Mr Sayed El Momen ( to the right) and his friend sitting outside Momen restaurant.
© Lorena Rios
Mr Sayed El Momen ( to the right) and his friend sitting outside Momen restaurant.
Last updated: January 29, 2015

What the world's largest koshary bowl says about life in Egypt

Banner Icon Middle Eastern Food Freelance journalist Lorena Rios heads to see a rare display of Egyptians gathering behind the largest koshary bowl ever made. But she discovers more than just plain food.

The Koshary Festival in Cairo had to be big; as big as Cairo, the overpopulated city of 44,500 people per square mile, and as big as the world´s largest koshary bowl. The meal ranks high as Egypt´s national dish and tops the list of “elaborated” dishes every woman prides herself on. “Koshary is very easy to make,” said an Egyptian mother waiting patiently to get her serving of the eight ton koshary bowl. Whether cooking koshary—an amalgamation of pasta, rice and chick peas, bathed in redolent tomato sauce and spicy sauce, all topped with fried onions—is indeed an easy task remains contested. However, koshary is by excellence a street meal, widely prevalent and highly accessible throughout Cairo, for which a Guinness World Record was a worthy tribute to its caloric intake and affordability, at a time when scant else is guaranteed.

At exactly 2:00 PM on the 17th January, El Horreya Park was overflowing with happy families with calm semblances; the Guinness World Record for the biggest koshary had not been broken yet and people enjoyed themselves at the sunny food festival. By 6.00 PM. the scene that had once proved a family friendly event had transformed into a welter of people, litter, wild wallowing children and blasting shaabi (local) music; the koshary had now been served.

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Guarded by a group of security guards dressed in black and donning bleached goatees, the giant cement bowl stood next to a scale. For hours, impetuous crowds rushed to gather around the bowl as tension rose to alarming levels. The security guards waged their battles with journalists and those brave enough to push forward for a better look at the bowl. A group of chefs, who had been responsible for preparing the koshary, broke into a fight with the man who was distributing soft drinks at an unacceptable speed.

THE MEAL

“Koshary has over 50 ingredients,” says Sayed El Momen over a refreshing pop at the chunk of sidewalk designated for “Momen,” his koshary restaurant in Darb El Ahmar, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Cairo between Abdeen and the historic Islamic Cairo. “The sauces alone contain at least 30 spices,” he said as he fanned my disbelief. The restaurant was full in the early evening and like most koshary restaurants, ran by a group of four or five cooks standing in an assembly line.

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The men who assemble the koshary bowls move at a startling speed, parading it from the oversized pot holding the rice and pasta, to the lentils, chickpeas, the onions and the sauces. The small but heavy bowl passes through each man, acquiring nutritional value as it approaches hungry customers. The speed in which the scene is carried out varies with the time of day, but it always takes place in front of extended arms reaching to hand in their order.

“The restaurant is usually the busiest during lunch time,” said El Momen, “but Egyptians don’t´care whether koshary is breakfast, lunch or dinner.” As compared to foul (fava beans) and ta3meya (falafel), koshary is a “nutrious meal” that surpasses the limits of time.

KOSHARY FOR ALL

In downtown Cairo, “Koshary Abou Tarek” rises as the epitome of koshary in Egypt. With four floors—the fifth not operative yet—Abou Tarek´s koshary is one of the busiest koshary restaurants, made visible by their impressive display of electric cooks assembling bowls for an eager clientele.

Thus it is not a coincidence that “Koshary Abu Tarek,” which can sell between 300 kilos and 1 ton of koshary a day sponsored the Koshary Festival and was responsible for creating the giant Koshary bowl.

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In 1264 BC, Ramsis II began the construction of the magnificent Abu Simbel temples on the banks of the Nile to impress the neighboring kingdoms and warn them of his formidable power. In the same way, Abu Tarek´s biggest koshary bowl is an act of power over his competitors, an attempt to appropriate the dish and its industry. Yet, in an urban hub like Cairo, where life is hectic and street food the easiest way to feed oneself, koshary is first and foremost a staple food intrinsic to people´s diets and everyday lives.

“Abou Tarek is expensive,” argued El Momen, whose cheapest bowl, at 3 EGP, targets the segment of the population who eats koshary out of need and not pleasure. Abou Tarek´s cheapest bowl is 5 EGP, a considerable two pound difference from El Momen´s.

¨It´s not cheap and it´s not expensive,” said El Momen, which is perhaps koshary´s most attractive quality. Even when Mohamed El Farsisi, a manager at Abou Tarek assured me that “Koshary is all about the taste,” its affordability plays an undeniable factor behind its popularity.

“There are three types of koshary customers,” explained El Farsisi in the fourth floor of Abu Tarek´s crowded restaurant. “You have the working classes, the government workers and the people who dine in,” continued El Farsisi. 

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The dish is inherently diverse and as such succeeds in attracting an array of customers across the social ladder.  The word “koshary” comes from the Hindi word “kitchin,” a dish of rice and lentils that was brought to Egypt by British troops during the British Occupation in the late 19th century.  Chickpeas were introduced by the Romans, “macarona,” Egyptian word for pasta, was introduced by the Italians, and tomatoes and spicy chilies were originally from the Americas. Leave it to the Egyptians to mix it all together.

Abou Tarek justifies its prices, ranging between 5 EGP to 15 EGP, with quality and freshness. But for those like Momen, who sell koshary at the most affordable price possible, a service of this kind doesn´t come cheaply.

“The price of gas is five times more expensive than it was during Morsis´s time,” El Momen called out openly as he showed me the most recent gas bills. “A lot of restaurants were forced to close,” continued El Momen, whose gas bills amounted to 35,000 EGP and 41,000 EGP.

“People are suffocated,” continued El Momen, “I can´t raise the price now,” even though the move is inevitable.  Years of political and social unrest have left beleaguered Egyptians exhausted and desperate for stability.

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The increase in gas prices accompanied the increase in fuel and public transportation, a direct result of the government´s efforts to reform the expensive oil subsidy system. Last summer, Egypt underwent the worst energy crisis in decades, with different parts of Cairo experiencing up to eight power cuts a day.  In a speech addressing the people, urging them to endure and be patient, President Abdel Fattah El Sisi said Egypt would jump out of its economic crisis, since walking and running simply did not suffice. At the time of the speech, little was known of what “jumping” implied, but one thing is certain: Egypt is jumping through rings of fire, hoping not to get burnt.  

¨Kulu ga3li,” (everything is expensive) finished El Momen as both him and a large portrait of President Gamal Abdel Nasser fixated their gaze into Egypt´s uncertain future.

“Like everything in this country, Koshary is a mix in the bag,” said Markus J. Iten, President of the Egyptian Chef Association. Chef Markus oversaw the group of 50 chefs who made the world´s biggest koshary happen. “Koshary is not only filling the stomach, but it´s rather healthy,” explained Chef Markus, “it´s a solid serious bomb.”

Back at the Koshary Festival, the Guinness Record took longer to break than was originally expected. People endured and were patient with the festival´s poor management and lack of organization, the life threatening deflating giant tomato sauce inflatable, and bad quality sound systems. When everything is on the line, people take the time to wait for the largest koshary bowl in the world.  

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Lorena  Rios
Lorena is a freelance writer based in Cairo.
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