In the ongoing informal series of foods from my childhood, today, I’m going to introduce you to Mujadarah.
Admittedly, this wasn’t my favorite dish growing up. I usually picked at it or ate it with lots of salad so I could get it down. But, as happens with most of us, my palate changed and discovered that I, even if I don’t love Mujadarah, I like it. It must have been the lentils.
The first record of mujadara dates back to 1226, in the Iraqi cookbook Kitab al-Tabikh by al-Baghdadi. It was known as “peasant food”. Mujaddara is the Arabic word for “pockmarked”; the lentils among the rice resemble pockmarks. Generally consisting of rice, lentils, sometimes burghul (#3 or #4 coarse grind), and, very occasionally, meat, it was served during celebrations. Without meat, it was a medieval Arab dish commonly consumed by the poor. Because of its importance in the diet, a saying in the Eastern Arab world is, “A hungry man would be willing to sell his soul for a dish of mujaddara.”
Arab Christians traditionally eat mujaddara during Lent. The dish is also popular among Jewish communities of Middle Eastern origin, in particular those of Syrian and Egyptian backgrounds; it is sometimes nicknamed “Esau’s favourite”. Jews traditionally ate it twice a week: hot on Thursday evening, and cold on Sunday.
If the recipe looks somewhat familiar to you, I’ve made a dish similar before, Koshari. The biggest difference is that Koshari has chick peas and pasta and is generally served with a tomato-cumin sauce.
A few notes:
1. You can make this dish with white rice, brown rice, or burghul wheat. If you use burghul, be sure to use a #3 (medium coarse) or #4 (coarse) grind. If you use burghul, it will be the standard 2:1 ratio you would use for white rice.
2. You can use either brown or green lentils. Don’t use red. They cook too soft for this dish.
3. My mom uses just cinnamon as the spice (other than salt & pepper). Play with the spices and come up with a combination you like.
4. While some do make this dish with meat, I’ve always eaten it as a vegetarian meal. If you want to add meat, follow the meat cooking instructions for Kidra.
1 c. brown or green lentils
2 c. white or brown long-grain rice
2 lb. onions, cut in half and sliced thin
4 c. water or broth (5 c. if using brown rice)
2 tsp. allspice
1 tsp. cumin
2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. pepper
1/4 c. + 2 tbsp. olive oil
1. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the rice and saute for 1 – 2 minutes.
Add the salt, pepper, allspice, and cumin. Cook until the spices begin to give off a fragrance, about 1 minute.
Add the water or broth, bring to a boil, cover the saucepan, and turn down the heat to low. Cook until the rice is done – 25 to 30 minutes for white, 45 to 50 minutes for brown.
2. Meanwhile, heat the 1/4 cup olive oil over medium heat in a large, deep skillet. Add the onions and a pinch of salt. Stir occasionally, until the onions are soft and begin to take on color.
Once the onions begin to brown, watch them more closely and stir more often; you want the onions to brown, not burn. Cook them down as far as you like. (I prefer them to be fully caramelized.) Depending on how dark you want the onions, it could take anywhere between 20 – 30 minutes to cook them.
When the onions are done, take them off the heat and set aside.
3. About halfway through the rice cooking time, place the lentils in a medium saucepan, cover with water to at least 1″ above the lentils, and bring to a boil over high heat. Cook the lentils, adding water as needed, until they are done, about 20 – 25 minutes.
4. When the lentils and the rice are done, mix them together (I usually do this in the pot I cooked the rice in). Mix in the onions. Taste for seasoning.
5. Mujadarah is usually served with either yogurt or a tomato-cucumber salad (basically tabouleh without the bulghur wheat).