Are you looking for a mouthwatering and easy dish that makes up for a busy weekday lunch and is cooked in under half an hour? Then you need to try Egypt’s top local food and almost everybody’s favourite: Hawawshy.
Made with fresh beef, loaded with savoury flavours, and served with the special Egyptian tahini sauce and pickled vegetables, Hawawshy will satisfy your cravings, boost your happiness level, and I’d say even give you a fresh, new lens to view the beauties of the world around.
Now you must be asking: why is this Hawawshy so special anyway?
Why is Hawawshy so special?
Hawawshy is in fact a proper noun believed to refer to a butcher named Ahmed al-Hawawshy who lived in Cairo in the early 1970s. One day, the butcher decided, out of nowhere, to combine the top two opposites of Egyptian cuisines: bread and beef, resulting in one of the most delicious and popular local foods that have honoured his name for generations.
The thing about Hawawshy is that it gives the local people, most especially the indigents, access to something that is otherwise mostly unavailable: beef.
Egyptian bread is consumed for breakfast and dinner and sometimes for lunch too. It is pretty much indispensable and therefore widely available and cheap. In fact, bread is called ‘Aish’ in Egyptian Arabic which translates to ‘living’ while the rest of Arab countries use the Fusha word “Khobz”. That is to say, Egyptians are literally living on bread!
On the other hand, beef is usually served for lunch and is associated with celebrations and family dinners. That said, beef is always expensive. During recessions, beef prices skyrocket, thus making it unaffordable for a large sector of the population, typically the middle and lower-class families. As of June 2022, for instance, one kilogram of beef costs EGP160 to EGP180. That is $8.52 to $9.58.
In addition, many people cannot even get small portions of beef. Unlike in many other countries, beef in Egypt is mostly sold in big portions of at least half a kilo. Some butchers do not even sell smaller amounts than a kilo.
So Butcher Mohamed al-Hawawshy from the 1970s did Egyptians a great favour when he invented Hawawshy. He allowed them to eat beef without having to spend a large amount of money on it. Instead, they can indulge in small, flavoured portions offered to them in baked, crunchy loaves of Egyptian bread.
Soon after, Egyptians fell in love with the new sandwich. The recipe went viral, crossed cities, and reached every corner of the country. New specialised restaurants started to open to meet the high demand for the delicious dish which, like Om Ali, was named after its inventor.
How to make Hawawshy
Hawawshy is quite simple. It is a loaf of Egyptian bread stuffed with spiced beef that is blended with a lot of minced onions. It is so quick and easy to make. No wonder it is street food.
There are, in fact, two recipes to make Hawawshy: the Cairian recipe and the Alexandrian one. The differences between both recipes include how much spices are added to the beef and the type of bread used.
In Cairo, regular whole wheat Egyptian bread is used. It is opened or sliced into halves and stuffed with beef. In restaurants, it is baked in large ovens but when made at home, it is better cooked in a pan on the stove to easily flip the bread.
While in Alexandria, Hawawshy is extra-spiced. It is made from dough stuffed with beef and then baked in the oven.
The Alexandrian Hawawshy is suitable for places where Egyptian bread is not available. The Cairian Hawawshy, on the other hand, is quicker since the bread is pre-baked as well as easier for it can be cooked without an oven.
Pro tips to make the best Hawawshy
To have the perfect Hawawshy sandwich, make sure you get minced beef with 25% to 30% of fat. While cooking, this fat melts and combines with the beef and other ingredients, giving Hawawshy a delicious, savoury, and rich taste.
In general, Hawawshy is characterised by having lots of onions, sometimes up to one kilo of onions per half a kilo of beef. That said, you can still adjust the number of onions based on your personal preference. You only need to mince the onions with a knife and not grind them. That way, Hawawshy will retain its strong onion taste.
Last but not least, Hawawshy comes in both the original version and the upgraded one. Nowadays, some people like to top the beef with shredded mozzarella. Some add grilled sausages cut into small pieces that make Hawawshy super tasty. Others like to add both with very thin tomato slices. The bottom line is: feel free to add whatever makes your eating Hawawhsy a more pleasant experience.
1. The Cairian Hawawshy
This is the original recipe that is followed in Cairo as well as most Egyptian cities. As we mentioned earlier, the Cairian Hawawshy uses regular, brown, whole wheat Egyptian bread. If that is not available, other types of pocket pita bread will do.
Here is how to make it.
- 1/2 kilo of minced beef (25% fat)
- 4 large minced onions
- 5 loaves of whole wheat Egyptian bread
- 1 bunch of parsley, finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 teaspoon of ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon of allspice
- 1 tablespoon of paprika
- 2 medium-sized diced tomatoes
- 2 minced green bell pepper
- 1 tablespoon of chilli powder
- 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
The Hawawshy recipe can be boiled down to two verbs only: mix and cook.
In a large bowl, toss the minced onions, chopped parsley, minced pepper and tomatoes along with salt, ground black pepper, paprika, chilli powder, and allspice. With your hand, stir and mix all those ingredients until they are well blended.
Now add the beef. Remember that it should be around 25% fat. Such information is usually written on the package and the beef should look a little pink instead of bright red. Add the minced beef to the bowl and blend it well with spiced onions and pepper. Take around two or three minutes stirring them so everything is evenly distributed.
Once the beef is ready, divide it into portions of 100g to 120g then turn them into balls. Let them sit in a tray covered with parchment paper for a couple of minutes.
The original recipe says bread should be half-open; yet, you can still slice it into halves. Take one ball of beef and spread it evenly inside the bread. Here you can add some shredded mozzarella on top of the beef.
Once all loaves are stuffed with beef, it is time to cook them. Brush each loaf with oil on both sides and put them in a pan set on medium-high heat. Press the sandwich with a large spatula so the melting fat spills on the pan.
Once one side of the sandwich turns a little brown, flip it to the other side and press. Repeat the process for a maximum of five minutes or until the beef is fully cooked. Pay attention not to burn the bread leaving it too long on one side. It should be golden brown on both sides and super crunchy.
Take the Hawawshy sandwiches off the heat and let them sit for a couple of minutes. Serve them hot with tahini sauce and pickles.
2. The Alexandrian Hawawshy
As we mentioned earlier, the main difference between the Cairian and Alexandrian hawawshies is that the latter is baked in the dough instead of pre-baked bread. But the beef recipe is still the same with a little more spices.
- 1 tablespoon of instant yeast
- 1 teaspoon of baking powder
- 2 tablespoons of sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt
- 1/2 cup of vegetable oil
- 4 cups of all-purpose flour (might need more)
- 1 1/2 cups of warm milk or water
- 4 tablespoons of yoghurt
- 1 tablespoon of ghee
In a large bowl, add the warm milk (or water), sugar, and yeast. Whisk them until well blended and set them aside for 10 minutes until the yeast is activated. Once the yeast is ready, add the salt and baking powder with four tablespoons of yoghurt. Using yoghurt will tenderise the dough. Just make sure it is either warm or at room temperature. Never use cold yoghurt as it will slow down the yeast. Whisk the yoghurt well with the yeasted milk.
Now it is time to add the flour. Use a wooden spoon to stir the flour and mix it with the milk and other ingredients. Then use your hands and knead the dough for a couple of minutes until it is cohesive. Feel free to add a little more flour if you feel the dough needs to.
After that, gradually pour in the oil and mix it with the dough. Knead the dough, making sure the oil is absorbed. You must not add all the oil at once; otherwise, it might not blend well with the dough.
Keep kneading until the dough turns into a soft, cohesive, and a little sticky ball. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a paper towel and set it aside in a warm place for at least 30 minutes to rise.
After the dough has risen, deflate it using your hands and push out the air inside of it. Roll the dough then cut it into 16 pieces each weighing around 60g. Every two pieces will be used to make one sandwich. Turn the pieces into balls, brush them with a little bit of oil, move them to a large oiled plate, and let them rest and proof again for another 30 minutes at room temperature.
Now, take the dough balls one by one, drizzle them with a little more oil and stretch them with a roller on a piece of parchment paper. You should not over-stretch the dough so it does not come out so thin. Take a ball of around 120g of the spiced beef (same recipe above) and spread it evenly on the dough but not too much to the edges.
Cover the beef with another stretched sheet of dough. Poke the edges to stick the two sheets together. Then turn the edges of the bottom sheet upside down and press them tightly.
Once all are ready, move the sandwiches to an oven tray, as many as it can fit. Brush the sandwiches with melted ghee then sprinkle a mix of black and white sesame on the top.
Heat the oven to 200°C for 10 minutes then place the tray on the middle rack and let the Hawawshy bake for around 15 minutes. It should be golden brown.
Take it out. Let it sit for a couple of minutes before serving.
Hawawshy side dishes
Though Hawawshy in and of itself is super delicious, it is usually served with a couple of other side dishes that allow more indulgence with the eating experience. Here is how to make them.
1. Tahini sauce
Tahini is a Middle Eastern thick paste made of roasted sesame and oil. It is the national sauce in Egypt and is usually consumed with Egyptian Kebab, Kofta, Shawerma, as well as Hawawshy, for sure. Here is how to make the best tahini sauce.
- 1/2 cup of tahini paste
- 2 tablespoons of lime juice
- 1 tablespoon of vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt
- 1/2 teaspoon of ground black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon of cumin
- A sprinkle of finely chopped dill
Combine the tahini paste in a small bowl with three tablespoons of water to loosen it. You can add as much water as needed but make sure not to over-thin the tahini.
Once the sauce has a good composition, add salt, lime juice, vinegar, black pepper, and cumin. Whisk all the ingredients until well blended with the sauce.
Now pour the sauce into another bowl and sprinkle some chopped dill.
Et voila! Your sauce is ready for serving.
2. Spiced tomatoes
Hawawshy is also best served with pickled vegetables, whether bought from grocery shops or made at home. So here is a quick recipe of incredibly delicious spiced tomatoes that perfectly match Hawawshy.
- 5 medium-sized fresh firm tomatoes
- 3 cloves of minced garlic
- 2 teaspoons of chilli paste
- 3 tablespoons of olive oil
- 2 tablespoons of finely chopped parsley
- 1 tablespoon of lime juice
- 1 teaspoon of cumin and dried coriander
- A pinch of salt
First, cut the tomatoes each into four pieces or more if you would like them smaller. Then with a spoon, deseed the tomato pieces, leaving only the thick outer part. This is to avoid the outcome being too juicy.
In a large bowl, combine all the other ingredients. Whisk them until they are all well mixed. If the mixture is too thick, feel free to add a little more olive oil until you get the desired composition. Then add the deseeded tomato pieces. With a spatula, stir the tomatoes and blend them well with the sauce.
Let the tomatoes sit for at least 15 minutes to give them a chance to absorb the spices.
On a large serving plate, spread a couple of lettuce leaves then toss the tomatoes. Now your second side dish is ready.