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Bellies En Route: Egypt’s First Food Tour Company Takes on Heliopolis

July 4, 2021
Dynamite Sandwiches. Photo credit: Mona Bassel
Dynamite sandwiches. Photo credit: Mona Bassel

“This is one of the few places that actually curate the sandwich instead of throwing all the ingredients into the bread randomly,” Laila Hassaballa says as she invites us to try the ‘Dynamite Sandwich.’ Filled to the brim with hard boiled eggs, fried eggplant, french fries, green salad, mashed fuul, and ta’meyya (also known as ‘falafel’), my companions and I struggled to keep the ingredients from falling out.

Hassaballa explains that not all Dynamite Sandwiches are created equal: “They mash the fuul in a way that gives the fillings a creamy texture, and it’s the best thing to order at a fuul and ta’meyya place when you don’t know what to order.”

After that first bite, I was immediately upset that it’s taken me 29 years of living in Cairo to get my hands on this concoction. Better late than never.

This was only the first stop of the ‘Bellies En Route’ Heliopolis food tour, and we were off to a wonderful start.

Egypt’s First Food Tour Company

Hassaballa is the co-founder of Bellies En Route, Egypt’s first food tour company, along with her partner Mariam Nezar. Originally graphic designers, the two women created the company after discovering their passion for introducing people to Egyptian culture through its cuisine in 2016.

“Egyptian food is underrated, so we wanted to use food as a medium to introduce our cuisine to people from all over the world,” Hassaballa explains.

The duo began by offering food tours in Downtown Cairo through TripAdvisor, where tourists would sample Egyptian cuisine at authentic local eateries over the course of four to five hours.

Nezar and Hassaballa. Photo credit: Mahmoud Seddawy

What originally started as a side project alongside their day jobs took on a life of its own two years later when the company was featured on The Independent and the two women began receiving more and more food tour requests. “Instead of getting three to four tour requests per week, we started getting three to four per day,” she explains. To date, Bellies En Route has served individuals of 50 different nationalities, including tourists from the United States, Australia, India, and Kenya.

In order to offer tourists a second product to complement the seven-stop Downtown food tour, the two women launched the six-stop Heliopolis food tour titled ‘Our Favorite Neighborhood Eats’ in early 2020. When asked how they knew which eateries to include in the tour, Hassaballa explains that they frequented them all multiple times to verify cleanliness, quality, and consistency.

Tourists enjoying authentic Egyptian food at the Downtown food tour. Photo credit: Bellies En Route

“The Heliopolis tour is meant to be a continuation of the Downtown tour,” Hassaballa explains, adding that both tours feature different dishes. While the Downtown tour offers Koshari, for example, the Heliopolis one does not; it instead focuses on Egyptian dishes offered “with a twist,” such as the case of the overflowing Dynamite Sandwich.

The ‘Our Favorite Neighborhood Eats’ Tour

As we happily finish off our Dynamite Sandwiches, Hassaballa tells us to pace ourselves so we can continue sampling the rest of the delicacies the tour has to offer. “Don’t worry about any leftovers; we pack them up and give them to needy people to reduce food waste,” she explains.

As promised, we watch the shop owner neatly pack the leftovers and hand them to Hassaballa, and they soon find their way into the hands of someone who would enjoy them.

On our way to the next stop for fried shrimp sandwiches, Hassaballa tells us more about the history of Heliopolis and little-known facts about its origin as a district, such as how the unique architecture of each balcony in Korba is influenced by its exposure to the sun and how one street filled with jewelry shops is known as a destination for future brides.

We reach a seafood shop so small and modest-looking that a non-foodie would not likely give it a second glance. Upon seeing Hassaballa, the staff’s faces light up and they welcome us warmly. A few short minutes later, the smell of freshly fried ‘green shrimp,’ as it’s known in fish markets, begins wafting through the air.

Fried shrimp sandwiches. Photo credit: Mona Bassel

Fried to golden perfection and topped with tahini in soft baladi bread, we each bite into our sandwiches and immediately understand why Hassaballa had proclaimed it as the best shrimp she’d ever had a few minutes earlier.

“Are you ready for konafa-stuffed feteer?” she asks us with a smile just as we’re finishing our sandwiches, and we excitedly make our way to the next stop to continue our day of food exploration.

Watching our cheese feteer being made. Photo credit: Mona Bassel

Even though the company’s food tours target visitors rather than residents like myself, exploring these hidden gems with an expert is an eye-opening experience that shows how much Egypt’s local eateries have to offer, and I remind myself to never again judge a book by its cover.

We enjoyed cheese feteer and konafa feteer with tea at a local coffee shop (ahwa). Photo credit: Mona Bassel

Navigating the Challenges of the Pandemic

When the pandemic first hit, the tourism sector in Egypt was hit the hardest due to the lack of air travel. As a startup, Hassaballa and Nezar knew they had to improvise and adapt to avoid putting their business at risk.

“The first month or two were very confusing; we were trying to find solutions but didn’t know how long Covid was going to last,” Hassaballa explains.

However, Hassaballa and Nezar didn’t allow the setback to dampen their spirits, which is why they spent their lockdown days gathering family recipes to create their very own Egyptian cookbook ‘Table to Table’; if the tourists couldn’t come to the food, the food could go to them.

The Table to Table cookbook features a variety of popular Egyptian dishes, from the classic vermicelli rice (roz bl sha’reyya) to the decadent basbousa dessert.

According to Hassaballa, tours began picking up again in late 2020, albeit at a slower rate compared to pre-pandemic times. To minimize health risks during the pandemic, they began implementing safety precautions in their tours, including spreading awareness among their vendors on the importance of handwashing and wearing masks, particularly when serving or handling food. Vendors are also encouraged to use disposable cutlery for the safety of customers, and the tours now offer more restroom stops to promote the importance of handwashing.

Despite the challenges they faced during the tourism drought, Hassaballa and Nezar managed to keep their business afloat and are already exploring opportunities for further growth. They are currently studying ways to tailor their products to Egyptians and will begin prototyping them in September 2021 in an effort to provide the local market with an opportunity to explore the richness their cuisine has to offer.

While this is not an advertorial, Bellies En Route is offering readers of Egyptian Streets a discount when purchasing the Table to Table cookbook using discount code egstreets.

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