to get aboard an unsafe boat in the hope of reaching the southern shores of Europe to find a job,” he argued.
The new small food businesses have not just been providing fast meals, however. They have also been innovating with their recipes, using mix-and-match techniques, Makram noted. Overall, the “restaurant industry in Egypt has been diversifying and expanding, and it is now ready to cater for food tourism” as a result.
“I have been talking about this with people who are in the business of restaurants and also those in the tourism industry. We could easily bring tourist groups to Egypt and introduce them to the many ways we cook our food and to the many restaurants we have here,” he said.
The idea is not just about the business element, but also about the cultural element of food tourism. After all, he says, food is an integral element of a nation’s culture.
Today, many typical Egyptian recipes are being claimed as part of other countries’ heritage, and there is a need to reclaim them for Egypt. “Obviously, there are some generics, like moussaka which is done in different ways around the Mediterranean, but there are also very obvious Egyptian recipes and we need to reclaim those, especially with the growing taste for the promotion of national cuisines,” Makram concluded.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly