East Croydon Cool talks…is a blog series that explores topics of cultural interest via local area experts. With international holidays off the agenda for a while, this summer we’re hoping to get our cultural fix through our stomachs!
So this month we chatted with Ramy, who recently re-opened his Egyptian street food concept (Koshary Kitchen) at Boxpark Croydon and is keen to introduce Croydoners to this lesser known of international cuisines.
If someone says Egypt, what’s the first thing you think of? Pyramids? Cleopatra? Camels? Deserts? Yep, us too. But a hidden gem the tourist board have seemingly failed to convey to us Brits, is its cuisine.
Whilst sharing similarities with Eastern Mediterranean dishes (eg rice-stuffed vegetables, kebabs, kofta and shawarma) the country has cultivated its own distinct diet, and one heavily reliant on the fertile, ancient banks of the Nile. A large amount of Egyptian food is vegetarian (to minimize the cost of food in a country with widespread poverty) and the national dish and a widely popular street food is Koshary (hence the name of this Boxpark food outlet!)
So Ramy, how did you get into the restaurant business?
Since I was a child, I was always fascinated by food. I would go around Cairo trying different restaurant and street food concepts with my late father. I think my love for food, adventure and trying new things came from him. I have always wanted to open my own food concept but I only finally got the courage when I wrote my dissertation project on it. When I moved to the UK in 2010 I went all around London trying different restaurant and street food markets. By 2015, I felt I had gained enough knowledge and experience of the industry to start my own street food business. My previous experience was always in event management and not in F&B, but I wanted to start and learn from the ground up. I rented a loft in King’s Cross and I turned it into a licensed kitchen. I would wake up and cook all day to perfect my skills and recipes. After 6 months of research and development, I decided to start trading at food markets. I found that I had a great product so I approached the CityPantry and CaterWings platforms. I wanted to take my product to a wider market, mainly the office crowd. Our product was accepted we flourished with office workers.
How would you explain Egyptian food to someone who’s not tried it before?
Egyptian cuisine is unique in its own way. We utilise a lot of plant-based dishes as we are an agricultural nation first and foremost. You’ll find that we use a lot of broad beans, peas, okra, molokhyia cabbage, rice, potatoes and lentils. We also use a lot of beef, lamb and chicken in our dishes. Also, due to Egypt being on the Mediterranean and Red sea we LOVE our seafood. We cook our ingredients with a lot of warm spices such as chiles, black peppercorns, cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, cloves, coriander and cumin seeds. You will find Italian, Greek, Turkish and Indian influences in the Egyptian cuisine as we were once conquered by all of these countries.
Tell us more about Koshary
Koshary is the national dish of Egypt. It consists of rice, pasta, lentils, vermecelli/spaghetti, tomato sauce, fried onions and garlic vinaigrette. The dish came to Egypt with Indian workers from the British Empire during Colonial times. It’s origin is from an Indian dish called “Kitchari”. Egyptians adapted the sauce to use our local warm spices and added pasta as we have some Italian influences in Egyptian cooking. It’s a unique dish as it combines a lot of familiar ingredients to create an unfamiliar yet tasty and unique dish. Koshary is widely popular among workers and laborers and the dish is also well-suited to mass catering events such as conferences. It may be prepared at home, and is also served at roadside stalls and restaurants all over Egypt
Have you adapted your menu to better suit western tastes and trends?
I have adapted the menu tremendously to suit the western tastes and trends. Firstly, I have created the brown rice and salad base to create a healthier option. Secondly, with the classic base I have reduced the carbs to just white rice and pasta lentils (as opposed to the original Egyptian base of rice, pasta, lentils, vermecilli and spaghetti). Also, since Koshary is a very malleable dish, I decided to give customers the option to build their own unique bowl by adding different healthy hot toppings such as salmon in a smoky paprika sauce, braised aubergine, red pepper, chicken, carrots, apricots, prunes and beef meatballs in a tomato sauce. The customer also has the option of adding different cold toppings such as saffron raisins, roasted pumpkins and feta to name a few as well as a ranged of sauces.
How healthy is Koshary?
Koshary is a healthy and nutritious dish. The classic base might be high in carbs but it also is high in plant based protein and fibre from the lentils. The wholegrain version and salad base offers a lower carb option. All our hot toppings such as the chicken, salmon, aubergine, etc are made using the least amount of oil and the freshest ingredients. We have partnered with a nutritionist to provide all our nutritional info. They will all be published on MY Fitness Pal which allows our customers to track their calorie intake from our dishes.
What made you want to open in Croydon?
I view Croydon as the new Stratford. I had the pleasure of working in the London 2012 Olympics and saw how Stratford completely changed after the event. I think Croydon is going through a similar development. I wanted to open in Croydon and be here for this change. Also, I’ve had a soft spot for Croydon since I was a child as I used to come to summer camp in Royal Russell School from 1994-1997 and they were some of my greatest childhood memories!
What do you think of the food scene here?
The food scene in London is amazing but extremely competitive. Its definitely not for the faint hearted and requires patience. There are so many options to choose from that any food trader has to really on top of his or her game to survive.
What’s your favourite Egyptian restaurant in London?
Koshary Kitchen of course hahahahahah! Despite London’s huge variety of cuisines, Egyptian food is definitely under represented here and in all honesty, I haven’t found anywhere serving up the quality and taste we offer. I’m excited to be help spreading the word about food from my homeland!
What future plans do you have for Koshary Kitchen?
In the short term, we are introducing a few new products called the ‘Mummy Wraps’. These include the:
King Tut’s Beef wrap – slow cooked beef shawarma topped with salad and green tahini sauce
Queen Cleo Chicken wrap – slow cooked beef chicken with mixed salad and siracha tahini
Ramses Shrimp wrap – crispy fried shrimp with mixed salad and harissa mayo
In the longer term, we are aiming to open several new Koshary Kitchen locations featuring the same menu we currently use in our Croydon branch. These new branches will expand our brand further, creating a wider customer base.
Photos courtesy of @Thirsty_Foodie.