Amina and her panda suit have gone back to China. In her absence, the fiery flavors at the one-room Chinese Muslim restaurant in Abbasiya, Cairo, have faded. Amina had for a while memorably served food at her mother’s restaurant wearing a onesie panda suit her grandmother bought in China. But it was really the tantalizingly long and succulently addictive hand-pulled noodles, or lamian, that kept my friends and I coming back to this secret staple of Cairo cuisine.
Amina may be gone, but a new owner keeps the noodles coming. Egypt’s revolution (and counter revolution) has not deterred the Chinese. There are now over 10,000 Chinese in Cairo, mainly clustered in three areas. Chinese Muslims, like Amina, typically live either in Abbasiya, a dense neighborhood with dusty buildings in need of a deep shine, or Nasr City, close to Al-Azhar University, the revered Islamic institution where many of them study. Then there’s a large Chinese community in Maadi, where the big Chinese companies are centered. These Chinese come from all over China and are largely here for business of all sorts, not religion. Only it’s Egypt, so all the meat is still halal.
A street view from El Fardus (Paradise) Restaurant, the most established of the Chinese restaurants in Abbasiya. Photo: Miriam Berger
When I first moved to Cairo three years ago, the other American khawagat—Egyptian for foreigners—raved about Abbasiya’s Uighur restaurants. Only the main restaurants in Abbasiya now aren’t actually Uighur, the Turkic minority living predominantly in Central Asia and China’s (or, to the Uighurs, Chinese-occupied) western Xinjiang province: They’re Hui, another mainly Muslim ethnic group with communities (and cuisines) in northwest China and dispersed and assimilated throughout the country.
Now take a right at the gas station near the Abbasiya stop and there’s a fork in the road with four (Hui) Chinese Muslim restaurants: two cheap adjacent storefronts with photo albums as menus, a third inside a shisha café two doors down, and the fourth (and most expensive) on El Fardus Street on the other side. The names and reputations of the restaurants, like their owners, are often in flux. In a way, it seems fitting that the Chinese have settled in Abbasiya: a century ago, a Jewish community thrived.