Edinburgh Eats: Khartoum Cafe
A look at the story behind the Khartoum Cafe, one of Edinburgh's best African eateries
There’s a piece of Sudan nestled just west of the Meadows called Khartoum Cafe. Vibrant photographs of marketplaces and people going about their daily lives hang on the walls of the cosy storefront as owner Omar Gaili emerges from the back and smiles, his bright eyes framed by black, rectangular glasses. We sit near the streetside window, the heat from our mint tea matching Gaili’s warmth as he tells me about his restaurant and the lessons that shaped his philosophy.
Gaili entered the British restaurant scene in 1991 when he joined his brother in the UK. Before settling in Edinburgh, he cleaned and washed dishes in restaurants in London, Cheshire, Chester and Wrexham. It was during this time that Gaili honed his culinary skills and, in doing so, realised his love of cooking. “When you have a tiny budget, you have to cook for yourself,” he explains. “You have to eat what you make, so it has to be nice.”
Gaili finally arrived in Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival one year, and he found the city “buzzing with art and music and everything”. In 1995, he and his business partner established Nile Valley Cafeon Chapel Street near Edinburgh University, bringing Sudanese, Middle Eastern and North African cuisine to Scotland’s capital. He tells me that his restaurant was the first to introduce Sudanese-style wraps to Edinburgh. Their business thrived, and it led to Gaili opening Khartoum Cafe in 2000.
There’s always a story behind a name, so Gaili tells me the significance behind those of his restaurants. Of the Nile Valley, he says, “This is our civilisation.” When he left Sudan, he wanted to bring his roots with him. Furthermore, the Nile Valley is the meeting place for two of the world’s great rivers, the White Nile and the Blue Nile. He says it is from this that the Dinka tribe derive the word ‘Khartoum’, which means ‘where the waters meet’. Speaking of naming methodology in general, he says, “It’s the same story as every small business. The name has to be related to your character; it has to say where you came from.”
During the financial crisis in 2008, Nile Valley Cafe was bought out, and Gaili began working at Khartoum Cafe full-time where he was later joined by one of his Nile Valley staff, Joanna Rodgers. Since then, Gaili has been experimenting with Khartoum Cafe’s menu. When we ask if the dishes at Khartoum differ at all from how they are traditionally prepared, he says: “The main soul of the dish stays the same.” He elaborates: “The kitchen is like a laboratory,” for in the same way you experiment with and “create medicine in the lab, you make food in the kitchen.” But no matter what, “it still has the spirit of the dish.”
The lunch menu currently offers classics like lentil soup, toasted wraps and salads with lamb, baba ghanoush, falafel, humus and plenty of other tasty fillings. Gaili hopes to add an okra dish called bamia to the menu soon, as it is one of his favourites. Recently, Khartoum Cafe has begun hosting special evening meals that offer dishes beyond the lunch menu – these BYOB dinners take place every Friday and Saturday evening.
Throughout our conversation, Gaili maintains his steady warmth even as the last sip of mint tea cools. He tells me that living and working in Edinburgh has been a “very rich experience”, for “every day you learn” and “meet interesting people”. While he’d like to return to Sudan at some point, he calls Edinburgh his “home from home”, and he’s enjoying his time here now. Certainly, Khartoum Cafe has found a home in this cosmopolitan city where the rivers of many lives continue to meet.
Still Hungry? Three more of Edinburgh's best African restaurants in Edinburgh
Nile Valley Cafe; Sudanese & Middle Eastern, 6 Chapel St: Also founded by Gaili, Nile Valley Cafe dish up delicious Sudanese and Middle Eastern fare. Their falafel wraps are hard to beat.
Indaba Deli; Spanish & South African, 17 Causewayside: Indaba Deli offer a mix of South African and Spanish dishes and deli produce, from hard-to-find wines and meats to delicious bocadillos for your lunchbreak.
Shebeen; South African, 250 Morrison St: Shebeen specialise in the meatier side of things – boerewors sausages, hearty stews and curries, and enormous pieces of steak.