Sunday, February 13, 2011

The food that made the revolution-- Koshary

This past week we witnessed one of the great triumphs of the human freedom and the human spirit. I write this as a Zionist. What have the Egyptians done but begun to take control of their own destiny, just as Zionism allowed the Jewish people to take control of their's. The January 25 revolution is comparable to the end of apartheid in South Africa, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the civil rights movement and I would argue ( most Egyptians would disagree but I hope that they will be able to change their mind in the coming years) the creation of the state of Israel.  But history is uncertain and tragic. No one knows what is going to come of recent events and all of the great turns in the past have had unforseen consequences for good and ill.  One of my favorite stories is about a conversation between Henry Kissinger and Zhou En-lai in the 1970s.  Kissinger asked Zhou what he thought were the consequences of the French Revolution.  Zhou's reply:  "It's too soon to tell."   But for the moment, and regardless what ultimately happens, we can and should share the joy of the people of Egypt.

There are many questions about the Egyptian revolution.  How will political parties coalesce?  Will the military cede power to civilians?  What role will the Moslem Brotherhood, a complex and divided movement, ultimately play?  Who will emerge as leader?  What will happen elsewhere in the Middle East?

But for me, one question surpasses all others.  What were they eating in Tahrir Square? The answer is actually quite simple:  Koshary.  There are also many photos of koshary vendors hawking their wares in Styrofoam containers in Tahrir. For an on the ground report, see this from the Serious Eats blog.

Koshary is the ultimate Cairo cheap street food. It is a layered concoction of pasta, lentils (often mixed with rice), spicy tomato sauce, and browned onions.  I have heard two derivations of the name:  either it is related to kitcheree, and Indian rice and dal porridge or pilaf,  or it denotes that the dish is kosher, in that it is vegetarian and could be eaten by relatively observant Jews.  It is not peasant food, but quintessentially urban.  It is also not really home cooking, but rather the type of thing you pick up at the corner, like pizza in New York. My daughter came back from a visit to Cairo raving about it and asked me to make it for her.  Though generally not made it home, is not at all difficult, and many of the parts can be made in advance so I hope Maya will now make it for herself. 

I have adapted my version from the recipe in Clifford Wright's monumental cookbook, A Meditteranean Feast:  The Story of the Birth of the Celebrated Cuisines of the Mediterranean from the Merchants of Venice to the Barbary Corsairs , which does for the cooking of the region what Braudel did for its history.  His recipe is also available on his website .  I have altered it somewhat by increasing the proportion of lentils and changing the spicing to make it more interesting, but still consistent with Cairene flavors.  So, if you want to share the sustenance of the people of Cairo, as well as their joy, try this recipe for:

   Since this is a mixture, I am presenting each constituent separately.  The final proportions are approximate, and can be altered to suit your taste or how much of each you have on hand.  This will serve about 6 for dinner with a salad. You can easily double the recipe.

For the onions:

This takes the longest so you will need to start it first.   Cut a very large Spanish onion in half, and then into thin rings.  Heat 3-4 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet, add the onions and saute on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are golden and then  start to brown.  Turn up heat to high and cook, stirring for another 3 to 10 minutes, and take out when some but not all of the onions turn dark brown but not black.  Remove with a slotted spatula or spoon and drain on paper towels.  They should crisp as they cool.  It is difficult to give exact times because there are so many variables. 

For the pasta:

Boil about 1/2 pound of pasta in  well salted water until more tender than you usually would. When done, drain well, add a bit of butter, and set aside in the serving dish. Traditionally, the pasta is a mixture of elbows or ditalini and broken up spaghetti.   Use a mixture of what you have around, and long as there is come combination of tubular and long pasta.  I used penne, linguine, and farfalle.  Use only macaroni pasta, not egg pasta.

For the lentils and rice:

Rinse and then soak 1 cup French green lentils in water for about 4 hours. (This softens then so that they cook in about the same time as the rice.  If you use regular brown lentils, then you don't need to soak.  Rinse 1 cup of rice (I used jasmine) soak in water 1/2 hour and drain well. Heat 1 tablespoon of ghee or olive oil in a 3 quart pot.  Add 1/2 tablespoon of whole cumin seed and  saute a until it begins to darken.  Add 1 onion, finely diced, sprinkle lightly with salt and saute on medium-high until it softens and begins to brown.  Add 2-4 cloves sliced garlic and saute another minute.  Add the rice, saute a minute, and add the drained lentils, and mix well with the rice.  Season with a few grindings of black pepper.  Add 2 cups of boiling water (you may need a bit more depending on the shape of your pot to cover the rice and lentils). Cover tightly, and cook for 20 minutes.  (I generally don't salt this much until it is done, because salt can inhibit the softening of the lentils.) Set aside to rest for at least 10 minutes. This makes a fine dish by its own, especially topped with the onions, and is called mujedderah.

For the tomato sauce:

Heat a little olive oil in a 2-3 quart pot.  Add one small onion, finely diced.  When it is soft and golden but not browned, add about 6-10 cloves of garlic, crushed with some salt in a mortar and pestle and mixed with 2 teaspoons ground coriander and 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper. (You can also smash the garlic on a cutting board with the flat of a cleaver or large knife and work it into a puree, and then work in the spices. If you don't have Aleppo pepper, add 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne at the end with the vinegar.) Cook the garlic spices and onions on low until the garlic looses its raw aroma, about 2 minutes.  Add one 6-ounce can of tomato paste and stir to saute a few minutes.  Add 2 -3 cups boiling water (or cold water and bring to the boil) mixing it in slowly to dissolve the paste into a sauce.  Add about 20 grinds of black pepper.  Cook 20 minutes and add 2 teaspoons rice or white wine vinegar.  Taste for spciness, salt and sourness.  In addition to using it on koshary, this sauce is great on broiled fish or plain steamed or sauteed vegetables, especially green beans.

Putting it all together

Traditionally, a shop would have all the components warm and just assemble it in a serving bowl or to-go container when ordered.  You can do something similar and keep them separate and warm on hot plates or over boiling water and let people assemble it themselves, but I think it is a whole lot easier if you put it together before serving.  Put the buttered warm pasta in a serving dish, top with the rice and lentils, salting to taste as you put them on.  Pour about one quarter of the tomato sauce on top.  If necessary, you can reheat it all now in a microwave or oven.  Just before serving, top with the fried onions and pass the sauce separately. 


  1. Thanks so much! I was just having a conversation with a colleague about this very dish, but both of us had forgotten what it was called.

  2. Hi Alan where can we buy the kosher sausage and black vinegar?