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Etiquette

Egyptians are incredibly sociable on the whole and fantastic hosts. In fact, in order to survive an invitation to eat in an Egyptian house, you need to keep in mind a couple of vital self-defense tips.

First, it's your host's duty to see that you're well-fed, and well-fed people do not leave an empty plate in front of them. It is fatal, therefore, to try to do as you were told as a child and clean your plate. However much you protest, it will be filled again. Rule number one: When you don't want any more food, leave your plate half-full and push it away. Rule number two, then, is only eat half the food on your plate -- make a space and refill it. This allows you to control the supply.

Egyptians tend not to drink while they eat, but they'll often finish off with something sweet, like a soft drink. If you need to wash down your food, you may well have to alert your host. Don't be afraid to ask. Guests who ask will receive, and receive copiously.

Being on time isn't very important. In fact, showing up at least 15 minutes after the appointed time is expected. Be sensitive to the fact, however, that because you're a foreigner, an effort will probably be made to start at the appointed time. Double-guessing like this is inevitable and causes great confusion and hilarity.

Showing up with a gift is important. Flowers are perfect, chocolates are great, and even a bottle of wine is fine, but only if you're visiting a Christian household.

Food

Egypt's best-known foods are drawn from a peasant menu, a heavy carbohydrate diet emphasizing economical but tasty and filling ingredients such as beans, pasta, and rice. Even wealthy Egyptian families, while eating meat dishes, will serve some of these with most meals.

Koshari, a distinctly Cairene specialty, is typical: a pile of rice and macaroni topped with lentils and garnished with hot sauce and fried onions. A big bowl of this will keep you going all day long. Every truly Egyptian breakfast, meanwhile, includes a bowl of simmered fava beans. Known as fuul, these come cooked in a variety of ways, including spicy Alexandrian and the blander Cairene, but they should always be accompanied by fresh-baked loafs of flat aish baladi bread. Molakheya, unlike the generally well-liked koshari or fuul dishes, is an acquired taste. A green, gluey, soup-like dish made of Jew's mallow, it is usually served with rabbit or chicken and a side of rice. If you're lucky enough to be in Egypt in the spring around the time of Shem el Nessim, you may find yourself invited to try fessikh, a cured fish dish made of raw-but-aged salt mullet. Prepared correctly, it is palatable. Prepared incorrectly, however, it is dangerously poisonous and can be fatal. There's no way to test it other than trial and error. On a happier note, be sure to try hamaam (pigeon) or the somewhat meatier samaan (quail); they're delicious grilled and sprinkled with fresh lime, the same way they've been eaten since the time of the Pharaohs.

Um Ali, a flavorful mix of pastry, cream, coconut, raisins, and nuts, is the best-known Egyptian dessert. The origins of the name are subject to much friendly dispute. My favorites include an Irish nurse named O'Malley who, allegedly a mistress of Khedive Ismael, cooked him an Egyptian bread pudding.

Drinks

Inevitably, you'll find yourself invited for a cup of tea or coffee in Egypt. Basic courtesy demands it from anyone who sits down with you, not to mention shopkeepers and businesspeople at meetings. You may well be served before or after meals.

Coffee, or ahwa, is drunk all day and all night long from little cups and is thick, black, and strong. Milk is not an option, and it comes at four main sweetness levels. No sugar at all is sada; wasat, which means "medium," will get you something moderately sweet; hellwa, which means "sweet," will get you a sweet dessert of a coffee; and zee-yada, which simply means "extra," will result in something that, for most people, is unbearably syrupy.

Tea, or shai, comes in an even greater variety. As a foreigner and a guest, you will generally be treated to shai fetla, which literally means "thread tea" but refers to the tea bag (which hangs from a thread). Shai kosheri is a rougher variant with a spoonful of loose tea at the bottom of the glass. You will be asked how many sugars you want in it. There may also be mint on offer. Tea with mint (shai bi-nana) is a popular variant, or you can have just straight mint in hot water (nana) if you want to avoid caffeine. Another good decaf option is yansoon, which is anise, or urfa, cinnamon. You are also sure at some point to be offered kirkadeh, which comes either hot or cold. This is a bright red drink made from hibiscus. It has a pleasingly tart taste when left unsweetened and is said to lower blood pressure, so don't stand up too quickly after a few glasses on a hot day.

Finally, there is the ubiquitous haga sa', which just means "something cold" and refers to cans or bottles of refrigerated soft drinks.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.