For my birthday dinner in June, I requested koshari, the national dish of Egypt, found in in many Mediterranean countries and usually sold on the street.
A dish traditionally made of lentils, rice, chickpeas, elbow macaroni, and spicy tomato sauce, koshari is often topped with sliced onions. Aside from must-have ingredients, like lentils and rice, koshari’s precise composition may vary based on ingredient availability.
Koshari (also spelled koshary) may not be an ancient Egyptian dish. The word “koshari” is derived from a Hindi word, khichiri, which was a lentil and rice dish popular in India, a British colony for two hundred years. The British, who had a colony in Egypt from the late nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century, may have brought this dish from India to Egypt. The likelihood is high, however, that mixing lentils and rice was a customary practice for many millennia among people in the Middle East and wherever else these pulses and grains were grown.
Koshari is usually not served “piping hot” – instead, it’s served at ambient outdoor temperature, which in India and Egypt is pretty darn warm. To prepare each order, the vendor reaches into big pots of ingredients and assembles the dish in mere seconds. It’s a perfect street food item: once everything is cooked, you can put together a plate very quickly.
Koshari is a wonderful platter of food. The lentils, rice, chickpeas, elbow macaroni and fried onions offer a range of textural contrasts, and it’s the sort of food you can eat with a fork, spoon or with your bare hands (trickier for some but much easier for those from cultures that traditionally eat with the hands). Koshari is also a reliable source of protein and fiber, and it’s the sort of light meal that’s welcome in warmer weather.
The dish could not be simpler to prepare, although it does have several steps. Start by boiling the lentils, rice, chickpeas, and elbow macaroni according to the directions on their respective packages (canned versions of these ingredients, which do not taste as good as the dried version, are okay and are obviously easier to use). Mix cooked lentils and rice together with one-half teaspoon of coriander. Dredge sliced onion rings in flour and fry them in oil (or get some French’s fried onions, though making them yourself yields a vastly better-tasting result). Layer everything together on a platter, and ladle on some spicy tomato sauce. You can use a standard spaghetti sauce, thinned with a little water, and enhanced with a few added red pepper flakes, one teaspoon of coriander, and between one and two tablespoons of white vinegar.
July 23 is Egypt’s National Day, a celebration of the 1952 revolution that ousted King Farouk and ended British influence in Egypt. If you’ve been wracking your brain trying to figure out what to serve on this Egyptian holiday (always a challenge, right?!), you could not do better than to whip up a batch of Egypt’s national dish.