Egypt takes a liking to Chinese food
For those who think Peking (former name of Beijing) is in China, coming to Egypt would be an eye-opener. There's a Peking in the upmarket Mohandeseen District of Giza, the city that harbors some of the greatest pyramids of Egypt; a second one in the Zamalek District of Greater Cairo frequented by expats, another one in Heliopolis and seven more.
These are all branches of a venerable Chinese restaurant opened in 1962 by Yan Khu Yeh, a wayfarer from east China's Shandong Province, home of the renowned philosopher Confucius. Yan came to Cairo in the early 1960s.
Peking, opened in downtown Cairo, could well be the first Chinese restaurant in Egypt. Yan faced several challenges when he decided to open a Chinese restaurant in Cairo. "In a country like Egypt, it's not easy to persuade people to try and accept international cuisines," his son said. Besides, there were administrative problems like maintaining accounts and the restaurant was about to close. Yan turned to his son, Yan Ruixiang, to save the venture.
A new plot
Yan Ruixiang was in a quandary. Originally a student of medicine, he had already changed his career plan once, deciding to make films instead. He had also made his first film in Arabic, Waad Wa Maktoub, but, he decided to come to his father's aid.
"It was an unpalatable thought that a family project would bomb," he said. "So I changed my career to save the restaurant and embarked on a new dream to build a chain of restaurants. Chinese cuisine became my fate."
His new fate has served him very well. Besides owning a chain of 10 restaurants, he has also earned a reputation. "The Egyptians call me the Chinese cuisine ambassador and anyone wanting to open a Chinese restaurant comes to me for knowhow," Yan Ruixiang said.
He succeeded where his father failed because he says he adapted his dishes to Egyptian taste. "We changed the sauces and other ingredients," Yan
Ruixiang explained his recipe for success. "Take vinegar, for example. Egyptians don't like black vinegar, so we use apple vinegar. Tofu is another example. The locals here want it fried with vegetables, not with dry sauce like in China."
As he began building his Chinese cuisine empire, Yan Ruixiang started bringing over Chinese chefs to Egypt and they trained the Egyptians chefs.
When ChinAfrica visited the Peking branch in Cairo, the customers bared their hearts. Marlette Pablo, a 26-year-old Colombian teaching English at a British School in Sixth of October City in Egypt, said she had found that the best Chinese food adapted itself to the local taste in every country where it was introduced. "I like it everywhere," she said. "Whatever the change, the soul remains the same and the dishes are always delicious."
Jon Albert, a 28-year-old American pharmacist who lives in Alexandria City in northern Egypt, was tucking into his chop suey with relish. "The first time I tried Chinese food was in the United States more than 10 years ago," Albert said. "I liked it so much that I began to eat Chinese food regularly. I would eat it at least once a month."
Eating with Albert was his Egyptian friend Mohammed Hosam, a 27-year-old engineer. "Chinese food is distinctive and above all, healthy. My favorite dish is sweet and sour chicken," Hosam added.
Aya Omar, a 21-year-old Egyptian studying business at the German University in Cairo, has a fetish about Kung Pao Chicken, a sweet-spicy dish from Sichuan Province famous for its hot dishes, where the chicken is accompanied by mounds of peanuts and chili pepper. "I eat it every Thursday to forget the pressures of the week since the weekend starts on Friday," she said. "I intend to travel to China to learn Chinese cuisine at its place of origin."
Sherin Tarek, a 20-year-old Egyptian studying economics at the American University in Cairo, said besides eating Chinese food and liking it, she has also been reading a lot about China. "China is developing fast," she said, "especially in education and industry."
Wooing two markets
In Egypt, there are two kinds of Chinese cuisine: the restaurants in popular hotels and high-end neighborhoods and the stalls in popular shopping malls where Chinese food is sold as affordable fast food. Chinese fast food joints like Panda House and Canton are popular chains, giving KFC and McDonald's a run for their money in malls like the Mall of Arabia, Citystars and Festival City Mall.
While Panda House originated from China, then went to the United States and also came to Egypt, Canton belongs to a Saudi Arabian company. Both have a lot of customers and as a result of their success, have begun to expand into many commercial centers. However, they don't have Chinese chefs.
Yan Ruixiang said Chinese cuisine is unique with a long history. "It varies from north to south and from east to west. We care about details like color, smell and texture. All meals must be fresh, light and healthy," Yan Ruixiang explained. "Chinese cuisine is unique in its ability to maintain important nutrients in food during cooking, and this is in line with the current global trend of following healthy eating habits with a close connection to nature."
Mahmoud Kedr is a 50-year-old Egyptian chef at the Sheikh Zayed City branch of Peking. "I have been working here for more than 25 years," he said. "The majority of our customers are people between 20 and 40 with women outnumbering men. Nearly 80 percent of our patrons are Egyptians and the rest expats and tourists."
Kedr pointed out how Chinese food is suitable for different palates: "You can eat it grilled, fried or boiled. Some like the smoked dishes and some the steamed ones. The dishes can be hot or cold with a variety of sauces."
He noted that a Chinese chef comes from China every six months to teach the Egyptian chefs the latest food trends. Also, sometimes the Egyptian chefs travel to China. Besides, every six months there is an in-house contest among the chefs. The winner's dish is introduced in a special menu and if the customers like it, it is added in the principal menu. The 10 Peking restaurants have over 500 employees altogether, most of whom have been with the restaurant for nearly 25 years.
Yan Ruixiang is involved in several cultural and tourism associations that have been working to enhance Egypt-China ties. He said he has had occasional thoughts of returning to China. "But I am still in love with Africa," he said wistfully. "Also, now with China moving closer toward Africa through the Belt and Road Initiative, there is a lot that China can do with Egypt. So staying in Egypt will be good."
Yan Ruixiang has one wish for his business. Perhaps Chinese cuisine will be a good bridge between Egypt and China one day. And if that happens, his restaurants would have a role in it.