When you mention the word “Koshari” ( كشرى) to an Egyptian, you will likely see someone with a blissful look in their eyes and a smile on their face. It is regarded by nearly every Egyptian, as well as food historians and enthusiasts, as the National Dish of Egypt. It’s a wonderful starch-fest of pasta, rice, lentils, and, sometimes, chick peas. The addition of caramelized onions and a spicy, tangy tomato sauce complete the ensemble.
However, Koshari isn’t Egyptian in origin. It is said to have come form the Indian dish “Kitchiri” (meaning a dish with rice & lentils) brought to Egypt by British Occupation troops in the late 19th – early 20th Century. The British troops found the dish filling, delicious, and, most importantly, safe to eat. The local inhabitants took a liking to this new dish and it became immensly popular.
Additonally, rice isn’t native to Egypt. So, the Indian origin of the Koshari makes sense. The Indians got rice from the Persians who most likely learned about it from the Chinese. Rice wasn’t introduced into Egypt until approximately 1000 BCE. (It seems like a long time ago. But, in this part of the world, it’s a blip in time.) Also, the tomato sauce served with the dish is another Western addition. Tomatoes & chiles are native to the Americas. So, Koshari is a great example of what happens when cultures clash – in a good way.
Because it is a vegetarian/vegan dish, it is popular with Coptic Christians during Lent and other religious fast days.
This is a colorful description of how Koshari is served on the street and in the restaurants of Egypt:
“As the Koshary man scoops, he knocks his metal spoon against the sides of the bowls, making the Koshary symphony that you won’t hear elsewhere. When the Koshary man prepares an order of more than four the restaurant fills with sound as if it was a rehearsal for a concert. “The restaurants of Koshary are very noisy. One sits to eat while the Koshary man practices his drums in your ears.”
Abou Tarek, by the way, is the place to go.
(Some information from abissadacooks.blogspot.com; theegyptiancorner.blogspot.com; and, wikipedia.org)
Now, on to the recipe.
I generally make this recipe with brown rice and whole wheat pasta. The more traditional recipes are with white rice and regular flour pasta. Use whatever you like. Also, chick peas are completely optional. I like to use them.
1 c. brown lentils, picked over and rinsed
1/2 c. pasta, like elbow, gemelli, penne, etc. (I like to use whole wheat)
1 c. rice (I like brown rice)
1 can garbanzos (chick peas), drained
3 lbs. onion, peeled and sliced thin (about 1/4″ thick)
1/2 c. olive oil
1 tsp. ground cumin
Sat & Pepper to taste
Stewed Tomato Sauce
2 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 c. onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 15-oz can crushed tomatoes (I like Muir Glen Fire Roasted)
2 tsp. white vinegar
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
Salt & pepper to taste
1. Cook the rice. Bring 2 cups lightly salted water to a boil and add the rice. Turn the heat down to low, cover the saucepan, and cook until the rice is done, about 40-50 minutes. Remove the rice from the heat and set aside.
2. Meanwhile, cook the lentils. Bring 4 cups water to a boil and add the lentils. Cook until the lentils are soft, about 25 – 30 minutes. Drain and set aside.
3. Cook the pasta. Bring 4 c. salted water to a boil. Add the pasta and stir until the water comes to boil again. Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Drain and set aside.
4. Cook the onions. This is actually is the longest part of the whole process, but for me anyway, is the best part. The trick is to be patient when cooking the onions. I cook them over medium-low to medium heat. You can cook the onions as little or as much as you like, but the traditional way is to caramelize them.
Heat the olive oil over high heat. Add the onions. (I also like to add a teaspoon of salt. It helps to release moisture from the onions and breaks them down a little faster.) Turn the heat down to medium-low and cover with a piece of foil. (I find steaming the onions also helps with breaking them down.) For the first 30 minutes, stir the onions occasionally, making sure you keep them covered.
5. Meanwhile, make the sauce. Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions and garlic and saute until the onions are soft.
6. Add the tomatoes and lower the heat to low. Cover and simmer the sauce for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
7. After 20 minutes, add in the cumin, cayenne, vinegar, and salt & pepper to taste. Set aside until the Khoshari is done.
8. While the sauce is cooking, the onions will continue to caramelize. At this point, you will need to begin keeping a closer eye on the onions and stirring them more frequently.
9. Once the onions are done, remove them from the heat, take them out of the oil, drain, and spread out on paper towels. Keep the oil.
10. In the reserved oil, heat the rice, pasta, lentils, and garbanzos over medium-high heat. Add the cumin, salt and pepper to taste.
11. Add in the onions and mix thoroughly. Taste for seaoning and heat through.
12. Serve the Khoshari with the sauce on the side. Or, on top if you like.