I don’t have any posts about Egypt on this site, because I traveled there long before I started Legal Nomads. But I was already diagnosed as celiac, and Egypt remains one of the more popular requests I received from travelers who are gluten free.
I’ve set this guide up similar to my others, which is to provide you with the foods that are safe/unsafe so that you can make informed decisions even if there’s no dedicated gluten free restaurant on offer. As with other travels, it can also be helpful to carry some non-perishable gluten free snacks with you in case you have difficulty finding safe food options. But with this guide, I’m hoping that will be less of an issue.
I started these gluten free guides because in 2008 when I was traveling the world, there really wasn’t much online for celiacs who didn’t want to let their disease stop them from exploring. I added the gluten free translation cards to help us do so safely. While there are some places that are harder than others, the overall message remains: with care, research, and help communicating, the world is open for all of us.
LAST UPDATED: MARCH 15, 2023
What should celiacs know before traveling to Egypt?
As a celiac, it is important to be proactive when planning a trip to Egypt to ensure that you have access to safe and gluten free food options. Here are a few things to consider:
- Be aware of cross-contact risks: Some guides talk about getting shawarma plates, but when I was there I saw many instances of the bread being rubbed on the meat to give it more flavour, or placed over meat to keep them both warm. The cross-contact risks in shawarma shops led me to avoid them, and while some shops may be able to provide safe food it’s NOT a given despite what the internet says.
- Read up on safe street food dinings: After years of eating on the street, I wrote a guide to eating at food stalls safely, which doesn’t refer to gluten but to choosing stalls that will minimize any risks of food-borne illness or stomach upset. These rules apply to any country I’ve visited, and have helped me avoid getting sick on the road.
- BYOB — not GF beer, GF bread! In addition to any snacks to tide you over between meals, a lot of the things I ate in Egypt were delicious appetizer sized dishes that are normally served with bread. I brought a steady stream of rice crackers with me to scoop them up, but if you have gluten free bread or crackers, this will work too. See meze/muqabilat below for details about these dishes.
- Rice isn’t as safe as you think in Egypt. In Egypt and some other countries in the region (like Lebanon, for example), the rice that is served with meals may have short wheat vermicelli in. This vermicelli is toasted in a pan with ghee or oil before being combined with the rice, lending it a darker brown colour. The side dish is called roz bil sha’reya, with sha’reya being the wheat noodles. It’s important to ask for just rice, and make sure there is no noodles included. A picture of what it looks like is below under “unsafe foods”.
- Consider staying somewhere with a safe kitchen. I try to rent short term apartments or Airbnb / VRBO type spots so that I can control the kitchen when I need to cook for myself. While there are options for safe gluten free dining in Egypt, in Cairo I found I needed some days of relaxing and having a non-shared (non-hostel or hotel) kitchen was important for me to be able to keep myself safe while traveling.
A detailed Standard Modern Arabic gluten free restaurant card for Egypt
This detailed gluten free restaurant card will help communicate your eating restrictions, and allow you to understand what is safe and unsafe from the menu. Note: While spoken Arabic differs from country to country, a Standard Modern Arabic will communicate effectively in written form throughout the Middle East. This card can be used in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tanzania, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Western Sahara, Yemen, and more.
Note: The card is available for purchase via Gumroad, a trustworthy 3rd party site that uses Stripe, so you know your information is safe.
Why is this translation card different?
I used several different translation cards on my travels, and I still got sick. I am quite sensitive, and even a small amount of contaminated oil for frying, or wheat-thickened sauce, is enough to make me ill for days. Let alone the joint pain later that week, and the fatigue. And regardless of whether we feel it or not, ingesting any amount of gluten is a problem if we are celiac.
This card is different because:
✅ Immediate download, sized specifically for mobile. You can save it to your phone and have it with you as you travel, or you can print it out and laminate it to take along.
✅ It uses local ingredients and lists of what you can/cannot eat help you eat safely, not just “I can’t eat gluten”.
✅ Unlike less-detailed cards, this card explains that contaminated surfaces or oils are also unsafe.
✅ It is researched by a celiac and goes through two sets of translations to ensure accuracy.
An English translation of the card will be emailed to you after you purchase. A big thanks to Reine and Yomna for their help in translating this card.
History and use of wheat in Egyptian cuisine
What we call wheat comprises various species of the genus Triticum, one of the first cereals to have been domesticated by humans, and a huge influence on the evolution of civilization over time. In the fertile Nile Valley, archeological findings revealed us that wheat (and barley) have sustained populations since before 5000 BC. The kind of wheat used in this region was emmer wheat, a common species in early cultivation. This wheat was hulled, separating the wheat from the chaff—and leading to a common expression in English meaning to decide which people or things in a group are good or important and which are not. (Since it’s not easy to separate the wheat from the chaff, the expression also implies that finding the good things/people isn’t a simple deduction process either.) Emmer wheat is a wild hybrid species that carries two full genomes, each coming from a different wild grass species.
In ancient Egypt, both barley and wheat were crucial not only for food (breads and beer), in medicine, and occasionally as compensation. No matter the role in society, from farmers to pharaohs, every Egyptian enjoyed their daily doses of bread and beer—a universal and equalizing diet. Beer and barley were also used as offerings to the gods, playing an indispensable role in building and sustaining the ancient Egyptian civilization. While we can’t eat it, we also can’t deny that it has been a critical crop in sustaining populations.
In present day, wheat continues to be an important ingredient in Egyptian cuisine. It is used to make a variety of dishes, including breads, noodles, and sweet pastries. Wheat is also used in the production of a popular Egyptian snack food called kushari, which I talk about in the “unsafe” section below; it’s a mix of rice, lentils, and pasta topped with a spicy tomato sauce.
In addition to its practical uses, wheat continues to play a cultural and symbolic role in the Middle East. In many cultures, bread is seen as a symbol of hospitality and is often shared with guests as a sign of friendship and goodwill. Given the prevalence of wheat in Egypt today, I’ve gone into more detail than some of my other guides when it comes to dishes I share.
Eating gluten free in Egypt
For the most part, the following suggestions are for you to be able to walk into restaurants that are not specifically gluten-free, but that have options for you on the menu. As with the other gluten free guides I’ve written, I find it far more satisfying to eat safely where I can, versus sequester myself in GF restaurants all the time. Yes, it’s great to know things are safe to eat in those dedicated GF kitchens but the point of travel is to connect with other humans and learn about their culture and food. It’s balance to try and ensure we eat safely, and still connect with others through food. I tend to find self-catering options for my stays so that I can ensure there’s a safe spot to make my own meals, but then attempt to find street foods and/or restaurants that I can try, to the extent possible.
In Egypt, unfortunately for us, bread is both a staple and a vehicle to get food into your mouth—and it’s almost always made from wheat. As a result, it’s important to make sure that not only are the dishes gluten free for you, that they were not covered in or baked with bread in the process.
Gluten Free Dishes and Ingredients in Egypt
The following is a list of dishes and ingredients that are likely to be safe for celiacs. As usual, fresh fruit and yoghurts, salads, and vegetables are safe, if no pita, bread, or wheat was used in the salads or cooking. I’ve added some bolded notes for asking questions when you eat, to help ensure the food is safe for us.
Grilled corn: as with elote in Mexico, corn is a street food staple, with sprinkled salt and available all over. Unlike in Mexico, where the cob is grilled then dipped in mayo, cotija cheese and spices, in Egypt the carts selling grilled corn offer it with salt. It’s delicious, and a great snack for celiacs.
Lumpini beans: I wrote about lupini beans from a trip to Portugal, but these are also available on street cards in Cairo and elsewhere, boiled, salted, and topped with freshly squeezed lemon juice.
Roasted chicken: another common street food staple, with rotisserie ovens with greasy glass doors all over the country. Confirm no wheat in the spicing used; in my visits years ago these were safe, and a good option for a quick meal—especially if you BYO some GF pita. (Unlike with shawarma, these chickens are not rubbed with bread before serving).
Mehalabeya/ Mahalabia (مهلبية) – a milk pudding made with vanilla and cornstarch or rice flour. When ordering, confirm no wheat flour is used instead.
Halawa (حلاوة طحينية) Originally from Persia, the Egyptian version is generally made from tahini paste, milk, sugar, vanilla, and nuts. When ordering, confirm no flour in the tahini, and no flour generally as some versions (e.g. Persian halawa) will use flour.
Cheeses include domiati (دمياطي), the most widely-eaten in Egypt; areesh (قريش); rumi (رومي), a hard, salty, ripened variety of cheese that belongs to the same family as Pecorino Romano and Manchego; and gebna q’aresh, a buffalo milk cheese, among others.
Roz be laban (ارز باللبن): Rice pudding made with short grain white rice, full-cream milk, sugar, and vanilla, topped with cinnamon and sometimes ice cream or nuts.
Grilled meats such as kabab (كباب) and grilled cutlets are categorically referred to as mashwiyat (مشويات), and are safe but kofta (كفتة) is not.
Meze/muqabilat (مقبلات), small side dishes often served with pitta or bread (which we will skip!):
- Ta‘ameya (طعمية)—a breakfast dish of falafel-like fritters made with fava beans, instead of the chickpeas found in falafel. Traditionally, no flour is used to thicken but you must confirm. This is also deep-fried, so the oil must be safe before it can be consumed. Ask for it without pita /on a platter instead of with bread.
- Baba ghannoug (بابا غنوج)—a dip made with eggplants, lemon juice, salt, pepper, parsley, cumin and oil.
- Bamia (بامية) A stew prepared using lamb, okra and tomatoes and spices and herbs. Traditionally gluten free; confirm no flour used to thicken.
- Duqqa (دقة)—a dry mixture of chopped nuts, seeds and spices.
- Salata baladi (سلطة بلدي)— a salad made with tomatoes, cucumber, onion and chili topped with parsley, cumin, coriander, vinegar and oil.
- Tehina (طحينة)—a dip made of sesame tahini, lemon juice, and garlic. When ordering, confirm no flour added, as sometimes it is added to the tahini.
- Torshi (طرشي)—an assortment of pickled vegetables.
- Besarah (بصارة) A fava bean dip with leafy greens that is served cold and topped with fried onions. Confirm no flour in the fried onions, and make sure you avoid the pitta often served with it.
Hummus (حمص) chickpeas, cooked and ground and served with olive oil. Classic middle eastern dish. BYO GF bread.
Ful medames (فول مدمس) Cooked fava beans served with olive oil and topped with cumin. Delicious, but always eaten with bread or pitta, so it’s important to ask for it without any bread, and make sure it’s not being served from a pot with cross-contact.
Kamounia (كمونية) A beef and cumin stew. It is sometimes made with offal meat.
Mahshi (محشي) Rice, seasoned with crushed red tomatoes, onion, parsley, dill, salt, pepper and spices, that is then stuffed into vegetables like green peppers, eggplants, courgettes, tomatoes, grape or into cabbage leaves, then topped with broth and cooked. When ordering, confirm no noodles in the rice, and no wheat any bouillon.
Mesa’a’ah (مسقعة) Eggplant, sliced and grilled, then baked with onions, bell peppers, chili peppers, allspice, and tomato sauce.
Molokhiya/Mulukia (ملوخية) A green soup made from garlic, plus minced cilantro and mallow leaves, then cooked in broth. When ordering, confirm no wheat in any bouillon cubes/broth.
Mombar (ممبار) Sheep intestines stuffed with rice, tomatoes, onion, garlic, coriander, oil, and spices, and then deep fried or occasionally boiled. Traditionally only rice is used as a filler; confirm before eating that there is no sha’reya or other gluten.
Roz me‘ammar (رز معمر) A baked rice dish made by adding milk, butter, and cream, as well as chicken stock or broth to cooked rice, and then baking it in a clay pot. Often used at festivals / special occasions instead of plain rice. Can also be made as a sweet version.
Sabanekh (سبانخ) A spinach stew sometimes made with beef, usually served with rice. Make sure no noodles in the rice.
Shakshouka (شكشوكة) A dish now popular around the world, it consists of eggs with tomato sauce and vegetables.
Torly (تورلي) Roasted veggie side dish of squash, potatoes, carrots, onions, and tomato sauce.
Baked sweet potato: (بطاطا حلوة/ مسكرة) Sweet potato carts offer a great snack for celiacs, and one that is affordable and safe. Baked in a wood-fired oven, these potatoes are cut in half and served on-the-go, sometimes with ice cream or sweet caramel sauce as a topping.
Coffee (قهوة), similar to Turkish coffee, is prepared in a small pot and served in a tiny cup. Not like North American or European “flat white” or “lattes”, which are enormous in comparison. A safe, strong option for morning wake-up in Egypt.
Teas are very popular in Egypt much like elsewhere in the region. I fell in love with a dried hibiscus tea here, so much so that I was thrilled to find a different version when I moved to Mexico. It’s called karkadeh (كركديه), and much like in Mexico it’s served cold and sweet (though can be served warm too.
There is also sahlab (سَحْلَب), similar to salep in Turkey. It’s a delicious, milky tea where the milkiness traditionally comes from the dried tubers of a white orchid, with rose water and cinnamon. I drank this a lot in Turkey, and enjoyed it in Egypt as well, though these days the “milkiness” comes from corn starch instead of orchids.
Aseer asab (عصير قصب) is the universal drink of warmer climates: sugar cane juice, which I’ve enjoyed in Southeast Asia aplenty. It’s very sweet and very refreshing. Combined with strawberries, it’s even better.
Juice shops: there are juice stands all over the place in Cairo and beyond, with whatever fruits and vegetables are in season at the time. Prickly pear, pomegranate, mango, guava, orange, and carrot abound, and are a fresh and safe option on a hot day.
Gluten free food in Cairo
If you’re in Cairo and looking for gluten free bread or crackers for your celiac-special BYOB, Chef Hamdy’s gluten free bakery will have bread you can take along with you on your food adventures.
And readers report that Gourmand also has gluten free bread for sale, some also soy free, but I could not confirm cross-contact risks so it would be best to inquire before purchase. Info and Facebook page, here.
There’s also The Gluten Free House, selling pizza, sweet pies, burgers, and fries, among other things. Menu here, but it’s only in Arabic.
I will be updating this section further; please see my note at the bottom of this guide for why it’s so short.
What ISN’T Gluten Free in Egypt?
As with my other gluten free guides, this is a list of the main dishes a traveler will encounter that will have gluten. It is not an exhaustive list of what’s unsafe.
There are many breads used in Egyptian cuisine, so many that I am making a list of a few more popular ones:
- Bataw (بتاو) – leavened flatbread made with wheat
- Eish baladi (عيش بلدي): thick pitta made with whole grain flour; very common
- Eish fino (عيش فينو): baguette-style roll, made with wheat
- Eish shamsi (عيش شمسي): sourdough pitta popular in Northern Egypt
Other dishes and desserts that aren’t gluten free:
Feteer meshaltet (فطير مشلتت) or just feteer (فطير): Thin flaky pies, much like phyllo, covered in samnah (ghee) and served either savoury or sweet.
Gollash (جلاش) a phyllo dough pastry stuffed with minced meat or cheese.
Eish merahrah (عيش مرحرح): maize and sourdough starter, as a thin flatbread, often made with wheat flour in the dough. (Some places may make it without, but that will not usually be the case.)
Fattah (فتة) A lamb dish with rice, chunks of lamb meat, bay leaf, and more, served over a soaked eish baladi (breaded product), which is often hidden by the meat. If you’re getting a home-cooked version, you can ask for it without the soaked bread, but you’ll be hard pressed to find this in restaurants.
Kushari (كشري), a staple in Egypt, many saying it’s the national dish, and very popular street food. A mixture of rice, brown lentils, and macaroni/noodles, topped with a tomato sauce, garlic vinegar and garnished with chickpeas and crispy fried onions.
Eggah ( عجة) Egyptian omelette made with parsley and flour and baked in the oven. It is thickened up much like a frittata.
Shawerma (شاورما) A popular sandwich of shredded beef, lamb or chicken meat, usually rolled in pita bread with tahini sauce.
Hamam mahshi (حمام محشي) Pigeon stuffed with rice or freekeh/farik, a green durum wheat, and herbs. First it is boiled until cooked, then roasted or grilled.
Hawawshi (حواوشى) Pastry filled with minced meat that is marinated in onions, pepper, parsley and sometimes hot peppers or chilies.
Keshk (کشک) A yogurt-based savory pudding, made with flour, sometimes seasoned with fried onions, chicken broth or boiled chicken.
Tabbouleh (تبولة) a Lebanese dish made with parsley, mint, lemon, tomato, onions, and bulgur wheat, often available with other muqabilat.
Kofta (كفتة) is minced meat prepared with Baharat (a middle eastern spice blend), onions, flour, and parsley, rolled into a finger-shape, and grilled over charcoal.
Basbousa (بسبوسة) a dessert made from semolina wheat, soaked in syrup, and topped with almonds before it’s cut into a diamond shape.
Baqlawa (بقلاوة), like Greek baklava, is not safe for celiacs—it’s a made from layers of phyllo pastry, nuts, then and soaked in a sweet syrup.
Ghorayiba (غريبة) is a cookie similar to shortbread that is made with flour, and topped with cardamom or nuts.
Kunafa (كنافة) is a shredded dairy and pastry dessert popular throughout the middle east, that is soaked in a sweet syrup.
Om Ali (أم على), this translates to “Ali’s mum” and is an Egyptian version of bread pudding. In this case, it’s a sweet dessert of pastry soaked in milk, coconut flakes, sugar, dried fruit, and more, which is then baked.
Luqmet el qadi (لقمة القاضي) are small, round crunchy donuts.
During Ramadan, you’ll find atayef (قطايف), which is also a mini flour pancake that we cannot eat.
Couscous (كسكسي) Note that Egyptian-style couscous is still off limits, but it’s often served with butter or quishta (a dried dairy product), as well as sugar, nuts and dried fruit.
Roz bil sha’reya (رز بالشعرية) a side dish of rice with short vermicelli noodles made from wheat, called sha’reya, that have been pan fried before adding to the rice. You need to make sure that the rice you are eating is purely rice, with no sha’reya. Often, this is the kind of rice served as a side dish with grilled meats or shawerma platters.
I will be adding to this page with more recommendations for places to find gluten free products, as well as restaurants that can cater to gluten free diners both in Cairo and beyond, as well as books to read before you travel like I do in other celiac guides on this site. Unfortunately, in 2017, my life took a big turn when a botched lumbar puncture left me with a chronic spinal CSF leak, and disabled. As a result, I can only work sporadically and this guide will be a work in progress.
Happy and safe eating!