Korean culture has made a noticeable buzz in Cairo over the last few years, with particular attention to its food scene. Culturally driven food connoisseurs are oftentimes finding themselves wandering into Korean restaurants, curious to try something new.
Korean restaurants have been around in Egypt for a while now, more particularly found in culturally diverse areas like Maadi and Zamalek. They are often small and hidden, but when you step inside, it is a whole other world.
Egypt and Korea have been connected for years, with celebrations like ‘Korean Culture Week’ and Korean culture catapulting young Egyptians to study the language at universities. The culture’s list of admirers grew even more in Egypt with the film ‘Parasite’ winning the Best Picture Academy Award in 2019, shifting attention to Korean film and media beyond the diehard K-Pop and K-Drama fans that preceded the wave. The spotlight hit Korean showbusiness again when the popular boyband BTS performed in the 2021 Grammys and when the hit show ‘Squid Game’ aired on Netflix in 2021.
In 2020, Egypt had the fastest growth rate in terms of consumption of Korean music, which garnered 33 percent of the streams on Spotify.
With interest in K-Pop and K-Drama recently peaking, fans grew curious to try the food they recognized from that media, such as ‘Tteok-bokki,’ Korean rice cakes often eaten as a snack, and Kimbap, similar to sushi rolls. With this in mind, many fans started visiting the various food outlets that had been there for years, rendering them more popular.
In Cairo, if it is authentic international food one is looking for, then Maadi or Zamalek are usually the places to go. This holds true for most of the Korean food and barbecue hotspots in the city.
Perhaps the most coveted spot for Korean food in Cairo would be Gaya, a Korean barbecue spot deep in Maadi, on Street 231. The atmosphere is true to the culture, with their main attraction being the round family-style table with a grill that sits right in the middle.
When it comes to their food, Gaya serves everything from ‘Tteok-bokki’, to several cuts of meat for the grill, to black bean noodles. When walking into Gaya, one can find curious Egyptians seeking a culinary adventure, foreigners, and expats, as well as a Korean staff who are very helpful when it comes to picking dishes.
Just like Gaya, Tomato Korean BBQ is an excellent place to go for an authentic meal. Their ‘Jigae’ – Korean stew with protein, noodles, and a broth flavored with red Korean chili paste ‘Gochujang’ – is beloved by many Korean food buffs around Cairo.
They serve a variety of meats like brisket and steak, which patrons can grill themselves, and enjoy with a variety of side dishes like cucumber salad, potato salad, kimchi – which is a popular fermented cabbage dish -, and lettuce leaves used like bread to accompany the meat and sides.
Nearby in Degla is ‘Kokio’: a fried chicken spot that serves authentic Korean fried chicken with an array of sauces: creamy, honey, soy sauce, and spicy. They also serve ‘Tteok-bokki’ and fried potatoes along with seaweed and Kimbap.
Kokio is well known for its rooster alarm that rings when the order is ready and its walls adorned with pictures of previous visitors, with heartfelt messages of their experiences there.
If dinner and Zamalek sound like a better combination, then Hanna barbeque is also a recommended place. This hole-in-the-wall joint is a hidden gem in the middle of Zamalek, right across the Picasso art gallery.
The restaurant, while small and dimly lit, offers an enjoyable experience for all of the senses, whether it be the music, the décor, or the food.
Another hidden gem is the Korean café ‘Namuen’, also known as ‘the Namu’, in Heliopolis, which doubles as a cultural center. It is the place for all visual learners to educate themselves while enjoying an authentic Korean meal, coffee, or dessert. It is also ideal for anyone who works remotely to sit, enjoy a different atmosphere and concentrate on their work.
As Korean culture continues to become a big part of modern Egyptian fascination, the Korean food scene continues to prosper in Egypt, whether it be hole-in-the-wall spots or pop-up restaurants.