Several years ago, while living in Beirut, I was a regular visitor to Cairo. When I arrived, friends were always eager to take me to the city’s new and wonderful restaurants. They knew the culinary reputation of Beirut, and wanted to demonstrate that Cairo, too, could produce a quality restaurant or two. Unfortunately, they were almost always wrong. Compared with the quality, freshness, and consistency of restaurants in Beirut, Cairo’s establishments nearly always came in a distant second best.
I am now convinced that this situation has been reversed, at least in one food tradition. When I mention this theory to my Lebanese friends, their jaws drop in anguish, and they accuse me of having gone native, desperately requiring a trip back to Beirut to restore the wholesomeness of my taste buds. But I remain a regular Beirut visitor, and more than ever I’m convinced that when it comes to Indian food, Cairo wins.
I’m referring not to just any Indian restaurant, mind you, but the Massala restaurant at the Karvin Hotel in Heliopolis. Massala was established by Kaval Oberoi, a scion of the distinguished Oberoi family of India, famous for their global brand of luxury hotels and managers for many years of the Mena House hotel next to the Pyramids. Our Mr. Oberoi was sent out to manage Mena House years ago, fell in love with Egypt, and decided to stay.
Eventually he started his own hotel in Heliopolis, importing two chefs from Rajasthan, and beginning to create some of the most wonderful Indian cuisine this side of New Delhi. There is very little rice in the northern Indian tradition, and, in my opinion, northern Indian food depends on the quality of the bread and the pickles. Without the assistance of cutlery (or your left hand, which has an altogether different purpose) you scoop up a bit of the curry with bread, and combine it with an ample dose of the pickle.
The breads and pickle at Massala are superb. My favorite of the breads are the naans, fluffy and fresh, best served with butter or garlic, but you can also get flat rotis or parathas stuffed with potatoes. Mr. Oberoi’s pickles—called achaaron the menu—are famous. He slow cooks them, making hundreds of kilos at a time, and is still unable to keep up with the voracious appetite of his restaurant patrons and certain friends whom he allows to take the pickles home. My favorites are made with small mangoes and lemons. But there is always a new offering; last time it was a delicious green bean pickle.
Typical Indian starters are on offer, including fried samosas and flat roasted papadum wafers, served with mint sauce, as well as interesting regional delicacies like the fried onion and potato piaji, common in Bombay, and the mixed salad kuchumber blended with spices.
We order substantially off of the vegetarian menu, favoring paalak paneer (spinach and cheese cubes), aloo jeera (roasted potatoes with cumin), and aloo ghobi (potatoes with cauliflower). Every visit we order one, if not two, helpings of murgh makhani (tandoori chicken simmered in butter sauce), which is delightful, and often rogan josh (lamb curry). If you have any room left, be sure to try a slow-cooked lentil dish called daal,and the raita,a refreshing cucumber and yogurt sauce which is also very effective for cooling things off if you’ve been too aggressive in the spice department. Dishes can be ordered at a variety of spice levels. If you (or perhaps your children) find any of this a bit daunting, the various biryani dishes (rice mixed with vegetables, chicken, lamb, or shrimp) are easy and tasty. After a feast like this, we rarely have room for dessert, but if you do I always enjoy the kulfi,a thick Indian ice cream.
If the menu seems a bit similar to other quality Indian restaurants around Cairo, it’s probably because Mr. Oberoi has had a hand in many of them, managing Mena House, and setting up the menu at the Maharani restaurant on the Pascha boat in Zamalek. But Massala, under Mr. Oberoi’s daily supervision, still takes the prize among Cairo’s Indian outlets and, for now at least, even makes the Beirutis seem like amateurs.
Details: 11 Mohamed Ebeid St., off Nozha St., Heliopolis. Tel: 02 2690 6453. www.thekarvinhotel.com. Open daily 2pm-midnight. Dinner for two: under LE200. Alcohol served.