This restaurant may have no name – at least no name recognizable to anyone restricted to Arabic or English – and it has precious few non-Chinese patrons. On the evening we went, we were the only non-Uighur diners. Unless you happen to speak Uighur (pronounced wee-gur), you’re unlikely to be able to speak fluently with the staff. Ironically, if you can pull out polished spoken Fusha, it will likely serve you much better among the Sunni academics surrounding you than the dialects spoken elsewhere on Cairo’s streets. The entire experience feels like you’ve entered a parallel universe, even though you’re just a stone’s throw from Islamic Cairo.
This restaurant, that may be called Barakat, is located near the Al-Azhar student housing, behind the Taki factory, on the edge of Islamic Cairo. It is run by, and feeds, the Uighur community studying at Al-Azhar. Uighur refers to the autonomous region of western China inhabited by a central Asian, Muslim, people. As Sunnis, aspiring Uighur clerics seek out training at Al-Azhar. While here, they need to be fed. It’s very much a family place. The two year old child of the waiter shyly brings Kleenex to the table, breaking out in an effusive smile as he scurries back to his mother waiting in the kitchen. The rest of the patrons, all Uighurs, stare interestedly at us as we sit. Their cuisine will challenge everything you think you know about Chinese cuisine.
Kung Pao chicken? Forget it. Dumplings? Not likely. Soy sauce on the side? Fortune cookies after? Think again. The menu seems to be based around three things: fresh vegetables, home-made noodles, and delicious succulent broths. Ordering isn’t a problem. Assuming you’re not ordering off the locals’ menu (Chinese characters only), you’ll be given a menu that comes with the helpful title “photo album” on the cover, filled with pictures of all the dishes you can choose. This allows for my favorite kind of ordering, done through the simplicity of pointing.
We were a large group, and thus were able to sample widely from our photo album. The tastes that emerged ranged from excellent to superb. Everything was based on homemade noodles that make spaghetti seem like child’s play. Long, thick, succulent, these are the real things. If you’re eating with chopsticks, get ready for a long session of slurping to try to find the end. The dishes relied heavily on onions, peppers, beans and herbs. Two vegetarian dishes stood out: a mound of shredded, lightly spiced red cabbage, and a pile of beans and peppers. Both were understated and delicious.
The taste of the evening came down to a tie between a broth and the tofu. The tofu was served with peppers and onions in a mildly spicy, but simultaneously sweet, sauce. The broth was noodle-based, of course, with a beautifully subtle hint of cilantro. Either taste would justify regular visits to the place.
Barakat, if that indeed is its name, is an extraordinary find, not least because finding it is an extraordinary accomplishment. Just when you thought all Cairo’s mysteries have been exposed, this will remind you that there’s still much to discover. It’s the kind of place you’ll never read about in a guidebook; you’ll only hear of it through word of mouth. The directions below will get you to the area – after that, you’ll have to start asking, or just follow your nose.
Barakat is nothing fancy. Plastic chairs suffice. Plates, when requested, are provided as teacup saucers. But the taste is hearty and utterly legitimate. You’ll be astonished at its price. We came as a group of six, ate well, left ample leftovers, and spent a grand total of LE106. Koshary can hardly compete with this. If you’ve tired of Cairo’s culinary offerings and are willing to be adventurous, an evening at Barakat will restore your faith in the diversity available here.
Details: open daily from 10am to 10pm. Off Ahmed Said St., behind the Taki factory, near the Al-Azhar dorms. Most dishes between LE10-20. Tel: 012 684 3646.