Egypt's Sudanese refugees using rich cuisine to build new lives

Sudanese refugees who fled to Egypt have opened restuarants and are adapting their traditional cuisine to Egyptian palates (Khaled DESOUKI)
Sudanese refugees who fled to Egypt have opened restuarants and are adapting their traditional cuisine to Egyptian palates (Khaled DESOUKI)

Sudanese entrepreneur Julie Samir's dream of opening a restaurant has finally come true, but it's a bittersweet achievement after she fled to Egypt from her war-torn homeland of Sudan.

Now, Samir has one aim for her menu: winning over the palate of Egyptians with a taste of Sudan's complex culinary traditions, born from a rich history at the crossroads of the Middle East and Africa.

"I'm targeting the Egyptian consumer, I want them to get to know Sudanese culture," the 42-year-old told AFP from her sun-lit eatery in eastern Cairo, the scent of simmering aromatics wafting out of the kitchen.

Across the sprawling megalopolis of Cairo -- home to over 20 million people -- many Sudanese refugees have opened businesses, bringing a taste of home and hoping to make a name for themselves.

Samir and her two children have been in the Egyptian capital for over a year, since making the 2,000-kilometre (around 1,200-mile) journey from their home in Khartoum.

Along with half a million other Sudanese, they fled the war between Sudan's regular army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces to neighbouring Egypt -- and got to work rebuilding a life.

Today, on the lawns of one of Cairo's upscale sporting clubs, Samir's restaurant 'Kush Children's Village' serves up a fusion menu.

"The name was my father's idea, inspired by the Bible," she said, explaining the reference to Kush, the ancient kingdom that straddled modern-day Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.

- Tough competition -

"We serve all three cuisines," she said proudly, but insisted the restaurant is still distinctly Sudanese.

"Everyone who works here is from Sudan, all of us came here fleeing the war," she said, explaining how the team found each other through solidarity networks on social media.

In the kitchen, 46-year-old chef Fadi Moufid fussed over pots and pans stewing a number of the restaurant's wide array of dishes.

The former caterer's signature is agashe -- skewered meat, chicken or fish seasoned with a spicy peanut dry rub then barbequed low and slow on glowing embers.

"Egyptians don't like their food as spicy as we do, so we try to tone it down so they can really appreciate it," Moufid told AFP over a bowl of zigni, a beef stew marinated in Ethiopian spices and served with injera, a spongy flatbread.

But cracking the Egyptian culinary scene is no easy feat.

"Competition wasn't as big in Sudan between food businesses, but here it's huge," Moufid says, pointing particularly to "large Syrian restaurants" founded by diaspora entrepreneurs who also fled their war-torn homeland in recent years.

Standing out can be difficult, but Moufid and Samir are slowly drawing in Egyptian palates.

"I liked the taste of the spices and how tender the meat is," one of their Egyptian guests, Khaled Abdelrahman, told AFP.

"It has a different feel to it," he said.

In the suburb of Sheikh Zayed, west of Cairo, Sudanese confectioner Qussay Biram's dessert shop, "Jeeb Maak" -- Arabic for "Bring Along" -- sells deep-fried dough balls called 'luqaimat'.

They are similar to Egyptian 'zalabia', but still shock the Egyptians who step into the sweet-smelling store.

- 'Longing for Sudan' -

"They're taken by surprise because we put more salt in the dough than they're used to," one of his employees, Ziad Abdelhalim, told AFP.

"It brings out a different taste to the sweetness," he said while serving customers a steaming cup of traditional cardamom-spiced milk tea -- also novel to most Egyptians.

The business model is clearly working, with 'Jeeb Maak' now boasting three branches across Cairo.

But Biram says it hardly makes up for what he left behind.

At 29, the entrepreneur believes he will likely never return to Sudan and that the businesses he "closed because of the war" back home are gone forever.

In a little over a year, already impoverished Sudan has been torn apart. The war has killed tens of thousands of people, pushed close to nine million from their homes and brought the country to the brink of famine.

"Even if things calm down, there won't be many business opportunities," he said, resolute in his plan to "see this experience in Egypt through".

Samir, who said her family was stalked by paramilitary fighters when fleeing Sudan, had planned to spend only a month in Egypt.

"But the war's not ending," she said, resigned to finding ways to remind herself of the homeland she longs for.

"I want to hire a henna artist in the restaurant, I know Egyptians love that," she said with a laugh.

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