Meet the Man Who's Reimagining Cairo's Street Food with His Restaurant Zooba—and Try His Recipes at Home
Chris Khalifa has elevated the quick curbside eats of this Egyptian city for his fast-casual chainlet, Zooba. Now, with the opening of his first stateside restaurant in New York, we're lining up to get a taste for ourselves.
In Cairo, the air is thick with smog and vendors sell street foods amid a cacophony of honking horns and the haze of car exhaust. Step into one of Chris Khalifa's seven restaurants in Cairo and you'll find clean tables, bright colors and a cozy atmosphere in which to escape the chaos and enjoy many of the same foods. But, instead of car fumes, his Zooba restaurants are filled with the tantalizing aroma of sizzling beef for hawawshi sandwiches, and coriander and garlic, which season crispy taameya, Egypt's answer to falafel (pictured below).
Like most street food around the world, here in Cairo, a city of more than 20 million people, the dishes are fueled by a marriage of necessity and innovation. Street vendors use basics like rice, tomatoes and cheaper (often scrap) cuts of meat as the building blocks for their offerings, then layer on their own signature flavors—inexpensive spices, vinegars and oils—to transform the simple into mouthwatering. Koshari is a great example. It's a humble carb-fest of pasta, lentils and rice that is a cheap meal in a bowl and beloved in this city.
Chris Khalifa, an Egyptian-American business school graduate, saw an opportunity for Egyptian cuisine as he watched the global rise of street food. He opened the first Zooba in Cairo in 2012. With only a good business idea and no real background in food or cooking, he poached Moustafa El Refaey from one of Cairo's best restaurants to be his partner and head chef. While there have been plenty of chefs channeling their creativity through food trucks, El Refaey was among the first in Egypt to elevate street food in a restaurant. He matches spicy fried cauliflower or roasted eggplant with falafel-like taameya. Lime oil and pickled lemon infuse ful, a fava-bean mash. And he tops the hamburger-like hawawshi sandwiches with tomato-onion relish or beetroot-hibiscus hummus, add-ons you're unlikely to find at a food cart. Plus, Zooba's hawawshi is made from a blend of top-quality meat—which isn't always the case on the streets—and over 40% vegetables.
Related: Try recipes from Egypt and more authentic Mediterranean recipes.
"A butcher in Cairo was combining leftover meats and created this sandwich," says Khalifa. "The core of how that item came about is definitely a testament to Egyptian resourcefulness," he says respectfully about the roots of the idea. "But part of what we do at Zooba is take these foods that we are proud of and do them a new way, with the best-quality ingredients."
Zooba also strives to operate in a sustainable way. The Cairo outlets used to stack food in plastic containers in an open fridge, but that changed because of the environmental impact.
"We stopped seeing that fridge as containing beautiful food but instead as this huge pile of plastic," says Khalifa. So in 2019 Zooba announced that it would go plastic-free and remove all the display fridges from its Cairo stores. Khalifa knew the reduction of emissions and electricity usage from the cooling units would be small, but Zooba would no longer put 350,000 pieces of plastic waste into the environment each year.
While these eco-friendly choices and the quality of the ingredients drive prices higher than what is typically sold at food carts, the restaurant still has many fans.
"I pay for good-quality ingredients, consistency and convenience when I pay Zooba's admittedly high prices, and they deliver on these fronts," says Heba Afify, a Cairo native and Zooba regular. "If it was possible to walk to a street cart and get sandwiches with top-notch ingredients then Zooba wouldn't have had a market, but it's not. I also like the creative combinations of foods you won't find elsewhere, like beetroot tehina, which is delicious, and eggplant-stuffed taameya," Afify says.
Khalifa is betting that what Egyptians have come to love about Zooba will be good for business as he exports the chain to other countries. The plan is to open 20-plus stores in the Middle East and elsewhere over the next seven years.
A New York City branch, the first in the U.S., opened last year. Khalifa says they brought architectural features, such as doors and iconic ful carts, straight from Cairo as part of the effort to export some of that authenticity. He says that through its food and design, Zooba seeks to uphold Egyptian culture and to give diners outside the country what will be perhaps their first taste of what's been keeping Cairo residents happy and satisfied for years.
Pesha Magid is a freelance journalist based in Baghdad, Iraq.
This story originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine March 2020.