The taste of Alexandria

Dina Al-Mahdy, Tuesday 23 Jan 2024

Dina Al-Mahdy sets out to sample some of Alexandria’s most famous dishes that have long attracted locals and visitors alike.



Alexandria, the vibrant city located by the Mediterranean Sea, has been a cultural crossroads for centuries, bringing together diverse cultures and civilisations. From the time of the ancient Egyptian ruler Cleopatra to the present day, the city has undergone many culinary transformations, offering a unique and delightful gastronomic experience to locals and visitors alike.

Known for its rich cultural heritage and diverse culinary scene, the city has been a melting pot of various cultures, including Greek, Italian, and Egyptian, which have greatly influenced its food traditions. This article will take a closer look at some of Alexandria’s iconic eateries and the stories behind them. From traditional bakeries to coffee shops and restaurants, these establishments have played a significant role in shaping Alexandria’s culinary landscape.

Founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE, Alexandria quickly became a centre of trade and commerce, attracting people from all corners of the world. Its strategic location at the intersection of Europe, Asia, and Africa turned it into a melting pot of cultures, religions, and traditions. Throughout history, the city has been ruled by various empires, including the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, and British, all of whom left their mark on the city’s architecture, literature, and cuisine.

Food has always played a significant role in Alexandria, symbolising abundance and prosperity. Legend has it that when Alexander the Great was planning the city, birds pecked at the streets he had laid with grain, which was considered a good omen by the priests, signifying the city’s eternal abundance.

This notion of opulence and exoticism carried on throughout the reign of the later queen Cleopatra, who was renowned for her lavish banquets. Writers depicted her feasts as a way of captivating the two mighty Roman generals of her time, first Julius Caesar and then Mark Antony. Alexandria’s cuisine flourished during this era, as Egypt was the wealthiest country in the Mediterranean Basin, and Cleopatra herself was erudite, sophisticated, and sensual.

The queen’s table epitomised the luxury enjoyed by Alexandrians, showcasing a variety of dishes from around the world, accompanied by the finest wines.

However, Alexandria experienced a decline in wealth and prosperity until the early 19th century when Mohamed Ali became the ruler of Egypt. Recognising the strategic importance of the city, he revitalised it by attracting foreigners and restoring its status as a thriving cosmopolitan hub.

The influx of diverse communities brought new culinary influences and contributed to the cultural mosaic of the city. Restaurants and patisseries serving Greek, Italian, French, and Turkish cuisines emerged, offering a wide range of delicacies such as baklava, loukoumades, and ice cream. Food became a shared experience, transcending racial, religious, and class boundaries.

The Ottoman Empire also exerted a significant influence on Egyptian cuisine, especially in Alexandria. With its diverse territories spanning Asia, Europe, and North Africa, the Empire assimilated foods and culinary practices from different cultures. Turkish, Greek, Lebanese, and Armenian cuisines all contributed to the rich culinary heritage of Alexandria. Dishes like goulash and baklava, with their origins in Central Asia, became beloved delicacies enjoyed by Alexandrians, regardless of their cultural backgrounds.

In addition to the Ottoman influence, French cuisine also played a pivotal role in Alexandria’s culinary scene. Despite France’s short occupation during the expedition led by French general and later Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to Egypt at the end of the 18th century, the French left an indelible mark on Egyptian culture, including its food.

French became the language of refinement and sophistication, and French missionaries opened schools throughout Egypt. Even though the French community remained separate from the local population, French cuisine became prevalent in Westernised homes and restaurants, with French names for dishes entering the everyday language.

Other foreign communities, such as the Levantines, Armenians, Greeks, and Turks, also contributed to the culinary evolution of Alexandria, with shared dishes and ingredients. The city’s magnanimous nature of accepting and embracing different cultures is evident in its culinary habits.

While the foreign communities in Alexandria have dwindled in recent years, their culinary heritage lives on through the recipes handed down by previous generations. Legendary patisseries and tea houses like Baudrot, Tamvaco, Fino, and Hamos continue to symbolise the city’s rich culinary traditions.


COMMUNITIES: Alexandria has attracted diverse foreign communities who have made it their home over the past 200 years.

Among these communities, the Levantines, Armenians, Greeks, and Turks have influenced the local culinary scene, shaping what is now known as Alexandrian food. While geographically neighbouring North African countries like Libya and Morocco share significant cultural aspects with Alexandria, there has been limited culinary interaction between them. However, the Middle Ages and the 18th century did see an influx of Moroccan merchants who settled in Alexandria, enriching the local culture with their trade in various goods.

However, with the decline of trade and a diminished Moroccan presence, their cultural specificity gradually faded. Despite differences in their cuisines, both Egyptian and Maghrebian cultures utilise terracotta pots called tagen, or tagine, for baking and enjoying couscous, albeit in different culinary contexts.

The Greek community, the largest foreign community in Alexandria since the time of Mohamed Ali, played a significant role in shaping the city’s culinary landscape. Greek immigrants, primarily from poor Greek islands, sought livelihoods in prosperous Alexandria, often achieving notable success in various professions and businesses. Greek and Egyptian culinary interactions resulted in both shared dishes and disputes over certain foods, such as moussaka.

Similar to the Copts and Egyptians, the Greeks often observe fasting periods and have dishes resembling Egyptian koshary, featuring rice and black lentils. Greek cooking also features a dish similar to bisara, prepared with lentils and onions. Although Egyptian and Greek cuisines differ, both cultures share a fondness for beans. While Egyptians favour fava beans (fuul), the Greeks regularly consume white beans (fassolya beida). Additionally, Greek cuisine boasts a falafel-like patty made with chickpeas, a variant of the shami falafel, popular in Egypt, Lebanon, and the Ottoman Empire.

Many dishes have become indistinguishable, reflecting the culinary fusion of Egyptian, Lebanese, Greek, and Ottoman influences.

Greek salad resembles Egyptian salad, for example, with the addition of feta cheese in Greek cuisine. Egyptians typically prefer a vinaigrette dressing, occasionally using lime instead of vinegar when in season. The traditional breads of the region, such as Egyptian eish baladi and the Syrian and Lebanese thin bread, often referred to as pita bread in Europe and the US, trace their origins to the Greek bread or pie.

Sheep intestines, a delicacy favoured by Egyptians and the Shawam, are also enjoyed by Greeks. Varieties such as coccorrezzi and spleenandero are richly seasoned and charcoal-grilled and an example of shared gastronomic preferences.

ICONIC EATERIES: Eating out in Alexandria at the beginning of the 20th century was an experience filled with pleasure and variety.

The city was home to a diverse range of bakeries and patisseries, reflecting the diverse clientele that frequented them. From providing brioches to kaak and finikia kourabiedes, a kind of Greek biscuit, these establishments catered to the different tastes and occasions of the city’s people.

Interestingly, many of these iconic eateries, despite their differences, had humble beginnings. Some were started by peasants who arrived in the city with their few possessions, while others were started by apprentices who had traveled from distant lands with just a trunk. Regardless of their backgrounds, these enterprising individuals found success in Alexandria, capturing the hearts and taste buds of their Alexandrian patrons.

One notable aspect of dining in Alexandria was the personal touch that the eatery owners brought to their establishments. For example, Mr Pastroudis, owner of the restaurant of the same name and always dressed in his signature white sharkskin suit and tie, personally welcomed his guests by name. Meanwhile, Mrs Pitsa at the patisserie Délices knew the birthdays and addresses of all the children who came in and prepared special dishes for each of them.

Dining out in Alexandria was not just about the food; it was a familial experience that created lasting memories.

The success of the food and dining scene in Alexandria can be attributed to various factors, including psychology, national character, and cultural heritage. Alexandrians seemed to have a natural talent for creating inviting and successful eateries, but it was not just a matter of intuition. This deep understanding of the city’s persona and social heritage, rooted in its way of life, contributed to the overall experience shared by the people of Alexandria.

Egyptian hospitality also played a significant role in the flourishing food business. Just as receiving guests in homes was seen as a pleasure, the act of serving customers in restaurants was also viewed as an opportunity for hospitality and generosity. Whether rich or poor, providing food to others was a point of pride for Alexandrians, whether breaking bread with friends and family at home or feeding customers in restaurants.

The earliest eateries in Alexandria can still be found today, many of them having been established around 1900. Most of these establishments were located in the European Town, also known as the city centre, which was primarily inhabited by foreigners. However, the Ottoman Town, later known as the Arab or Turkish quarter, developed its own unique eateries as the 19th century progressed. Cafés, patisseries, restaurants, and bars with a Western influence thrived in the downtown area, catering to both the foreign population and Westernised Egyptians.

While it is often believed that the Greeks in Alexandria were primarily grocers or that all the grocers in Alexandria were Greeks, statistics show that such claims are mostly legends rather than truths. In 1915, there were only 36 Greek grocers compared to 116 Greek merchants in the city. The Greek community, known for its entrepreneurial spirit, was the largest foreign community in Alexandria and owned many of the city’s eateries. While there were a few Italian, French, and Swiss establishments, the vast majority were Greek-owned.

Today, Alexandria is home to several iconic restaurants that have been serving traditional Alexandrian cuisine for decades. These restaurants have become institutions in their own right, with a rich history and a loyal customer base. They have managed to maintain their culinary legacy and continue to provide an exceptional dining experience.

Traditional Egyptian eateries, mainly serving liver, fish, or grilled meat and chicken, were also scattered around the Attarine, Rue de Bourse, and Bahari districts. Surprisingly, some of these eateries have been around since the 1920s, dispelling the misconception that they are recent trends. They include Abu Gharib, founded in 1936 when Haj Ziyada embarked on a business venture dealing in liver with his father and brothers Tewfik, Younis, and Gharib.