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Fill your belly, feed your spirit

Passport & Plate - Traditional Egyptian Koshary

Egypt | Friday, 6 March 2015 | 4 photos

1 cup green lentils
2 cups pasta (I use tubetti, but ditalini or macaroni are fine)
1 generous handful of vermicelli, broken-up
1 cup Egyptian white rice (washed)
1 can chickpeas
2 white onions
2 cloves chopped garlic
2 cans crushed tomatoes
1 1/2 cups vegetable stock
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tbsp cumin
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
corn oil


How to prepare this recipe
1. Wash the lentils. Put them in a pot and cover with water (2 cups should do it). Boil for 20 minutes or until tender. Drain and set aside, covered.
2. While lentils are cooking, dice one onion. Heat a little corn oil (just enough to thinly coat the pan), add the chopped garlic and diced onions, and fry until the onions are golden.
3. Transfer the garlic and onions to a saucepan. Add the crushed tomatoes, red wine vinegar, cumin, salt and pepper. Add 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes (or, if you're a fiend for heat like me, you can add a pinch more). Add vegetable stock. Stir and simmer for 20-30 minutes (keep on a low heat until everything else is finished).
4. Heat 2 tbsp oil in a deep pan, fry the vermicelli until it's golden brown. Add the rice and fry briefly. Add two cups water and a little salt. Bring to a boil. Leave the rice on high heat for 10-15 minutes until the rice has absorbed much of the water (there should just be a little water over the rice), then reduce to a very low heat and cook until the rice is done (should be another 10-15 minutes). Depending on how well you've washed the rice, it might require more water.
5. Heat up the can of garbanzo beans until warm.
6. Boil the pasta in salted water for 10 minutes (or until finished, depending on what type of pasta you're using).
7. Dice the other onion into fine crescents. Fry in a dry pan for five minutes. Add 3 tbsp oil and keep frying until the onions are brown and crispy. When the onions are fried, put them between two paper towels.
8. Put the tomato sauce in a blender and blend until smooth.

To serve (on a plate, or in a bowl, either works!): Start with a bed of macaroni, and the rice/vermicelli mix, add some chickpeas, and then lentils. Top with as much tomato sauce as you like (I like a lot!), and garnish with the fried onions. Enjoy.


The story behind this recipe
I discovered koshary when I studied abroad in Egypt in 2009. Ask anyone who’s been to Cairo, and they’ll say: you either hate it or you love it. When I lived there, I was happier than I'd ever been before in my life. I fell in love with the language, the people, the culture—and, of course, the food. But it’s a challenging place to live—hot, crowded, majnoona (crazy). Every day I took a bus from my downtown apartment to the isolated university campus in the suburbs. The hour-long drive took me past “Garbage City” where many of the city’s much-maligned Coptic Christians live amidst mountains of garbage, sorting it to make a few dollars from recycling. Poverty in Cairo isn’t contained to one group of people though, it’s everywhere. So it makes sense that many of the national dishes in Egypt are simple and cheap concoctions that stick to your ribs. Koshary has many of the ingredients you find in staple dishes all over the world: rice, beans, lentils. But koshary doesn’t just fill your belly. With its rich tomato sauce, crispy fried onions and a generous drizzle of vinegar and hot sauce, it embraces, comforts, and excites you with it’s flavor; it strengthens your spirit. I never had a bad day in Cairo that couldn’t be remedied with a big bowl of koshary.

When I returned to Texas, I found myself homesick for Egypt. I searched markets all over town to find the ingredients I needed to recreate the most authentic koshary I could manage. I wanted to share the dish with my family and friends, hoping that if they tasted it they might understand, a little, my love for Egypt.

In graduate school, I was able to return to Cairo. I saw how many things had changed since the revolution, and it made me very sad. But my favorite koshary restaurant—a few blocks from Tahrir square—was still there, bustling, serving huge bowls of my favorite comfort food. Art, architecture, governments, people—all can be destroyed by violent conflicts. But culinary traditions? They endure.

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