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On Menus: In Egypt

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Food in the Middle East

Summer Volume: 2000 Issue: 7(2) page(s): 23 and 30

Chinese food is not available near any pyramid, at the Karnak or any other Egyptian temple, nor is there any to be had anywhere near any of the fantastic ancient or modern sites in Egypt. However, should you visit this country, you can seek it out. One restauranteur told me there were but seven Chinese restaurants in Cairo, a dozen in the entire country. That is a bit shy of the actual number because we found eight in the Cairo telephone directory this past January. Also, the Shanghai Chinese Restaurant just opened to join several others in Alexandria. It is the first branch of an international chain to open in Egypt; others are planned.

As to the Chinese eateries in Cairo, the oldest and fairly popular is owned by a Chinese gentleman married to an Egyptian lady; and they now have Egyptian-trained chefs. Kowloon is a popular restaurant, too; it owned by a Korean and it offers Chinese and Korean dishes. These and the others serve the about one hundred or so Chinese in this country from Taiwan, China, Singapore, and Hong Kong, and they serve the locals and all the tourists who visit and want a Chinese food fix.

The silk road that started in Xian, China did reach Asia Minor and beyond. Chinese silks and their teas became popular in many countries around the Mediterranean. So did Chinese pottery and other artifacts, but their food did not. One colleague who visited Morocco saw little Chinese food there and almost no Chinese restaurants in that country. Saudi Arabia has a few Chinese restaurants, the United Arab Emirate has many; and Egypt may have a number between these two countries. We tried to learn why so few Chinese restaurants, and immigration, work restrictions, and allowable length of stay seem to be the main reasons. Many countries in this part of the world do not allow citizenship for non-Arabs, others restrict time of stay, still others do not allow business ownership for non-citizens, and some have the hiring of locals tied to work permits for foreigners.

Chinese restaurants in Egypt are limited and purchasing ingredients for them even more so. The owners and managers of these eateries need to be very creative to get the ingredients they need. Authenticity can be a problem when you have difficulties getting soy and other sauces, Chinese vegetables and the like. Saw none of these products in the supermarkets visited, nor were the stores that sell Asian clothes or artifacts or those selling foodstuffs.

Nonetheless, you can get good Chinese food in a few Egyptian cities. Cairo, Luxor, and Alexandria may be the only ones. We stopped in to the only Chinese restaurant in Luxor; it is in the Isis Hotel.

Pink Panda is this six-month old eatery in Luxor. We visited it on the way to Aswan; also went to those magnificent temples at Abu Simbal and other places in Upper Egypt. If you are in this city, this Chinese eatery is worth a visit. A Belgian couple with two teen-age sons were ready to eat there when we walked in. We did help them order their favorite noodle dish and others, telling us in French–our only common tongue--that the food was as good if not better than that found in Brussels, their home town.

The menu at this Ping Panda is in English and Arabic, and it offers forty-five choices from appetizer to dessert. This last group includes fresh fruits whole or cut-up, banana or apple fritters, and a selection of desserts wheeled to your table on a trolley; they come from the hotel's other restaurants. The rest of the menu includes three fried appetizers (Shrimp, Wantons--their spelling, and Spring Rolls) and two picked vegetables (Chinese Pickles and Kim Chee). You can select from four soups, Wanton, Chicken and Sweet Corn, Mushroom and Vegetable, and Hot and Sour.

The twenty main courses included shrimp, fish, calamari, chicken, duck, veal, beef, and vegetable selections. The chef, Zhang Zhen Liang, was born and received his culinary training in Beijing before coming to Egypt. He recently was hired away from a restaurant in Cairo. The dishes he served read, look, and taste like Cantonese dishes served in the United States thirty or more years ago. Unlike American-Chinese restaurants then, this one is open only from noon to three, then six to eleven, both daily. It is a mom and pop-type facility, the chef runs the place with his wife Zhang Hui; the few other employees are Egyptian.

Chef Zhuang works in a minimally equipped kitchen (a picture of it is in the hard copy of this issue). He serves dishes though the pass-through window, is proud that his Chinese dishes grace hotel brochures in many Arab and other cities in the world, and he bristles when someone orders what he considers a non-Chinese rendition of Chinese food. A page from his menu with prices in Egyptian pounds did show us that service and tax are seventeen percent additional; a small gratuity is commonly added to these.

Regent Restaurant in Cairo opens daily from noon to midnight, and is in the Ramses Hilton hotel. Managed by Bernard Y. Tan, he tells us his restaurant is “the most authentic in Cairo.” He also advises that to run it he is required to hire ten Egyptians for each Chinese person he brings into the country. Thus, his staff is mostly trained locals along with his three Chinese chefs, each brought for two years then returned to China in exchange for others. He advises his Chinese restaurant is most popular among ex-patriots and Chinese embassy staff; tourists, too. Before managing this hotel restaurant, Tan worked in Saudi Arabia. He said there are more Chinese restaurants there than in Egypt.

The Regent Restaurant seats eighty people in the main dining room and has two small VIP rooms that seat up to thirty each. One of these is decorated with lovely Chinese instruments. This restaurant is about twice the size of the Pink Panda in Luxor; its decor, including wall artifacts are all from China. The restaurant looks lovely, has rosewood walls and chests, Chinese pictures and calligraphy, and other authentic artifacts. We find the food an authentic match; it is delicious, too. There are two dishes featuring tofu on the menu. We are surprised to learn that Tan makes his own and makes many of the Chinese sauces, too, because they are difficult, sometimes impossible to purchase or import.

All the food we eat looks appropriate. For example, the Steamed Dumplings come in a bamboo steamer basket with a metal cover, Hong Kong style. The dough is quite thick but tastes terrific. Flour in Egypt has minimal, even varying amounts of gluten, so dough does not always hold together properly. No problem at this restaurant, they are exceptionally good. The dough is tender, the dumplings served with three dipping sauces, all house-made, include a hot a ginger sauce.

Mr. Tan says he buys some of his vegetables from a Korean restauranteur who grows his own. He tells us they are not ordered frequently by his non-Chinese clientele, but very popular among afficianados. Most popular, he advises, are his Sichuan dishes such as Beef Ala Szechuan, Chicken Kun-Po (spicy), and his Towfu (Beancurd) Marbo Style (spicy). There are almost a hundred other dishes to choose from, not counting desserts.

Among the appetizers, the Spring Rolls served here come wrapped in phyllo pastry. They did not have any bean sprouts in them, and were mostly meat-filled. They are the only dish not enjoyed because they are greasy. The dough itself has no oil between layers so in places it is pasty. The Hot and Sour Soup, enjoyed by our cruise-shipmate compatriots looks lovely. They advise the food tastes better than any had since leaving the United States. Some are Chinese; they are impressed with the quality and authenticity of the food.

The Orange Flavored Duck made a beautiful presentation and comes with a taste to match. The Beef Ala Szechuan is a mite piquant but far from spicy. Its aroma is tantalizing, its taste even better. The Beef with Mushroom and Bamboo Shoot is equally good, as is the Chicken Kun-Po, though it, too, is a mild rendition of a Sichuan dish. The Fish in Garlic Sauce is quite spicy, the filleted pieces tender and ever so good; and the Sizzling Towfu Hot Platter unbelievably delicious.

The Fried Bananas, on the nineteen item dessert menu presented French-style after the main course is cleared away, are dipped in honey. They are a mite too sweet for our taste. The Fried Milk, however, is to die for, and the Crepes served for two or more, expensive but delicious.

If you need a Chinese food fix among the pyramids and temples, as we did, visit the Regent in the Ramses Hilton and the other Chinese restaurants. Should you learn of other fine Chinese restaurants anywhere in that part of the world, do taste and tell.

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