One school of thought on liver holds that it should never be cooked so long that the interior loses all its rosy pink color and fades to dull brown. This view is not likely to be shared by anyone who has eaten kebda Eskandarany, the beef-liver sandwich that has spread from its native Alexandria to souks, street vendors and takeout joints throughout Egypt.
The liver is sliced about as thick as a lasagna noodle before it is blitzed with spices and sautéed. When it leaves the pan it has no pink interior. It has no interior at all, just a front side and a back side, both roughly upholstered in minced garlic, ground chiles, pepper and other spices under a sheen of hot oil. At this point, the liver is stuffed into a slit made in a soft, pale loaf of aish fino, whose fluffy tenderness is somewhere between an Amoroso’s cheese-steak roll and a hot dog bun.
The usual complaints about well-done liver are that it tastes dry and livery. A creamy stripe of tahini takes care of the first charge. As to the second, fresh green chiles and everything else about the sandwich conspire to change livery from an insult to a profound compliment. Egypt imports most of the beef liver raised in the United States, buying more than 100 million pounds a year. Eating an Alexandrian liver sandwich, you begin to understand why.
More of that liver might get eaten in the United States if every American city had a Foda Egyptian Sandwiches cart. As it is, there is only one, which sets up in Astoria, Queens, every day but Wednesday. It operates just off the stretch of Steinway Street populated with hookah cafes and grocery stores.
The care that goes into Foda’s liver sandwich would be obvious even if you didn’t know that the cart’s owner and chef, Ahmed Foda, bakes the fino loaves each morning before he tows his cart to its regular sidewalk spot. You would see it in the limes and lemons Mr. Foda keeps around to squeeze over the liver, and the little plastic bag of pickled vegetables, perfumed with preserved lemon, he hands you to crunch on.
Other tricks are tucked away in bins and drawers of Mr. Foda’s cart. One is a lightly tart pale-green juice with fragments of herbs and minced vegetables swishing around in it. The menu on the cart’s outside wall calls this “spicy Egyptian salad juice” or, alternatively, “halal whiskey.” You’re meant to sip it from its plastic condiment cup between bites of hawawshi, a staple of Cairene street life that is either a griddled sandwich or a baked meat pie, depending on who makes it.
Foda’s hawawshi is in the sandwich camp, enclosed by a split disk of flatbread that resembles pita until you bite down and it turns out to have the loud, satisfying crunch of a toasted English muffin. Inside is a squashed patty of ground beef spiced in the same vein as kofta. Foda’s beef can be on the leaner side, but extra juiciness is obtained by ordering the hawawshi with broiled cheese on the top. When you eat it, the swigs of halal whiskey function something like the dill pickle on a cheeseburger, but in liquid form.
Foda is not a cart for people in a hurry to eat. Each time I go, whether there is a line of customers or I am the only one, Mr. Foda takes my order and tells me it will be ready in 20 minutes. “I make everything fresh,” he says.
Not quite everything. Ful medames is cooked ahead to give the favas time to soften and collapse into a creamy spread with a seemingly unlimited capacity to drink up olive oil. So is the mix for Foda’s tameeya, made from favas but spiced like falafel. Later, while you wait, it is shaped into flat wheels and fried. It comes out of the oil speckled with sesame seeds that look like sprinkles on a very small cake.
The dish that seems to take longest to prepare, the one responsible for my 20-minute wait times, is koshary, and yet I cannot imagine being in such a rush that I did not have time for Foda’s koshary. Layered over a soft bed of lentils and rice are broken spaghetti strands and short pasta tubes, freshly boiled so they stay firm and don’t clump together. Over this go chickpeas boiled with garlic and finally, a thatch of golden fried onions.
Mr. Foda supplies plastic cups of what he calls garlic sauce — the garlic-infused chickpea water — together with a concentrated, spicy, cumin-scented tomato sauce and a rust-colored oil cooked with ground spices. The rest you do yourself, adding condiments at will and churning the whole mass together.
You can supplement the koshary with fried liver or skinny sections of porphyry-colored, mildly spiced beef sausage. If you eat the whole bowl of starches and legumes on its own, though, there is still a good chance you won’t be hungry again for a considerable time.
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