Hawawshi is a traditional Egyptian street food that's essentially a baked ground/minced meat pita sandwich. The spiced and vegetable-loaded meat filling is flavorful and the bread crisps up as it cooks. It's a delicious handheld snack or light meal.
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Many cultures have some form of either meat filled pie or sandwich that acts as a grab-and-go snack or meal. They often served as a way to feed hungry customers going to or leaving work, as well as a handy way for stores and vendors to diversify their income.
What are the origins of hawawshi?
Hawawshi is named after it's creator, Ahmed al-Hawawshi who was a butcher in Cairo. He created the dish in the 1970s by creating the meat filling using products from his store. He would sell these snacks from his stall around Cairo's streets, luring customers with the wonderful spice smells.
The hawawshi sandwiches soon caught on as a tasty, relatively inexpensive snack since their basis was ground beef (typically chuck). These days, you'll find them sold at stalls and restaurants, as well as made at home around the country.
The original version uses Egyptian baladi bread. Baladi is like a slightly thick round pita bread made with part or all wholewheat flour.
Using ready made bread is probably the more common version found in much of the country. However in Alexandria, and sometimes Cairo, the meat filling is more often wrapped between pieces of raw dough and all baked together.
You'll also find a snack called Arayes in parts of the Levant region (such as in Lebanon) which is much the same, though often made with lamb rather than beef. They are also sometimes cooked on the grill rather than in the oven.
You'll find a few variations in the filling for these, but it's more about the quantities than what they are. The filling is typically ground beef, onion, garlic, green pepper (bell pepper) as well as parsley and some dry spices. Some include tomato, either as fresh or as paste, but not all.
The spices are some of the most typical in the cuisine of the region, as you find in sabaa baharat spice blend (which you can certainly use rather individual spices). While recipes vary, you use some or all of coriander, cumin, nutmeg, allspice, pepper and paprika. Each has some warm, aromatic flavor that works so well with the meat and other flavors.
The filling is pretty adaptable to what you have and to your tastes, so you can add some chili if you want it spicier, add more or less onion, garlic and pepper or adjust the spices.
Top tip: mixing the filling
Mixing spices and vegetables into ground meat can be a bit tricky to get everything well distributed. The best solution - use your hands! Getting your hands in there lets you squeeze and break up the meat so that you can then get everything well mixed together.
Tips for adding the filling
Using ready-made bread is the easiest way to make these, though I recommend using a thicker pita bread or baladi, whether homemade or bought. If buying pita, I'd suggest you use pita pockets as they tend to be a little thicker. The thicker bread helps to avoid them tearing or falling apart during filling and cooking.
You have a couple different ways that you can cut and fill the bread. You can either cut them in half and put some filling in the half-circle piece, or you can cut a slight opening on the side of the whole bread and fill from there.
Filling a whole bread generally keeps the meat a little juicier, though it can be a little trickier to fill evenly. If you do this way, I suggest using a small spoon to help fill and spread to the sides as you go. With the half-bread, you get a slightly crisp meat edge on the side. It's certainly a little easier to fill as a half bread, but both are very do-able so it really just depends what you prefer.
Exactly how full you make them is also a little up to your taste. You don't want the filling too full or it can burst the bread open, but I also think you want more than a very thin layer, too. However full, I would suggest you try to gently spread the mixture to fill fairly close to the edges. Do this gently so you don't split open the bread, if possible. This helps give a more even mix in each bite.
Baking these meat filled bread
You can bake these directly on a baking sheet to help crisp them, unless your baking sheet may stick in which case use parchment. You can brush the top of the bread with olive oil, though you get a good amount of fat from the meat, too.
I suggest you turn part way through cooking so both sides brown evenly, but it also works without if they seem like they might break. I recommend you drain soon after they are done to help remove excess fat and juices. Otherwise, they can soften the bread.
What to serve with hawawshi
While these are a classic street food, so you typically eat them with your hands, a few things go well with them. Some fries, salad (like fattoush) and/or pickled vegetables all pair well, as do various dips. Tahini sauce is probably the most common, but you could use others Yogurt would work or (less traditional) muhamarra, for example.
Hawawshi is an easy and flavorful "meat baked in bread" that only needs a few ingredients with delicious results. The juicy meat, warm spices and crisp bread all work so well. Great as a snack or lunch with a few sides, they'd also be great as part of a meze platter with guests. However you enjoy, they're worth making soon.
Try these other tasty bread based snacks:
- Imeruli khachapuri (Georgian cheese filled bread)
- Spinach fatayer (spinach filled pastries)
- Flammkuechen (a flatbread similar to pizza, topped with bacon, onions and a creamy base)
- Plus get more snack recipes and North African recipes in the archives.
Hawawshi (ground/minced meat pitas)
- 3 baladi bread or pita - suggest pita pockets
- ¼ large onion or ½ small/medium
- ¼ green pepper
- ½ tomato
- 1 small clove garlic
- ½ lb ground beef minced beef, eg 80% - recommend not lean for this
- 2 tablespoon chopped parsley
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon coriander
- ¼ teaspoon cumin
- ⅛ teaspoon paprika
- ⅛ teaspoon allspice
- ⅛ teaspoon cinnamon
- ⅛ teaspoon cardamom
- ⅛ teaspoon pepper or use 1tsp sabaa baharat blend plus salt
- Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Brush a large baking sheet with a little oil.
- Either cut the breads in half or cut a slit along the edge on one side around 2 inches in length.
- Finley chop the onion, pepper and tomato and crush or finely chop the garlic.
- Mix together the ground beef, onion, pepper, tomato, garlic, parsley and spices. Mix everything well so the ingredients are well-distributed - this is often easiest by hand.
- Divide the mixture between the breads and fill, taking care not to break the bread, as far as possible, and spreading the filling relatively evenly in towards the edges.
- Place the filled bread on the baking sheet and brush either side of the bread with a little oil.
- Bake in the preheated oven for approximately 15 minutes, then turn and bake for another 5 minutes, approximately, until the bread is browned and gently crisp on both sides and the meat is cooked through.
- Best served warm, or can be served at room temperature - typically served with tahini sauce on the side to dip.
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I first shared this recipe for Hawawshi on Curious Cuisiniere where I am a contributor.