Fresh Bites

In celebration of Egyptian street food, Zooba takes center stage. 

In 2012 when casual dining and street food culture began to take off around the world, Chris Khalifa, the founder of Zooba, knew that his hometown of Cairo had something special to offer. “We wanted to export our Egyptian culture, “ explains Khalifa. Zooba, an endearing nickname in Arabic, and the name of the elevated Egyptian street food chain of  locales, operates under the direction of professionally trained chefs. The first branch opened in the Zamalek neighborhood of Cairo with Executive Chef Mustafa El Refaey, an Egyptian native and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, at the helm. With seven locations in Cairo and as of September 2019, one location in New York City’s NoLita neighborhood, Khalifa found and filled a gap in the market. 

“The culture surrounding Egyptian street food runs deep. The food is delicious but there was kind of an unspoken rule that recipes shouldn’t be changed.” As trends surrounding modern street food began to reveal themselves around the world, Khalifa knew he had something to work with. Khalifa and his creative director and childhood friend, Adam Mourad, did what nobody in Egypt had done before: adapted what was deemed ‘untouchable’. “We elevated the ‘people’s food’ and built a fresh brand around it. We used better quality ingredients to make classic dishes healthier and began to experiment with Egyptian recipes. That’s when Zooba was born.” In comparison to other countries around the world, according to Khalifa, Egypt was really not on the map. 

In 2017, with dreams of expanding the brand beyond Cairo, Khalifa understood that the brand identity needed an upgrade. Khalifa and Mourad brought in Jessica Walsh, an NYC-based designer and an Egyptian architect, Ahmed ElHusseiny, to begin mapping out what a brick and mortar space in New York City would look like. Walsh spearhead the rebranding for Zooba’s first international location, which will ultimately result in refreshing the Cairo branches as well. 

“There were lines out the door at the opening. We couldn’t believe what was happening,” recalls Khalifa. Opening in New York City was always a dream for the childhood friends. Chef Omar Hegazi is the culinary force behind Zooba NYC serving interpretations of traditional cuisine including: Cheese Taameya, a sandwich made of fresh baladi bread with Egyptian roumy cheese, arugula, tomato-onion relish, and classic tahina; Harissa Cauliflower, oven roasted cauliflower, harissa raisin sauce, and parsley; and a mouthwatering selection of dips such as the Olive Labneh, strained yogurt with a chunky kalamata olive blend and Zooba Bessara, braised fava bean puree with a cherry tomato, kalamata olive confit. 

Zooba Art Director: Omar Mobarek.

Photos by Joe Lingeman.

Producer: Amelia Katz.

Food Stylist: Pearl Jones.

Prop Stylist: Beatrice Chastka.

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