Outside, it’s a typical Brighton spring afternoon. By that we mean the clouds are thick, the rain is pelting down with absolute abandon, and you can barely see a bloody thing. Particularly annoying when your location is the thigh-busting Setting Sun atop Hanover Hill, where the promise of breath-taking vistas across the city has – quite literally – been washed away.
No matter though, because inside the vibe is nothing but sunshine and positivity, thanks in no small part to the radiant presence of Cairovan owner and local boy Monem Mansour. Born and bred in Brighton, Monem is here to educate me on the topic of Egyptian food, share his Cairian family heritage, and talk about his stint at Shelterhall this summer.
Prior to our meeting I had, of course, taken a good look through the Cairovan menu. On first glance, with its falafel, lamb, and chicken dishes, one could be entirely forgiven for thinking it’s yet another kebab-based offering from an already crowded, Middle Eastern-inspired Brighton marketplace. It’s not the first time Monem has heard that assumption (and as my dear mother would say, what does assumption do?). With many similarities in the plating processes, the difference between Egyptian food and its Greek, Lebanese, and Persian counterparts, he says, is in the ingredients themselves, particularly when it comes to Cairovan’s signature falafel – or to use the proper Egyptian name, taameya.
“Everyone from the Middle East will say they invented falafel,” he laughs agreeably. “But hands down Egypt has the richest history. Pharoahs and pyramids! Our falafel is next level insane. We don’t use chickpeas, we use fava beans, that’s the Egyptian thing. Using fava beans, it’s just super spongy and moist. A lot of the time with chickpea falafels, it’s quite dry and not particularly great. I sort of compare them to roast potatoes. They’re great when they’re fresh, but rubbish afterwards. So I think our falafel is particularly incredible.”
However, the lack of fryers in the new Cairovan kitchen means that falafels won’t actually be on the menu this time round. Luckily for us and Monem, Egyptian cuisine is vast, and the removal of said fryers means Monem gets to try out a whole array of new dishes to tantalise our tastebuds.
“We’re going down a more salad-y, Middle Eastern, almost tapas-y sort of idea,” he says excitedly. “We’re doing different flatbreads with either whipped feta, hummus, or tzatziki, and then instead of offering falafel we’re going to be offering roast aubergine shawarma, chicken shawarma, slow roast lamb as well. Then we’ve got a tabouleh salad, Fattoush, Egyptian potato salad which is really nice, you know, zesty, with olive oils.”
“Another thing that is massive in Egypt,” he adds, now clearly on a roll as flavours and tastes explode around his brain on automatic recall, “is tahini. We eat tahini with everything! It’s also very, very heavy on cumin, also coriander, those are our main dried herbs and spices. And then when it comes to fresh herbs, it’s all about coriander, flat-leaf parsley, and dill.
“We use so much dill. I think especially within British and European cuisine we don’t really use a lot of dill, or we might have some dill with some fish which really lifts the whole dish. But I put dill… well I put it everywhere! On our current menu, which has three variations of shawarma, we’ve got the chicken, which is marinated in yoghurt and spices, lots of cumin, then dressed with garlic mayo, tahini chilli sauce, and then fresh dill. We do the same with the aubergine, but we have that with hummus instead. And again with dill, because dill as just a garnish is amazing. Basically, I just love it with everything. It’s so fresh, just that smell.”
This isn’t Cairovan’s first rodeo at Shelterhall. In 2022 organisers ran a rotating residency, offering local chefs fortnightly spots to showcase their fare. “It was absolutely incredible,” says Monem. “We were so busy, we went down really well.”
He’s being modest. It was, in fact, one of the most commercially successful ventures that year, so when the Shelterhall powers that be looked at their potential 2023 roster, Cairovan was unsurprisingly front and centre.
“I got a message from them, it must have been March, saying would you fancy doing a summer pop-up? I thought, that would be amazing, thinking it’d be a couple of weeks again, and probably sometime in July, so I said, “When are you thinking?”. And they said from May to October!”
How does he feel about such a challenging timeline? “It’s slightly terrifying!” he laughs. “It’s a little bit of a shock and a little bit overwhelming.
Out of all the dishes Monem is serving down at Shelterhall, one of the most hotly anticipated is his lamb shawarma. The meat, which Monem slow roasts for a minimum of 12 hours, until it’s practically dripping off of the bone, comes from his family farm in Ditchling. “My nephew does all of our lamb so it’s all free range and free roaming.” With Monem’s niece working with him on the Cairovan, it really is a family affair. “Other family members are forced to work on the van, or assist me mentally and emotionally,” he laughs.
It’s not just Monem’s English family who have influenced his love of food. With an English mum and an Egyptian dad, summers would see a young Monem popped on a plane to Cairo to spend time with his extended Egyptian family. “It was the 90s,” he laughs, “so it was fine.” It was these holidays that introduced him to a whole new world of flavours and aromas, unlocking the culinary part of his Egyptian heritage. With Cairo sitting in the belly of the fertile Nile valley, he was constantly surrounded by vibrant fresh produce, tantalising aromas, all captured against the backdrop of Egypt’s iconic capital city. Monem practically vibrates with pleasure talking about a place he’s clearly in love with.
“Cairo is incredible! It’s loud, and polluted, and crazy, and everyone’s hysterical,” he beams, “but in a bizarre kind of way everything does kind of make sense. The loudness becomes its own song in the background, like hooting cars and the call to prayer and the street food vendors. My family live in the centre of Cairo and you’ve got narrow little streets and you’ve got shops and you’ve got men with carts. First thing in the morning you’ve got men screaming about their tomatoes, this much for a kilo, and my auntie will be in the kitchen waiting for the man she likes. And she’ll see him, and she’ll run down the road for those particular tomatoes because he’s got a good price and they’re nice.”
Years of summer holidays sitting, watching, tasting, and learning mean Monem is now a walking culinary encyclopaedia. But theory is nothing without heart, and it’s absolutely apparent that a love of family is at the core of everything Monem does with his food. For him, food is an expression of love, given freely to those he cares about. And so with every plate that he serves at Cairovan, every shawarma, every bowl of tabbouleh, every slice of baklava, he adds one more member to his growing, extended Brighton family. And with every mouthful, with every delicious dish served across the Shelterhall pass, he takes his customers one step closer to his family in Cairo. It’s a winning combination, nothing but heart, soul, and glorious food. If you’re smart, you’ll have already booked yourself a table at Shelterhall before you got to the end of this interview…