Meet the two women behind Egypt’s first female-run food tour

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Mia and I met 16 years ago at college and we’ve always been drawn to the idea of Egypt’s rich culinary heritage. Our country is revered because of its history and architecture – people come here to tick off their bucket list with ancient pyramid sites. Yet somehow our cuisine has taken a backseat: it’s simply not on the map.

Travellers tend to eat in their hotel or a nearby McDonald’s even though, as a culture, Egypt is very food-orientated. Our aim with our food tours at Bellies En-Route is to connect travellers with the people and past of our hometown, Cairo, via local street food.

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We focus on hidden spots in the city and small, family-run restaurants

We started our business in 2016, pulling together hidden spots in the city, focusing on small, family-run restaurants and neighbourhood venues that new visitors wouldn’t necessarily know. We curated our tours in a very definitive way, thinking about factors such as walkability, the sequence of dishes and the flavours we wanted to introduce our our guests to. 

At the time, we were the only company of our kind in the country. We were also different because Egypt’s food industry – from restaurant owners to waiters and street vendors – is run almost exclusively by men. Many of the vendors we approached were not used to dealing with women directly in a business context.

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We both grew up with parents who encouraged us to build careers

While a lot of women in Egypt don’t have the opportunities we had, we were lucky that we both grew up in good homes with parents who worked hard to give us opportunities and encouraged us to build careers. It did, however, mean that we faced some scepticism to begin with. We were careful to emphasise our business model as a win-win for everyone involved. 

Egyptians are, by nature, very generous people. Funnily enough, this was also an issue in the early days of Bellies En-Route. Restaurant owners typically wanted to shower our visitors with large portions, extra side dishes or salads for free. We had to explain we only wanted small taster plates, otherwise our guests would fill up far too quickly.

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The generosity of Egypt’s food sellers proved a problem at the start

As our business grew, vendors started welcoming us with open arms. They saw that we knew what we were doing. They started to understand and trust our vision and, likewise, we really valued their partnerships. We wouldn’t be here without them. 

Bellies En-Route also has a strong community base with our minimising food waste policy. Every day around the world, supermarkets, hotels and restaurants throw away so much food and we were determined not to contribute to the damage. We found a simple solution, inspired by something we’ve always done ourselves.

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We redistribute leftovers. People get to contribute to the community

Any clean leftovers we have on a food tour, we collect and redistribute to those in need. In doing so we create a meal that as many people as possible can share. Our guests love this aspect of Bellies En-Route: they get to contribute to the community with an experience that is truly memorable. 

Of course, giving visitors a true flavour of Egyptian food is key to what we do. It’s so much fun for people to familiarise themselves with the rich tastes and textures of the local cuisine. Egypt’s history is very diverse. As food tends to travel with people, what we eat is equally varied, drawing on influences from Europe to India and the Middle East. 

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Cairo’s cuisine has influences from Europe, India and the Middle East

People are always surprised to discover that pasta, for example, is a huge part of Egyptian cuisine. In the olden days, the Egyptian royal family would either send their chefs to train in Italy or hire European chefs. As a result, the tradition filtered through.

Pasta, in fact, forms part of koshari, Egypt’s national dish – and is a must-try when you’re in Cairo. It’s a hearty vegan dish mixing brown lentils, macaroni, fried onions, tomato sauce and garlic vinegar. It sounds like a weird concoction but it’s delicious. 

In Egypt, koshari is something that unites us: it’s filling, cheap and enjoyed by locals from all walks of life. You can find a million koshari places in any neighbourhood of the city – and they’re usually open 24/7. 

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On our tours, you might try Egyptian beef sausages or moreish falafels

On our food tours, you might also try Egyptian beef sausages, typically fried with green peppers, chillies and onions. They are seasoned and slightly spicy, often served with Egyptian fino bread (soft white rolls). Egyptian falafel is another moreish snack, made with fava beans and fresh herbs rather than chickpeas, for a super-fluffy texture.

On the dessert front, we have kunafa, a popular sweet layered with mixed nuts or a custard-like cream filling, and the much-loved basbousa which is a semolina flour cake soaked in sweet corn syrup. There’s also feteer, an ancient Egyptian layered pastry that tastes like a buttery croissant, served with honey molasses or powdered sugar, and sobia, a refreshing milk-based coconut and vanilla drink.

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As guides, we see our role as cultural conduits

Cairo is also home to a huge juice bar culture. Elsewhere, juicing has taken off as a health trend but here it’s always been a rite of passage. From mango to tamarind, we have so much fresh produce to draw from. 

As guides, we really work to make people feel as welcome as possible on our food tours. We treat our guests as friends. We see our role as cultural conduits, showing guests our favourite parts of the city they wouldn’t necessarily find. By sharing stories, we hope to prevent certain recipes or narratives from dying out as our country evolves.

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We want Bellies En-Route to give an unfiltered view of Egypt

We also personalise our tours to give hidden insights into Egyptian life. People might ask about our tattoos, for example, or why it is that we don’t wear headscarves. It’s about showing a side to our culture that informs others and challenges widespread beliefs.

Above all, we want Bellies En-Route to give an unfiltered view of Egypt. Cairo is a difficult city to navigate in some ways. But that is also what gives it a unique character. It’s our city, we love it, and we’re delighted to share its highlights. 

Laila Hassaballa and Mariam (Mia) Nezar are co-founders of Cairo-based street food tour, Bellies En-Route. You can experience their food tours first hand as part of Flash Pack’s new Egypt adventure.

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