The dish that helped fuel Egypt’s revolutionby Wendell Steavenson / June 22, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Wendell, friends, koshari and the Nile
In the early days of the Egyptian revolution, the Mubarak regime denounced the protestors on Tahrir Square as “Kentucky Fried Chicken eaters”—foreign agents with laptops and fresh $50 bills in their pockets. In fact the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet on Tahrir Square was, like everything else in the vicinity, boarded up. Later its frontage became a gallery for political cartoons: Mubarak strangling his people, Mubarak with devil horns and blood-red eyes.
The hundreds of thousands of protestors who ended up urban camping in flower beds and gutters laughed at the “Kentucky” slur and waved their improvised sandwiches of lowly, gritty subsidised bread and Laughing Cow cheese triangles. This was the Egyptian revolutionary mix of defiance and satire—Mubarak, if you squint, has a passing resemblance to the eponymous laughing cow on the packet. As momentum and crowds gathered, every-one shared their bread and bottled water. But the most popular fare on the square was the great staple Egyptian dish koshari.
Koshari, as one activist friend of mine accurately described, is “a carbo bomb.” It is a mash of macaroni, vermicelli, rice, lentils and chickpeas. A dollop of watery tomato sauce is ladled on top together with a big pinch of fried onions. Some people like to add a sour vinegary sauce and some chilli oil. It is everyone’s easy lunch: cheap, filling, and I can attest, strangely more-ish.
It is served, usually as takeout, from dedicated koshari restaurants. The two most famous in Cairo, Koshary El Tahrir and Abou Tarek, are within blocks of Tahrir, and both kept open during the scariest days of the revolution. People would buy dozens of portions and hand them out. One afternoon I talked to some protesters who were staging a sit-in under several tanks. They sat amid the blankets and plastic bags of supplies that had been hung up between the wheels of the tank tread housing, happily refus…