Ancient Flavors

Our Latest Obsession: Egyptian Cuisine at Dandanah Café & Grill

Eat like an Egyptian at Houston's only purveyor of molokhia and feteera.

By Alice Levitt April 14, 2016

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Molokhia with half chicken, $14.95.

Image: Alice Levitt

For most Americans, the word "Egypt" likely conjures two sets of images. First, there are pyramids, mummies and hieroglyphics. Then, there's today's reality of military dictatorship and terrorist attacks. But both the ancients whose faces we see beneath glass in their sarcophagi and our contemporaries are unified by food. In Houston, Galleria-area Dandanah Café & Grill, a hookah bar and brick oven restaurant, is the only place we've found to taste the fusion of ancient and modern history.

Service is inattentive at best (we had to find our waitress and alert her whenever we needed anything and even then, it didn't always happen), and the air inside and outside on the patio can be thick with fruit-flavored shisha, but both are worth braving for the food I tried. It was an effort to choose what to order, though much of the menu is given over to broadly Middle Eastern dishes such as falafel and shawarma.

Yet even focusing on Egyptian fare, there were far too many choices to get a broad view in one visit. I skipped the foule mudammes (stewed fava beans), the hawawshy meat pies and the okra stew with lamb, among others, to make room for what I did try.

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Koshary, $7.95.

Image: Alice Levitt

Koshary, for example. It's a vegan dish that originated in the 19th century as a way to use up leftovers, so King Tut definitely never tried it. But the feeble boy king would have wished he had—his poorly formed teeth would have had no trouble with the soft, but texturally diverse combination of rice, lentils, chickpeas and elbow macaroni covered in fried onions. It may sound like baby food, but the lightly spiced, garlicky tomato sauce that dresses it and is served on the side, gives it a sophisticated edge that makes it difficult to put down, carb coma be damned.

Tutankhamun, did, however, very likely eat more than his share of molokhia, or stewed mallow leaves (see photo at top). Personally, I'll leave the thin, bland stew, accurately described in Mimi Sheraton's 1,000 Food to Eat Before You Die as "mucilaginous," to the ancients. I can't fault that gooeyness entirely—the plant's root is responsible for another ancient Egyptian recipe: marshmallows. 

The chicken that accompanied it, though, was a different—and far more flavorful—matter. Even beneath the skin, it was dyed red with a garlicky, heavily vinegared marinade. A bottle of house "Dandanah sauce" on the side was flecked with chiles and added some heat to the pile of rice pilaf and pickles that came with the dish.

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Sweet feteerah, $10.95.

Image: Alice Levitt

But the mixed successes of the entrées was quickly overshadowed by the splendor of dessert. A brick oven provides Dandanah with both a literal and spiritual hearth from which many of the restaurant's dishes emerge. But the section on the menu worth noting is labeled "King Tut Pizza." That means feteer or feteera, a flaky pastry that some historians claim may have inspired the croissant. It certainly made its way to the island of Malta, where the pies blended with pizza to become flaky, stretchy ftira.

Dandanah serves both sweet and savory versions, and I'll be back to try the pasterma version. But I'll also order the sweet feteera again. The buttery dessert is filled with a thin layer of custard that gives the center a pleasant squoosh with each bite. Almonds and coconut provide texture and nutty flavor, while a dusting of powdered sugar is just sparse enough to sweeten the combination without becoming saccharine. 

It's a dish that's inspired others around the world, but feteera is worth trying, trying again and obsessing over in its purest form. As a dessert, I think its time has come. I'm calling for bakers to repopularize it as in the recent vogue for the Breton kouign amann. Feteera is ready for its sweet moment. 

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