CAIRO — Growing up in the Philly area, I never imagined processed cheese sauce on a meat-filled Italian roll could be exotic. Then I moved to Cairo.
Say “Philly” in Egypt, and people may think not of a city, but a cheese. There are the sandwiches, but also cheesesteak-themed bowls, pizzas, and man’oucheh, a Lebanese flatbread. There are seemingly as many versions of the Philly cheesesteak in Egypt as there are in its hometown, where Dominos and Waffle House offer their own permutations. There’s Philadelphia cream cheese in Cairo, too — running $8 a pop at the grocery store, a fancy import. At least one place makes fried “Philadelphia” balls of it.
It seems the Philly cheesesteak is going the way of cashmere, china, and tangerines — products that eventually dropped association with the places for which they’re named (Kashmir, China, and Tangier). But the fact that Philly cheesesteaks are melting from specific dish into loose concept feels true to the city’s earliest dairy connections.
Even before the 1950s, when Kraft Foods scientists in Illinois invented the scientific marvel called Cheez Whiz and it became a favored topping of our native steak, Philadelphia had long been associated with delicious dairy. That’s partly because it’s the big city market for Lancaster, home to many dairy farms and some of the world’s richest soil. When a cream cheese entrepreneur was searching for a better marketing strategy back in 1880, he chose to evoke the city with a reputation for quality food, leading to the ubiquitous Philadelphia brand — even though the cheese hailed from New York. In 2011, when National Geographic named Capogiro (RIP) home of the world’s best gelato, it credited “grass-fed Amish cows” for providing the milk.
Philly’s cheese rep has gone global. In several European countries, “Philadelphia” can signify cream cheese — as in, “I’ll have a ham and Philadelphia sandwich.” When the “unlike Agholor” guy went viral (for saving a baby from a fire and then dunking on the Eagles), a cheesesteak joint offered him a lifetime’s worth of whiz wit — the joint being a central London restaurant called Passyunk Avenue. Charleys Philly Steaks, founded in Ohio, now has stores in over a dozen countries, including Italy, Japan, and Saudi Arabia — closer to the original Philadelphia (the ancient Greek name for modern-day Amman, Jordan) than to Wharton Street.
New Jersey native JP Teti, owner of the London spot, chalks it up to the world’s appetite for American culture, thanks to our huge presence in international media. He’s gotten inquiries from business types wanting to bring Passyunk Avenue to Egypt, too, he said.
People “grow up watching America on TV,” Teti said. “There’s a huge appetite for Americana in all its forms” — and regional specialities evoking specific corners of the U.S. do better than generic diner fare, he notes. That includes the cheesesteak, which Teti considers an ethnic food.
“There’s definitely something special about it,” Teti said. The London restaurateur also reiterated that the “unlike Agholor” guy definitely gets free cheesesteaks for life.
While sandwich shops in Chicago strive to nail that 9th Street taste, Cairo’s Philly cheesesteaks have been liberated of any pressure for authenticity. Ingredients can include cheesy potato gratin, bell peppers, broccoli, barbecue sauce, and “red” cheddar cheese (an ostensibly English variety). Many of these are very bad. But I like the Philly steak and mushroom sandwich from Butcher’s Burger — you get the feel of the cheese melting through the beef with the smoky mayo, and the mushrooms are a nice earthy twist.
Now tangerines are grown in Florida and porcelain can be found anywhere, while most cashmere is exported from China. Both food and fashion are difficult to claim. But in an era in which Apple has patented a paper bag and Kylie Jenner fought with Kylie Minogue over rights to their name, it’s comforting to know that popular cultural products can still mutate across borders, like memes but in meat-space.
I can’t say the sandwich I tried last night is a taste of home, exactly. But Philly’s cheesesteak is good enough to riff on around the world, and for that we can be proud.
Jess Rohan lives in Cairo. @jessica_rohan