Sudan may have now broken into South Sudan and Sudan but in Cairo, among the Sudanese here, you’d never believe that such tensions exist – at least within the peaceful walls of Matam Al-Khartoum.
At Matam Al-Khartoum, the aptly named Sudanese restaurant off of Midan Opera downtown, portraits of both Northern Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir and southern freedom fighter John Garang share wall space. The kind waiter, Rashid, says that conflict is something best left to politicians. In his restaurant, everyone is welcome. The day we went, you’d be hard pressed to find any of the restaurant’s patrons, all Sudanese apart from our intrepid exploratory group, paying these politicians much attention. Most eyes were glued to the cheap Hollywood movie playing on the TV.
In Matam Al-Khartoum, politics clearly takes a back seat to food. If you prefer ordering off a menu, don’t bothering visiting. Rashid kindly walked us through the evening’s offerings. The big choice we had to make was between “bil zeit” and “bil sauce.” Both options are served up with chicken and lamb. The “bil zeit” version can be avoided; ours was a tough, dry cut of chicken.
But the “bil sauce” version with lamb is a delight. Slow-cooked to perfection and infused with herbs, the dish was excellent. Evidently, the Sudanese eat a bit like the Indians, scooping everything up with bread; no need for any utensils. (If you’re planning a trip, I’d bring your own napkins). After chatting up Rashid a bit, he decided to bring out a plate of traditional flat Sudanese bread, a bit like the Ethiopian injerra, which helped us make a delightful mess. Our main dishes were joined by a tomato and onion concoction in peanut sauce that, as bizarre as it sounds, was a treat. After the meal, the matronly manager with henna stained fingers brought around potent Sudanese coffee, infused with ginger and cardamom.
Matam Al-Khartoum is another testament to the diversity of downtown dining options if you’re willing to stray off the beaten track. I’m told it’s been the gathering place for Sudanese in Cairo for over 20 years. Don’t come expecting fancy ambience or clientele. Rather, kitsch wall hangings, neon overhead lights, stainless steel cups and plastic tablecloths and chairs are more like it.
But the food is good, and the place is clean (enough). The service is friendly and prompt. And the price is right. When my friend Rashid presented us with the bill, it came to LE150 for a group of seven, a sum that hardly buys you an appetizer in Asiatique. Matam Al-Khartoum is difficult to find, but that’s part of the fun. The directions below will get you near, after that you’ll have to start asking. If you don’t mind an adventure, and have a taste for the slow-cooked herb-infused tastes of Sudan, then Midan Opera could be your next destination.
Details: open 10am-11pm daily. Ample dinner, around LE25 per person. Off of Gumhuriyya St. near Midan Opera. Heading south from the Midan, take a small nameless left turn along a dirt alley. Just behind the building, the welcoming lights of Matam Al-Khartoum will appear. Tel: (012) 390-2952.