There is a new trend of street food markets growing in the Arab region after spreading like wildfire in the Americas, Europe, and East Asia. It is a trend that grew out of the traditional food carts spread for so long all over the world, and are certainly an old tradition in Arab capitals.
Historically, street food is consumed by the poor, those who do not own ovens, or the ability to make fire to prepare their daily meals at home. However, this quickly changed when the Ottoman state allowed and legalized street food in the lands it conquered. In fact, already in 1502, regulations for street food were introduced. Food carts became destinations for fast food fans, for a variety of dishes made on the streets: fried fish, dried meats, soups, and many others, depending on area and geography.
Rich people would be tempted to try all these popular foods, and would send their servants to get some of the most delicious items on offer. They could satisfy their desires and their reputation would be safe at the same time.
As opposed to what most people think, street food is not necessarily traditional or local. It can be imported from anywhere as long as it fits the following criteria: light on ingredients (though this is relative), can be prepared fast, simple to carry, cheap, and can be eaten fast. All of these components make of street food the best choice for around 3 billion people in the world according to the World Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
From Damascus to Beirut
Food carts have always existed around Beirut, the Lebanese capital and the Syrian capital, Damascus. Most of them used to sell Kaak, Balila (chickpeas), Fool (beans), or corn. Today, these carts have kept up with the changes, some of the Kaak vendors now use motorcycles for instance. In Beirut, hotdog stands have started to spread in the last few years since they generate a fast profit and are in high demand. In the last few years, “food market” was not a common term until two years ago when Souk el Akel (food market) appeared as a weekly event making it the first open market for food lovers in Lebanon.
People gather around the many kiosks selling a diversity of food that is not limited to the Lebanese cuisine. There is something for everyone: all sorts of mana’ish or kebbeh but also Italian, Thai, and Japanese foods among many others.
The food market grew from the idea of Souk Al Tayeb which gathered farmers from all around the country selling local and organic produce and encouraging people to buy local and healthy food. The project is the result of individual efforts that started with the food expert Anthony Rahayel, founder of NoGarlicNoOnion blog. Rahayel's dream was to bring the European food market experience to Lebanon.
Though it has a fixed time and place every Thursday in Beirut, Souk el Akel has moved around other Lebanese regions becoming a festival that gathers thousands of food lovers in one place to taste new things. The first condition to get a kiosk in the Souk is creativity, and that is it. The Souk even went outside of Lebanon and got to Porto Marina in Egypt, as part of a national festival in the Summer of 2016. in the future the Souk hopes to spread even further all over the region.
In Egypt, street food is everywhere
You cannot go to Egypt and not taste the street food, at least once. Carts are everywhere and offer a large selection of foods, most of which are local starting with the famous Koshari made of pasta, rice, and dried lentils with fried onion, and a spicy tomato sauce, but you can also have fool or To’miya which are considered the best choices for a traditional meal. Of if you prefer you can try Hawawshi, consisting of minced meat with spices stuffed in a Baladi bread and then in the oven, otherwise Mosaqa, eggs, liver, and Mambar and some of the other options.
Food carts in Cairo come in many forms. Some are simple and modest, especially those that sell fool, they are all around the city especially places with a lot of workers living in empty residential buildings. Popular neighborhoods are usually filled with food carts, as well as areas with a lot of employees or shopping centers such as Kasr el Aini, or downtown.
Food carts are very popular in Egypt, so much so that some youth in Heliopolis quit their stable jobs to open fancy fool carts that compete with 5 star restaurants when it comes to hygiene and quality.
The forms, sizes, and locations of food carts depend on the clientele. You notice an increase in quality and better presentation in the touristic coastal areas such as Alexandria or along the northern coastal road, or in Ain Sukhna and around touristic villages. There you will not only find local and traditional food, but also sausages, breaded chicken, and other forms of meats.
Marrakesh, some of the best street food in the world
Last August, Marrakesh was chosen as one of the 23 best cities for street food by CNN’s website. This Moroccan city is well known for its great food sold on carts everywhere you go. It also has a particular charm at night especially in the Jamaa Al Fnaa square, a place as famous as the Great Wall of China. This is the pounding heart of the city and its main artery. Here you can find anything you want, from fresh fruit juices to the best dishes and sweets in the country: Couscous, Tajine, and the famous Mlawy sweets. Enjoy these amazing tastes while watching the snake charmers and listening to the musicians.
There is a sensory chaos here: the smell of barbecue mixed with traditional spices, the voices of hungry people compete with those of vendors shouting the names of the dishes they are selling. Despite the shy presence of food markets in the Arab world, the traditional food carts remain irreplaceable. They are a stable presence on the streets and sidewalks of the Arab region; they are there for everyone, rich or poor, and offer the best tastes you will find in any city.