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Can Cairo street eats be the next global foodie phenomenon?

By Leone Lakhani, for CNN
updated 10:51 PM EST, Sun January 12, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • For many residents of Cairo, the best food is street food
  • It is not about style; it means to be quick, cheap and filling
  • Zooba cafe in Cairo turns street food into fine dining

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(CNN) -- In Egypt, the words "street food" and "gourmet" don't often go hand in hand.

Street food is not about style; it's meant to be quick, cheap and filling. However Chris Khalifa, a 30-year-old owner of Zooba cafe in Cairo, has tried to change that.

He saw a trend elsewhere in the world: chefs hit the streets and serve dishes out of food trucks.

"I noticed no one had ever tried to do this with Egyptian street food," said Khalifa. "I try to create a brand around a more gourmet Egyptian street food."

But instead bringing gourmet food to the street, Zooba turns street food into fine dining. Located in Cairo's upmarket Zamalek neighborhood, the cafe serves classic street fare like koshari and falafel with a new twist.

The dishes, like spinach-infused "baladi" bread or sweet potatoes roasted with a blowtorch, are prepared by professionally trained chefs, using top-quality ingredients.

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Khalifa's business partner, Moustafa El Rafaey, handles the creative side of running the restaurant. Trained at a culinary arts program in the United States, he initially found cooking Egyptian cuisine was quite daunting -- and foreign.

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"I was scared to be honest," said El Rafaey. "I had (a) good international background. To leave all this to cook... Egyptian food was a bit scary for me."

I put smiles on people's faces with my food
Moustafa Elrafaey

To develop the restaurant's menu, El Rafaey traveled across Egypt. He mastered local recipes, tried new flavors and searched for best ingredients. He relishes his experience, saying that preparing food is like creating an artwork.

"Anything that puts a smile on your face is an art. When you watch a good dance or listen to a good music that makes your smile," Elrafaey says. "And I put smiles on people's faces with my food."

"When we started, I honestly had no idea how people would respond to a gourmet 'ful,' 'tameya' or 'koshari,'" said Khalifa, who quit his banking job to start the restaurant. "The response has been good, people have been coming in."

Business is so good that they are thinking to expand, opening a second and a third branch of Zooba in Cairo. And perhaps one day, in Dubai or even London -- which means taking Egyptian street food to the world.

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