Twenty million souls hustling and crowding, thronging grand avenues and shady alleys, buying and selling in slick modern shopping centers and ancient covered markets, honking and shouting, cutting business deals by cell phone and hauling furniture in donkey carts ... Cairo is a busy place. To keep this massive and voracious population going, the city boasts a spectacular array of street food.
Without a doubt, the queen of Cairo street foods is kushari, a steaming bowl of rice, lentils, garbanzo beans, and a mish-mash of diverse shapes of pasta, doused with a spicy tomato sauce, sprinkled with crispy fried onions, and eaten at any time of day or night for about 30 cents a serving. Fast, cheap, and nourishing, it was clearly born as a staple for the working urban masses: one step above the country's subsistance fare of bread and beans, but still heartier and more affordable than a sandwich. So intensely addictive are its charms, however, that as night falls in downtown Cairo one is likely to find well-heeled businessmen and packs of trendy adolescents as well as taxi drivers and civil servants all eagerly wolfing down their kushari under glaring flourescent lights.
Where does kushari come from? Political theorist and food enthusiast Sami Zubaida makes the interesting proposal that Cairo's kushari is derived from the similar Indian kitchri, brought by British troops to Egypt in the beginning of the 20th century. As Zubaida points out, the globalization of fast food goes back to way before Ray Kroc fashioned the Golden Arches, and has often followed unsuspected routes.
If initially the food itself followed British colonial efforts from India to Egypt, the more recent American empire has made its influence felt in how it is served. Instead of disappearing before the onslaught of hamburgers and fried chicken, local street foods are updating their image and presentation, and competing with international fast food on its own terms, targeting a middle class with increasingly urbane tastes. While in the older neighborhoods kushari is still ladled out from wooden street carts and in tiny hole-in-the-wall eateries, in the swankier parts of town you can get your fix at a gleaming new kushari restaurant franchise with formica banquette seating and waiters in uniforms with baseball caps.
Of course in Egypt fast food—even fast food as humble as kushari—is for the relatively well-off. For a growing majority of the population, living on under two dollars a day, the bright lights and shiny countertops of kushari restaurants belong to another, unattainably glamorous world.