Restaurants are plentiful in downtown Cairo, but quality is rare. Your options range from greasy sandwich shops to cafes that serve the same mediocre pasta dishes and pizzas. Preparation is often subpar, and the meat is typically frozen. The swirling cloud of dust and smog that permeates the city seeps into the hefty, spinning shwarma spits on the street. Oil is reused many more times than you'd want to know.
Amid this chaos, however, outliers emerge. Sellers of fresh foul medames line the downtown streets, slinging the creamy, slightly bitter fava bean paste with thick pieces of cornmeal-covered baladi bread and small salads. Egypt is home to a population of skilled grilling experts who deftly fan beds of charcoal under sizzling spits of chicken and ground beef.
Then there is Somaya's. Halfway between a community center and boutique restaurant, the tiny space is something unique in Cairo, and Egypt at large. And you'd never guess that it partly owes its existence to the revolution of 2011, when millions of Egyptians took to the streets to oust President Hosni Mubarak.
Fas'hat Somaya, as it's properly known, is located near downtown Cairo in a tiny alley between an auto parts store and a real estate broker. Through a short, bright blue door, the tiny space opens up. There is room for about four tables, which are almost always full. An old radio sits on a shelf in the corner, softly emitting the Arab classics: Fairouz, Abdel Halim Hafez, and Om Khaltoum among an eclectic array of other music. When it opened, the walls were covered by stickers for human rights campaigns and revolutionary groups. Those have since been replaced by yellowing photographs of early 20th-century Egypt.
Somaya Elaasuoty sits at the helm of the restaurant, overseeing her customers from the perch of her small open kitchen. In between preparing dishes, she checks on her diners as if they were her children. When I visit her there, Somaya tells me that she makes sure every one of her customers adheres to the restaurant's only rule: "You have to finish your food."
From 1993 to 2003, Somaya lived in Italy with her husband (whom she has since divorced). Somaya used to spend hours on the phone with her mother, getting long-distance lessons in how to cook classic Egyptian dishes. When she tried something new in Italy, she ate slowly, tasting everything individually to understand the makeup of each recipe. When she encountered a new ingredient, she called for the chef to learn more. "Everything that is done with love comes out beautiful and tasty," she says.
After a decade abroad, Somaya returned to Egypt and found a job as a secretary at a publishing house. She quickly became the office cook, baking trays of Egyptian food—including mess'a, a tomato and eggplant-based dish, and maashi, zucchini and grape leaves stuffed with seasoned rice—for office parties and birthdays.
In addition to the staff, anyone who came in to the office could eat for free. "When the revolution came, we were cooking in the publishing house and sending food to Tahrir Square," she tells me as she prepares the menu for the following day.
Shortly later, Somaya found herself carting trays of food in between her kitchen and Tahrir Square for the thousands of hungry protesters. "During the revolution days, my group of friends grew bigger," she says. "Some people threw rocks in the clashes; others went to the protest marches. I felt that my role was to cook for the people."
Soon, people began bringing Somaya ingredients that she could cook for the protestors in Tahrir Square. "For the first time in my life, I let people help me in the kitchen," she says. With a small group of assistants, Somaya ferried the food to the square, making sure to cook only solid dishes—no soup—in case she had to run from tear gas or the police.
After the revolution, the idea to open the restaurant was born. In October of 2011, Somaya picked out a small space with enough room for a tiny kitchen, a bathroom, and a few tables. With some financial help (and psychological support) from friends, she was able to renovate the place and open Fas'hat Somaya.
She cooks entirely from taste and memory, and there is no set menu. Monday is random. Tuesday is maashi and molokheya, a mucilaginous stew of mallow leaves beloved by Egyptians. The rest is improvised. "I don't have a specific recipe that I do every day" Somaya says. "Mes'aa today is not like mes'aa tomorrow."
Egyptian food is notoriously rich, full of oil, butter, and cream. But Somaya focuses on freshness—using her own concentrated chicken stock made with eight chickens—rather than fats. "It gives taste to rice and anything you put it on," she beams.
And, of course, there's bread. "As Indians use rice [and] Italians use pasta, here it's different. Bread is something basic in our culture," she tells me. "When we gather for food, there's rice and different sauces and different kinds of stuff, but there has to be bread. In the basic structure of our culture, the bread is everything."
Even though her restaurant is only open for about three hours a day, it manages to be consistently packed with customers. "When the food is finished, the restaurant is closed," she says. The food rarely goes unfinished.
Despite her success, Somaya wants to keep the restaurant small and intimate. "If it got bigger than this, it would be a normal restaurant and wouldn't have the same character," she says. "If people come here and don't find me, they will not eat."
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in February, 2015.