Baba Geddo may be tiny, but it offers a huge taste of Cairo.
When she first emigrated to Canada from Cairo, Egypt, it was 1969 and Mona Ali was still in high school. Her aunt and uncle were living in Halifax, and the young, independent Ali wanted to travel and see the world. She spent four years in Nova Scotia, then seven in Ottawa, working for banks and the government, earning her Canadian citizenship in the process. Then, on a trip back to Egypt to visit family, she met Ahmed Nawar, fell in love, and later returned to Cairo to marry and start a family.
“I was always torn between Canada and Egypt,” the petite Mona says, sitting with one of her sons, Mohamed Amr Nawar, as Ahmed stands nearby, in Baba Geddo, the tiny takeout restaurant they run on Duncan Street, just south of Queen. “I love them both, but I felt for my children, the future would be more open here.” She returned in 2004, family in tow, to restart her life as an immigrant in the country she’d left decades before.
Four years ago, the family opened Baba Geddo, with the idea of introducing a few Egyptian dishes to the downtown lunch crowd. The menu is shared with Mr. Burrito Plus, a Mexican concept they run out of the same tiny kitchen. The walls are plastered with innumerable menu combinations, ranging from steak burritos to hummus salad plates to a Philly cheesesteak. Mona, Ahmed, and Mohamed do all the cooking and serving in a space not much larger than a student dorm room.
What sets Baba Geddo apart from other downtown Middle Eastern restaurants is its unique Egyptian flavours. There are some 60,000 Egyptians in Canada, according to census data, with significant populations in places like Hamilton and Mississauga, yet their food remains relatively rare in Toronto restaurants.
“Take our falafel,” says Mona, with pride. “We do Egyptian falafel. It’s 100 per cent different from the other falafels in the city.” That’s because Egyptian tamia (their name for falafel) is made from a base of soaked fava beans, which give the fried balls a creamier consistency and lighter taste than the chickpeas favoured by most other Middle Eastern falafel makers. It allows the taste of the different ingredients to shine, with bright notes of dry and fresh coriander, chopped onion and garlic, heady cumin, and earthy parsley popping with each bite.
The lentil soup also has a particular Egyptian bent to it. It’s smoother than other lentil soups, with a touch of sweetness offsetting a serious kick from tons of cumin, the aroma of which wafts out of the top of the paper coffee cup it’s served in, drawing curious looks from other customers. The moist chicken shawarma, sliced from a spit proudly displayed by the window, also has a fair dose of cumin (Mona claims it’s Egypt’s favourite spice), which lends the meat a terrific bronzed colour, set against the tahini and hot sauce that are liberally splashed over top.
However, the big draw for Egyptians, who come from across the city to eat in this space that barely holds six people, is koshari. Mohamed claims the plate of macaroni noodles, brown lentils, chickpeas, and rice in a fresh tomato sauce, topped with crisp fried onions, is his country’s staple and the perfect winter lunch, especially for vegetarians. On the wall, a big, bright photograph advertises the dish, which is greater than the sum of its parts—when mixed together, it’s a bright, slightly tangy, incredibly filling bowl of pure comfort.
“People like it, but it’s not fast food,” Mohamed says. “This is how you let people know about Egyptian food. When people know about koshari, they love it, and then maybe they want to try something else.”
The family hopes to one day have a full-scale Egyptian restaurant, but they don’t believe the city and their clients are ready for that yet. So they cook special dishes for those in the know from a secret menu, including tomatoes stewed in okra and lemon, broad beans and onions, and eggplant casserole, all of which are available given a day’s notice.
As for the Mexican food, they sell a lot of it, too, but often customers are so enticed by the smells and sights on the Egyptian side of the counter that they end up with a mishmash of dishes, such as shawarma burritos, and falafel tacos…all of which act as a gateway to the Egyptian fare.
“What’s that?” a customer asks, looking over at Ahmed preparing koshari while Mohamed wraps the burrito on order. “Oooh, that looks good. I’ve got to get that next time.”
Baba Geddo, 69 Duncan St., 416-901-4336.