Come lunch time in the gritty, chaotic Cairo, the capital of Egypt (and my hometown), and you’ll see the locals lined up at every koshary store in the neighbourhood, waiting for their massive serving of the nation’s favourite street-food lunch…and it’s rather easy to see why it’s so popular.
Koshary, one of Egypt’s National dishes, is a hearty dish composed of rice, lentils, chickpeas, pasta, topped with a spicy tomato sauce and fried onions. Yet another ‘accidentally vegan’ Egyptian dish, much like Fuul and Taameyya, it too arose out of a need for a filling, nutrient-dense dish to fuel the general population, at a remarkably cheap price.
A seemingly common theme with most everyday-type dishes in Egyptian cuisine, Koshary is heavily reliant on grain and legumes. It may seem like a rather odd combination at first, with so many starchy, carb-y components that you might not think to put together in the same dish…but trust me when I tell you; this stuff is dangerously addictive.
The ingredients of this dish are exceedingly humble, yet this is a meal that packs a SERIOUS punch! What it lacks in glamour and fanciness, it more than makes up for with bags and bags of flavour, as well as nourishment. Koshary is loaded with amazing plant-based protein and heaps of fibre, which is a sure way to keep your body well fuelled with all the good stuff and keep hunger at bay for ages.
Because this dish is split into quite a few components, let me break it down for you to make it easier to grasp.
1- The Base
The base of koshary is the white rice and brown lentils. Some people like to cook them separately, but I much prefer combining them together, as I find the lentils add a beautifully rich earthy flavour to the rice as they cook together in the same pot. We use regular Egyptian rice, which is a medium-short grain white rice that cooks up nice and fluffy while retaining its shape.
2- The Pasta
Some shops use a mixture of spaghetti and small Ditalini pasta, but I think it tastes so much better with just one type of small pasta. I prefer that the components of any dish be uniform or similar in size; it just makes the eating experience better in my opinion. I use only Ditalini, but any small shape of pasta will work.
3- The Chickpeas
Because this dish has so many components, I like to take a shortcut here and just use canned, ready-cooked chickpeas. They are just as good and save me the trouble of having yet another pot going on the stove at the same time, but you can definitely cook your own chickpeas if you like.
4- The Tomato Sauce
A very simple tomato-paste based sauce, flavoured with plenty of garlic, cumin and a dash of vinegar and chilli powder. We love putting LOTS of sauce on our koshary in my house, so I made sure the recipe below makes a very generous amount.
5- The ‘Dakka’
Think of this as a dressing of sorts. It is a punchy combination of raw minced garlic, vinegar, spices and chilli, and is ESSENTIAL to the Koshary experience!
6- The Fried Onions
The all-important final garnish; crispy, salty, deep golden-brown…this element really makes the dish sing. We are always fighting over the fried onions in my house, so I tend to double the amount in the recipe below, or make a second batch the following day when we are reheating the leftovers.
The final union of all of these simple yet carefully prepared components is nothing short of a masterpiece. You will undoubtedly find yourself going for seconds and thirds, always serving yourself with more than you think you could possibly handle, but always smashing the entire plate nonetheless. I love serving this meal buffet-style, where everyone can construct their own individual Koshary creation according their idea of perfection; mine is always smothered with extra sauce, dakka and a MOUNTAIN of fried onions!
I’m not going to beat around the bush here; this meal does take a bit of time and effort to put together, and more pots and pans that I like to use in my day-to-day cooking…but the good thing about it is that it reheats absolutely perfectly! I usually make a big batch and then we continue to have it for dinner for the following 2-3 days, only having to fry some extra onions each day so that they are nice and crispy. It is pretty much my husband’s all time favourite lunch to take to work, in true Egyptian form.
We find ourselves craving Koshary every couple of months, and few dishes ever cater to our homesickness as well as this one does. Please do give it a try, if only to marvel at how incredibly flavourful and satisfying a humble vegan meal can be, and to get a true taste of Cairo in your own home.
- FOR THE FRIED ONIONS
- • neutral vegetable oil as needed (I use light,refined olive oil)
- • 3 brown onions, thinly sliced into half-rings
- • ½ tsp. salt
- FOR THE KOSHARY BASE
- • 250g brown lentils, soaked overnight or at least for 4 hours
- • 500g white rice (medium-short grain), washed 4 times & drained well*
- • 800ml water
- • 1.5 tsp salt
- FOR THE TOMATO SAUCE
- • 6 cloves garlic, minced
- • 500g tomato paste (salsa in Arabic)
- • 1L water
- • 1 tsp. ground cumin
- • 1 tsp. ground coriander
- • 1 tsp. chilli powder, optional
- • 1 tbsp. sugar
- • salt & pepper to taste
- • 3 tbsp. white vinegar
- FOR THE DAKKA
- • 3 cloves garlic, minced
- • 1 tsp. ground cumin
- • 1 tsp. ground coriander
- • ½ tsp. chilli powder
- • ½ tsp. salt
- • 3 tbsp. white vinegar
- • ¼ cup water
- • a squeeze of lemon juice
- TO SERVE:
- • 1 packet (500g) ditalini pasta, cooked according to packet instructions
- • 1 (400g) can of cooked chickpeas, rinsed and drained
- THE NIGHT BEFORE YOU COOK THE KOSHARY: Make sure you remember to soak the lentils in a big bowl of water the night before you want to cook the koshary. A minimum of 4 hours will work as well, so if you are short on time, soak them in the morning before cooking.
- FRY THE ONIONS: In a large pot, add vegetable oil until it reaches about 2 centimetres up the side of the pot. The amount of oil used will differ depending on the size of your pot. Place the pot on medium-high heat, and once the oil is hot (that takes about 2 minutes, you can test with one slice of onion; it should sizzle right away), add the sliced onions. Sprinkle with the salt and continue to fry the onions until deep golden brown, stirring them often so that they brown evenly. This takes about 7-10 minutes.
- Remove them from the oil with a slotted spoon and place them on a large plate lined with several layers of kitchen paper towels to drain the excess oil, and set aside. Tip: You want the onions to be nicely browned, but not burnt! Take them out slightly before you think they are ready, as they do continue to darken slightly after.
- There should still be plenty of oil left in the pot after frying the onions; do not discard it! Pour half of it into a smaller pot (the one you will be using to make the tomato sauce), and keep the rest in this large pot for making the koshari base (next step).
- MAKE THE KOSHARY BASE: In the same pot you fried the onions, while the oil is still hot, add the soaked, rinsed & drained lentils. Stir them for 2 minutes, then add the washed, drained rice. Stir for a further 2 minutes to toast the grains nicely, then add the water and salt.
- Bring to a full boil on high heat, then turn down the heat to the lowest possible setting and cover the pot (if you have a metal heat diffuser, place that under the pot for more even cooking). Cook for 30-40 minutes, until everything is soft and cooked through but still holds its shape. I like to give the mixture a stir just once, halfway through the cooking time, but it isn’t necessary.
- MAKE THE TOMATO SAUCE: Meanwhile, as the rice & lentils cook, make the tomato sauce. Place the smaller pot where you added half the oil from the onions on medium heat. Add the garlic, and cook for just a minute until fragrant, then add the tomato paste and cook for 2-3 minutes.
- Add the water, then add the rest of the ingredients for the sauce. Bring to a simmer and cook, partially covered for about 20 minutes, until thickened slightly. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
- MAKE THE DAKKA: Combine all the ingredients for the dakka in a jar or small bowl, mix and set aside.
- BOIL THE PASTA: Cook the pasta in plenty of water according to packet instructions, then drain and toss with a tablespoon of oil to prevent the from sticking to each other.
- TO ASSEMBLE THE KOSHARY: When it is time to serve the koshary, it is best done in a banquet style; I like to lay out all the components and people get to construct their own bowl according to preference. The usual serving order is as follows: in a bowl, start with the rice & lentils as the base, then add some pasta, then chickpeas, a little dakka (a little goes a long way!), some tomato sauce then fried onions to top it off. Serve hot!
• We all like extra onions in our house, so I often double the quantity in the recipe. However, if you do double it, fry them in 2 batches, adding extra oil if needed in between. Bear in mind that the onions don’t stay crunchy for long, so sometimes I prefer to make an extra batch of fried onions the next day for leftovers instead of making a double batch on the first day.
• If you wish to make the koshary even more nutritious: you may swap the white rice for brown rice. However, you will need to soak the brown rice as you do the lentils (in a seperate bowl of water overnight), as it can take much longer to cook otherwise, and bear in mind that the resulting cooked rice won't be as soft and fluffy as with white rice. The pasta may also easily be swapped for wholegrain pasta.