(Michael Sloan For The Washington Post)

Cairo, 2002. I checked into the hotel at 1 a.m. My room came with $150 in vouchers for the hotel casino, so I threw my bag onto the bed and headed down.

There were no customers and only one croupier, working a $50 table. I exchanged $100 and the voucher for five chips. The room was lit by dim yellow bulbs, the sconces filled with dead bugs. I sat down to play. A big-haired casino worker in a gold leotard slouched across the table like a photo in a brochure for a holiday you’d never want to take. The croupier yawned into broad lethargic hands.

It took four minutes to exhaust my chips. I hurried out while the casino workers went back to sleep.

10 a.m. I awoke from uneasy dreams. I could hear two men fist-fighting outside the window. I needed to get out of the hotel. My plan was to track down some local beer and a bowl of koshary. My Egyptian friends had gushed about both.

Koshary served at an Egyptian restaurant in Cairo. (Alamy Stock Photo)

Koshary is the national dish of Egypt, but its origins are Indian, Persian, Italian and North American. The dish was first documented in the 14th century by Ibn Battuta, the renowned explorer and scholar. Originally a working-class staple — a hodgepodge of leftovers — koshary can now be found at restaurants in Egypt, Europe and North America. It’s one of those dishes that you love not because of one or two striking notes but through the interplay of so many seemingly disparate flavors. Fresh cardamom and grilled onion. Jasmine. Hot pepper. The individual elements shouldn’t work together, but they do.

After weak coffee and a room-service croissant, I boarded the elevator, as cramped and airless as a sarcophagus. The no-smoking sign was blistered with cigarette burns.

The hotel was named after an Assyrian queen, but that was more aspirational than descriptive. The setting was not royal. The website boasted five stars, but perhaps that was out of 26. There wasn’t a pub off the lobby so much as the lobby was a pub. Bar stools instead of armchairs. Cocktail waitresses instead of bellhops.

I walked outside, blinking into the sunlight. The beer shop was, according to the concierge, just a few blocks away. The sidewalk thrummed with relentless energy. I was immediately enshrouded in a scrim of shouts, laughter, arguments, haggling, vigorous demands for baksheesh. The Cairenes shoved past in djellabas and jeans, T-shirts and head scarves. You could still see men wearing red fezzes, tassels wagging as they rushed by. The temperature was well over 100, but no one wore shorts. I’d been living in Dubai for a few years and learned from the locals. Loose cotton clothes, covering the arms and legs, keep you cooler than shorts and tank tops.

I walked several miles, backtracked, went in circles. No package store. I had only one sweat stain, but it covered my entire wardrobe. I turned onto a side street and bought a bottle of water. The cap came off too easily. Had someone refilled an empty bottle? I was too thirsty and lightheaded to care, so I drank it. I stepped into the souk, sat in a dark cafe and ordered hot tea and a hookah. It wasn’t Gatorade, but maybe it would revive me.

The tea came in a slender, elaborate, poorly washed glass, stuffed with a small hedgerow’s worth of fresh mint. As soon as the waiter turned his back, an old woman jumped out at me from the shadows, stuck out her hand, jabbed a finger at her open palm and shrieked. The waiter rushed back, pushed her outside and apologized. This happened three or four times.

Outside, a swarm of merchants grabbed at my arms and legs, pleading with me to buy carpets, Nefertiti busts, King Tut tchotchkes of every conceivable variety. Now I understood Misr, the Arabic word for Egypt. It means “frontier.” I was an urban frontiersman bushwhacking through the hinterlands of civilization.

A taxi driver whistled at me. His name was Ahmed. I reluctantly got in the back seat. I told him to find me a beer shop.

Ahmed drove cross-legged on a rickety bench seat as we circumnavigated the city. The radio, windshield wipers, ashtray and perhaps significant portions of the engine had been removed from the car. Forget about AC. For music, Ahmed sang. For an ashtray, he used the whole taxi. After passing the same street corner three times, Ahmed pulled over, straddling the curb. “Here. I wait.”

I looked up. We were only a few steps from where he’d picked me up. I stared at Ahmed. He shrugged, smiled. “Take your time. No problem.”

The beer — Luxor — was good, but unastonishing. Nothing to commit to pictographs or etch into stone tablets. It was the standard medium-bodied lager sold throughout Asia and North Africa.

“Where I take you now?”

Should I stay with Ahmed? He drove a deathtrap. He drove it recklessly. He wasn’t a stickler for honesty.

“Lunch. I want koshary.”

“Ah, yes. I show you the absolute best place.”

“Well, I have recommendations. Here — ” I reached for the list in my pocket.

“No, no. I will show you the best place in all of Cairo.”

Ahmed put his hands over his heart. I couldn’t say no.

We crawled along in his decrepit cab. Falafel stands. Bodegas. Garment shops. An old man hobbled down the center of a busy road. Carts drawn by horses and mules shuffled alongside the cars. Children played in the back of speeding trucks. People dragged goats home to slaughter. An elderly woman in the back of a jostling cart sat on a throne of hay.

We drove through the city center toward increasingly quiet, neglected streets. Condemned buildings. Rusting cars. Stone-faced women staring down from third-floor windows. Balconies cramped with laundry, plastic buckets, mops, cracked flowerpots, stacked cases of bottled water.

There were no more storefronts, cars or people. Ahmed slowed down, pulled over, parked. I noticed an opening in what appeared to be an abandoned building. A man wearing a red fez and a thick mustache stared at us from a makeshift plywood cubicle.

“My brother-in-law, Mahmoud. I tell you, the best koshary in all Egypt. Believe me.”

I had no reason to, but I was hungry. Ahmed spoke to Mahmoud as I approached.

“I ordered for you.” Ahmed smiled, threw an arm around my shoulder. “You will love it. I promise.”

“I could use some coffee.”

“Later, inshallah. Mahmoud has only koshary.”

I peeked into the dilapidated shack. Plywood counter. Battery-operated lantern. Portable stove with one burner. A large, tarnished cauldron. Upturned wooden crate for a chair. Metal bin of napkins and sporks. I didn’t see a water source, soap, a certificate from the board of health. Hep A? Hep B? I was concerned about a wide range of alphabetical maladies.

I’d been waiting for months to try koshary. My Egyptian friends had warned me about the inferior versions sold in Dubai. Awful. Wait until you are in Egypt. And don’t take it from a restaurant. The street — that’s where you find the real thing. What I was about to eat apparently would be, if nothing else, very real.

Mahmoud handed me a plastic foam container the size of a combat boot. Crispy fried onions roosted on top, but the first thing that hit me was the fragrance of jasmine and cardamom. Koshary is an unmixed bag — it’s served in layers that you have to stir yourself. This one had lentils, tomato, vinegar, olive oil, macaroni, sweet caramelized onions, rice, hot sauce, chickpeas, garlic, pepper, cumin, cloves, paprika, coriander, cinnamon and nutmeg. Protein, carbs, vegetables, spices. Acidic, sweet, oily, crunchy, soft. All of it working so well together. The ultimate comfort food. Shoveled into my mouth with a spork, Mahmoud’s koshary was one of the best things I’d ever eaten. It still is.

“Sukran,” I said, thanking Mahmoud for the meal. I paid him the equivalent of $1.50.

“Afwan.” Most welcome.

Every koshary I’ve eaten since that day has been overpriced and disappointing.

Sure, visit the Sphinx, the pyramids, ride a felucca on the Nile. Watch belly-dancing and buy a papyrus scroll. But the true wonder of Egypt is Cairo’s street food. Look for a restaurant with no menu, no seats, no sign. Wander through a deserted neighborhood and find a place with no name.

Madigan is a freelance writer based in Virginia.

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