“You brought Egypt to Vegas! This Koshary took me years back home,” expresses one Egyptian customer during their visit to the only Egyptian restaurant in Las Vegas, USA.
When living abroad, homeland is usually found indoors; it is found in the stories and shared memories retold by your parents, the old family photographs, the films and the music, and most importantly – the food. Yet more and more Egyptian entrepreneurs are bringing their homelands to the outdoor streets of the world, allowing Egypt to be seen beyond stereotypical images and films of Ancient Pharaohs, but is represented and redefined through their passions and ideas that they share.
Inspired by Egyptian street food restaurant Zööba, POTs brings the raw, authentic and evolved heart of Egypt all the way to Las Vegas. Making it in Yelp’s Top 50 Places to Eat in Las Vegas list, the place is more than just a restaurant, but a women-owned initiative that not only provides essential support for minorities, but equally centers and amplifies their voices in the fight against racism and appropriation.
“The grit and the isolation makes you want to prove that you can do it to yourself before anybody, and that you want to feel heard,” Iman Haggag, co-founder of POTs, tells Egyptian Streets
“We wanted to represent all parts of Egypt: the good, the bad, the beauty, the kindness, and we make sure to mix the modern with the old, representing the new Egyptian millennial and that we are not just pharaohs and old and coffins and mummies, this is only one aspect of being Egyptian,” continues Haggag, who founded the restaurant with her sister Ayat Khalil.
“I can be a woman, a hijabi, hip and funny, and I can also talk about veganism and politics and religion with an open mind.”
Authenticity, love and passion
POTs is a story of authenticity, love, and passion. After graduating with degrees in business administration and accounting in Cairo, Haggag traveled to the United States in 2006 for “a new search”, which helped spark her relationship with her now African American husband and her new love for food.
“I didn’t know how to cook because I never cooked in my life, and American culture is more about fast food, which was something I was not used to, and so I started cooking and regularly contacting my Mama (mother) to help me in cooking,” she says, “it was very difficult in the beginning, but then slowly I ventured out into Italian, French and Asian cuisine, and all of this got me really interested into cooking.”
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From love to finding her passion, Haggag’s knowledge of cooking stems from her authentic understanding of food that comes from her senses, experimental cooking and reading. To feed her curiosity, she took herself on a trip and traveled all over Europe, Asia and the Middle East to try different foods in their true origin. “If I want to eat or cook pizza, I wanted to compare my pizza to the real pizza that is made in Europe to get a idea of the true authentic ingredients and tastes. It was a marvelous and very meaningful journey for me,” Haggag says.
It was in 2016 that POTs was truly brought to life, after Haggag’s sister, Ayat Khalil, pushed for the idea that they need to find a way to turn their passions into something bigger. “We took the pot as our symbol and we have it all over the restaurant, because it represents Egypt’s street food, and every pot has a story to tell. And this is how POTs came about: it would be focused on Egyptian vegan, as most of our food is vegan by nature and we saw the opportunity to put the spotlight on it,” she says.
To offset the challenges of opening up a business as a minority living abroad, Haggag recognized early on that true success is not simply about calculated marketing, but about targeting the right community and having the right message. “A lot of people told us this isn’t going to happen and succeed, and that you won’t sell anything that doesn’t include meat. People come for kebabs and falafel, they said, and I was like no, if you target the right community, they will come and they will get the message,” Haggag says, “and that’s our marketing, because people talk about you, and 90% of the time it is word of mouth. We didn’t ask anyone to make a review or push us on social media, its more of genuine people who came and ate and shared their experiences.”
Reclaiming power over our identity and culture
In the face of Israeli attempts to forge history by appropriating Mediterranean cuisine and culture, Haggag asserts that owners of restaurants abroad have a duty to represent true Egyptian and Mediterranean cuisine and raise more awareness of our identity.
“One of the major things that got to my head is why our food has suddenly became ‘Israeli cuisine’ in every aspect, and the only reason for that is that they knew how to market and elevate the little things that we take for granted,” Haggag says, “they look at our food in amazement when it comes from Israeli hands or Israeli restaurants, but when it comes from us, it is not the same reaction,” Haggag tells Egyptian Streets.
To raise awareness about Egyptian cuisine, POTs’ staff guides their customers through their experience and ensure that they take care of every guest. Outside, a line of people from different nationalities wait to order, “we made the Americans wait in line and say its Molokheya too,” Haggag laughs.
For her, POTs also served as a means to connect and learn about other Egyptians’ stories and experiences across the world – a shared space for Egyptians to reclaim their identity and culture. “There are so many success stories that I didn’t even know existed before I opened POTs. I met this man once who told me of his past and how had a construction company in China in the 80s, and that he was one of the main contractors to build one of the largest airports and ports and bridges,” she says, “there are so many success stories that we don’t know of, and it’s absolutely crazy.”
Being Egyptian today is more than just a symbol of a nation, but also a symbol of a future of an evolving and diverse culture that encompasses many different voices. “For any new generation, I want to say keep embedding value and tradition and understanding of what Egypt really means through history and through your eyes. Yes, sometimes it gets rough, but there is something so profound, and pure and beautiful, in being Egyptian,” she says.
“You’re not just the Pharaoh, but you are the Coptic, the Muslim, the Suez Canal, and Cairokee, and all of these things.”