If you grew up in New York and New Jersey, you know that bakeries are simply life. I fondly remember feeling as though I’d hit the jackpot if my parents brought home a box of those Italian cookies sold by the pound, and how Jewish bakery items were a breakfast standard. I never imagined that there were people in the world that didn’t have a bagel or an apple turnover as their first meal of the day at least a three days out of every week.
When I left the NY Metropolitan area to live in Florida, I didn’t realize my whole diet would have to change. Yes, both places are in the United States but there is an 1000 mile gap in between them. Bakeries as I’d known them only existed as a novelty in the South, but a few years passed and the tastes and smells of NY turned into mere memories. Eventually, I found myself obsessed instead with country fried breakfasts and barbecue.
Every place has something special and when I came to Cairo I began to notice right away that it’s bakeries were stand-out.
There are tons of them, big and small, some are hidden away in alleys with the food displayed on the sidewalks outside, some are like an open oven and the baking is being done in the same area that you choose your goods and are rung up in, and some are so beautifully designed that their atmospheres have the feel of a designer boutique. There are bakeries upon bakeries; in any busy neighborhood you can easily find 2 on a block.
The selection when you go into most of them is huge, and there are usually more treats to be found than you can think about trying. That’s only because we can only eat so much at a time, though, and not because of the prices, because you could really feed a small village for a little bit of money if you’re shopping in these places with outside currency. When my husband and I spend about $6 USD at a bakery called بش بش (pronounced “Bush Bush”), we leave with more than 2 days worth of all the fresh cookies, breads, and treats we can eat.
My favorite bakery item at the moment is a roll that’s the size of a hamburger bun. The bread is chewy and flaky and inside is a spreadable, tangy, white cheese. No matter what bakery you go to, it costs 1 pound. I have no idea what this roll is actually called, so whenever I find it I ask any nearby attendant “Aandu gibna gowa?”, which is less than perfect Arabic for Does it have cheese inside? Therefore, to me, its name is Gibna Gowa (Cheese Inside). It has been my breakfast and lunch many of days so far, as it’s cheap, filling, and super tasty.
I can’t talk about Egyptian baked goods for one more minute without giving Ayesh Belady it’s honorable mention. Yes, that’s its actual name and it means:
Ayesh: Bread Belady: My Country
It’s name literally translates as “Bread Of My Country”. Notably, the word ayesh means “to live”, and considering how important bread is to all people in all nations I find that to be an interesting use of the Arabic language in the Egyptian dialect.
The proper translation is Egyptian Bread, although I don’t know if there are any other countries that also claim this bread as their own. My guess is that it’s pretty unique, as some other varieties of bread named after the countries they originate from are also sold here. For example Lebanese Bread and Shamy (Syrian) Bread are also common here, and they all have such distinct textures and flavors that they can easily be told apart from one another by someone that’s only tried each kind once. At any rate, Ayesh Belady is not heavily leavened and is circular in shape with an empty space in the middle. It can be sliced open and stuffed with whatever ingredients you choose, and is typically the shell for ful (beans), tameya (falafel), and breakfast sandwiches. Ful and tameya sandwiches cost from 1-3 pounds in most places and believe me, I had my fill of them when I first arrived here and discovered how delicious they are. It’s also used for dips, fried and put into soup and rice dishes, and is a serious staple of any Egyptian diet.
The last surprise I’ll mention for now is how popular flan is here. That’s what I’ve grown up to call it anyway, but I guess most English speakers call it creme caramel. Strangely enough, I didn’t learn its name in English until I moved to Cairo.
It basically tastes the same here as it does in America, at least that’s what my taste buds seem to think. I think’s a lot easier to find already made here than in the USA, however. I remember flan as being a dessert primarily sold in Hispanic restaurants and it was also kind of pricey. Flan felt like a special treat back home and I’d usually wait for a co-worker to bring it to an office holiday party to enjoy some, but here it’s typical and can be found at most bakeries and restaurants. I know, I know, Flan can be bought in a box in the Goya section of any American supermarket, but I’m not a big fan of the kitchen (read between the lines I have admitted here to living off of rolls and cookies). Plus, baked goods always taste so much better when someone else makes them!
Well, all this thinking about sweets is motivating me to move away from my desk for a while and get active. The thing is, I’m not sure if I’m more motivated to go do some sit-ups or mosey on over to the bakery for another snack. Because frankly, yes, it’s the middle of the night, but it’s Cairo, and I might just go because I can!