El-Abd is no doubt a strong contender, but equally undeniable is the array of other top bakeries of all variety across the city. One mustn’t assume that El-Abd – the crowded, ice-cream serving bakery on Talaat Harb that has become a mainstay of Cairo’s citizens shopping or running errands downtown – is the only one in town.
Within blocks of Tahrir square, you can find the epitome of both extremes on the spectrum of Cairo patisseries. In fact, these easily accessible spots are closer to Tahrir and – this may come as a surprise to some El-Abd devotees – are many years its senior.
A three-minute walk up Talaat Harb and you will pass Crystal patisserie without noticing because the shawerma stand outside threw you off. But inside you enter a child’s heaven – or anyone that has a thing for fresh out of the oven goods.
Preparing for a picnic lunch might be your best excuse to shop at this expansive shop. Gather a collection of pizzas and hard bread, and a variety of their breadsticks too – the bakery prides itself on its breadstuff offerings that are unique to such establishments in the neighborhood (yes, El-Abd is only several blocks down).
Now for dessert. The wall of dry cookies is appealing, offering a plethora of the traditional Egyptian biscuits and butter cookies, all pleasantly not too sweet, nor too salty. Across the narrow store space are trays of chocolate covered delicacies. Those too are tempting.
To Americanize your meal, donuts are a good option, but the bakery’s apple pie certainly stands out.
Indeed, the limited selection of oriental sweets reflects a Westernized focus that this bakery has developed since its opening in 1897 at the same location (El-Abd opened in 1976, but don’t worry, that will be the last comparison).
Bought in 1920, Crystal Bakery has been in the Magdy family ever since.
Today, Chef Hany Mohamed runs a staff of 15 in the small factory behind the store that provides for the outlet and restaurants in the neighborhood. A walk-in oven spews out the aroma of the evening’s cookies, the pizza oven offers tomato color to the dough-colored world and bread machines are the first to taste the bread chef’s art.
Over at Etman Bakery, a more casual scene unfolds. A mother glances into the shop from the back, wiping the flour off her hands as her son works the rumbling bread baker.
Across the street from the old American University in Cairo’s Greek campus, three blocks down Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Etman sits in stark contrast to the Costa Coffee down the street or Crystal bakery, a 15-minute walk across Tahrir Square.
A more traditional quality to this establishment is immediately evident. The exploring visitor slowly eyeing the sweets is replaced by the local passing through for bread and dessert for dinner, while the hungry AUC students from days of yore may still make an appearance.
At Etman, variety is passed over for quantity, but quality remains intact. Piles of biscuits, cookies and other baked goods sit at the front, overflowing out of the trays. The macaroons filling a tray under a plastic cover are as undecorated as they are delicious. Don’t go looking for the star shaped, jelly-interior, white chocolate-covered cookies that you might have found at Crystal, but instead fill a bag with cheese pastries, Egyptian crackers or butter cookies.
Yassif Etman sits at the ancient cash register reading his newspaper. You must convey the price you were given by the woman at the counter – in a loud fashion to get his attention – but he is happy to assist, and then return to his paper.
He has been at the bakery for only five of its static 55-year existence. But he reflects the simple ideals of a neighborhood Cairo bakery. Is there a specialty? “No, no, he says. “It’s all good.