Cairo street food. Gut-splittingly satisfying. And simple.

On the street in Egypt, the vendor will have three enormous trays, with cooked macaroni, cooked rice, and cooked brown lentils; and three pots/dishes of a tomato-based sauce, golden brown onions (“dried and fried” to crisp perfection), and a flavoursome fiery hot chilli sauce to add if the customer wishes.

It’s a wonderful culinary ballet; watching the Mu’allim (Boss) juggling his staff, to ensure all the component pots are constantly replenished, while tossing together the main ingredients in a bowl for each customer.  All in the fragilely good-natured frenzy of a Cairo fast-food lunch stop.

At home? It’s just a different juggling act – to have each of the items ready at just the right time.  On only four rings, without assistance, and without the conveyor belt atmosphere.

One other tip for real street authenticity – don’t start looking for fine rices or pasta.  Just don’t – this is bog-standard, basic, street food, fuel for hard-working and downtrodden people.  Aye, but cheating with “quick-cook” cheapy short-cuts; that’s a step too far.


  • 2 cups macaroni
  • 1 cup of long-grain rice
  • 1 handful crushed vermicelli (optional)
  • 1 cup of brown lentils (or cheat – use a tin!)
  • 2 large onions and 1 small/medium
  • 2-3 cloves garlic
  • 1 tin tomatoes
  • 1 tsp tomato puree
  • oil
  • salt and pepper
  • dried red chillis, chilli flakes, or a chilli sauce


  • Start with the Tomato Sauce – the longer it simmers, the better the flavour.
    • Heat some oil in a frypan; add a small onion, finely chopped, and cook until it’s becoming soft and translucent.
    • Add the garlic cloves, crushed or finely-chopped, and cook just another couple of minutes.
    • Add the tomatoes (break up if not already chopped), tomato puree, salt and pepper, and a little water; you don’t want it so thick it just sits on top of the main ingredients on the diner’s plate, nor so thin that it all runs to the bottom of the diner’s bowl – somewhere in between, so that it mixes through as you eat.
    • Put on a back ring, on a low heat, to simmer away quietly.
  • The Hot Sauce – and it should be hot.
    • Take a ladle-ful of the tomato sauce in a separate (small) saucepan, and add “the heat” to it – I usually use a couple of dried red chillis, finely chopped, seeds and all. I have also used fresh chopped chillis, a very generous pinch of red chilli flakes, or some bottled chilli sauce, like Tabasco, to taste. Allow to simmer for a bit – until you need the ring.
  • The Onions
  • The gut-busting Body – the juggling act begins.
    • The pans with the sauces need to move off the cooker top – you need the space.
    • Cover the lentils in cold water and bring to the boil; simmer for about 20 minutes, until just ready. Not overcooked – they should still have their shape and a bit of “bite” to them. [Editor’s note – if nobody’s watching for your “authenticity”, use a tin of brown lentils, drained and rinsed; shhhh – don’t tell anybody!]
    • Heat some oil in another pot, and add the vermicelli (if using) and fry until light brown. Add the rice; fry a couple of minutes more, then add a cupful of water and a good pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, and then turn the heat to a low simmer and cover; cook for about 15 minutes, until the water is absorbed, and the rice is ALMOST done. Fluff with a fork, put the lid back on, and leave for another 5 minutes or so off the heat.
    • Boil the macaroni in a pot of salted water until cooked (10-12 minutes), and drain.
  • Serving (Juggling?)
    • Mix the lentils (drained of any excess water), rice and vermicelli, and macaroni on a large tray or bowl, and bring to the table. Bring a jug of the tomato sauce, a gravy boat of the hot sauce, and a bowl of the onions.
    • Fill individual bowls from the tray, and add a ladle-ful of the tomato sauce. Add a generous sprinkling of the onions for each person. And offer a splash of the hot sauce to your diners’ taste. Simples.
    • Or do it Ahdaf Soueif’s way.

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