As the people of Egypt rise up against three decades of corruption, they do so very aware of thousands of years of culture that includes the pharaohs, Cleopatra, some of the greatest scholarship and literature of the Arab world, the wonders of the Nile, the Suez Canal, the Aswan Damn—and, perhaps not as internationally renowned as I think it should be, kushari.
Kushari, sometimes spelled koshori in English, is a mix of lentils, rice, and macaroni topped with spicy tomato sauce and caramelized onions. It is exactly what an ideal revolution should be: easily assembled, quick, orderly, healthy for the whole nation, inexpensive, worth the effort, adaptable to the times. Most importantly, like a good revolution, kushari is all inclusive and socially conscious: while kushari is a traditional street food, it is also a comfort food served at the most elite of homes and it is something everyone loves–it pleases rich and poor, carnivores and vegetarians, children and adults, the health conscious and binge eater. Nor can you easily corrupt kushari—it can be amended to be organic, greasy, low fat, multigrain, or whatever the changing mores of the society dictate without losing its integrity.
I was introduced to kushari by an Egyptian co-worker in Qatar many years ago. The next time I went to Cairo, all I wanted was kushari. “We’d like to invite you to eat kabob along the Nile,” people would say. And I’d say, “Where can we get some good kushari?”
Arab hospitality isn’t about serving up simple food, so I rarely got my wish. “You’ll have to come over, and we’ll make it for you” is the common response. But I inevitably turn down these requests because of kushari’s above-mentioned revolutionary qualities: in Egypt, you don’t invite people over for something quick and easily assembled. Any kushari these friends and family made me at home would have also come with a leg of lamb and a roast chicken at a minimum.
Kushari isn’t served at fancy restaurants, and the street carts do require a certain amount of bravery and courage on the part of one’s gastrointestinal track. Instead, try making it home, just like an Egyptian. This recipe is from my friend who first introduced me to kushari.
1 C. long grain rice (use brown rice, if you prefer, but either way, the rice must not be mushy or sticky. It should be individual grains)
1 C. macaroni (use whole wheat, if you prefer)
1 C. brown lentils
2 large onions, sliced thinly
1 15.5 oz can of chopped tomatoes
4 cloves of garlic, minced
4 T. olive oil
Red pepper flakes to taste
Cook the rice, lentils, and macaroni separately, salting to taste.
Fry the onions in half the olive oil until caramelized and almost crispy
Sautee the garlic in the remaining olive oil. Add pepper flakes to taste. Add chopped tomatoes. (Feel free to further season this sauce as you like. I like to add a little allspice)
Assemble the kushari: Gently mix together the rice, lentils, and macaroni so they stay intact. Arrange on a platter. Pour the tomato sauce on top. Sprinkle with the fried onions. Serve immediately with additional sauce on the side.