Scam is too strong a word: let’s just call it a hustle.
After a morning spent poring over mummies at the magical Egyptian museum, we’d gone in search of an ATM, tourist information and lunch, leaving our four teenagers on a smog-choked corner in Cairo with the warning that virtually anyone who speaks to you will try to sell you something.
We were back 10 minutes later, unsuccessful, but the kids had it sorted.
A man stopped for a friendly chat, just out of the blue.
And amazing coincidence – he ran a hotel (yeah, right), could organise tours to the pyramids and anywhere else we could imagine for a great price.
He could find us an ATM.
Oh, and he knew a really good restaurant nearby.
Minutes later he’d made good his promises, his WhatsApp contact was in our phone and he was swaggering down a shady Cairo street with the assuredness of a man about to score a commission.
We followed with the enthusiasm of people expecting to eat a crap tourist shawarma at his cousin’s dismal café.
He turned and asked brightly: “Have you tried koshary?”
The squadron of UberEats motorbikes hovering out front was a good omen; our guide delivered us to a delightful local restaurant that we wouldn’t have found ourselves, that was fun and uplifting.
Its vegetarian/vegan specialty, Egypt’s ubiquitous national dish, is now a family favourite. I hope his commission was hefty.
Abou Tarek’s is Cairo’s shrine to koshary, dishing out the national comfort food since the 1980s.
Decorated with despot-sized portraits of the koshary king himself, it was full of families, couples, chatty friends and the occasional mystified tourist.
But there’s no mystery to this honest, affordable dish that’s available all over Egypt, is perfect for vegetarians but substantial enough to keep carnivores happy and will work in any kitchen anywhere.
It’s a straightforward combo of rice, brown lentils and short pasta snuggled under a sharp, smooth tomato sauce and a layer of crunchy fried onions.
The ‘special’ koshary also comes with chickpeas and lime.
Add a simple side salad and with no menu decisions to make, Abou Tarek’s was comforting in more ways than one.
The joy of koshary is that it can pack its bags and slip out of Egypt drama-free.
No unobtainable ingredients, no need to ferment anything in ancient saddlebags carried by camels crossing the Sahara.
You can easily make it – or an acceptable version of it – with pantry ingredients at home.
Our loved ones seemed ever-so-slightly disappointed when they realised their home-cooked Egyptian souvenir starred such unglamorous ingredients.
But then they, too, were charmed by the disarming lightness of koshary and have popped it on the weekday roster.
The recipe variations are dizzying. Some demand the rice and lentils be cooked together.
Others use two types of pasta – say, elbow macaroni and broken spaghetti – and favour chunky tomato sauce sharpened with red wine vinegar.
One YouTuber (look away now, purists) tops it with a fried egg.
I’d stick to simple: the world won’t end if you combine last night’s leftover rice with some fresh-cooked pasta and a can of brown lentils.
Spice up some bottled passata with cumin and vinegar, toss in a handful of chickpeas, a squeeze of lemon or go fancy with some preserved lemons and you’re over the line, dinner-wise, in good time and exotic style.
Or have a big koshary cook up and live off leftovers: it reheats beautifully and can even pass as a salad.
The non-negotiable for me is the caramel crunch on top.
If you’re time poor, toss onions in seasoned flour, shallow fry in advance and tuck them into an airtight container, or skip the crunch and go for the soulful sweetness of onions cooked low and slow.
Either way, koshary smashed plaster pyramids and belly dancing costumes as a family-friendly memento of amazing Egypt.