Before I moved to Toronto, the most exotic dish I probably ate was chicken curry that a neighbour’s mother had made. The aromas were definitely foreign to our family. But the flavour was monumentally changing for me. It was so different from anything my northern European sensibilities were used to. I fell in love with spices- the hot, warm, tangy ones that I hadn’t yet become familiar with. So, the move to Toronto was like a free pass with no closing hours to the tastiest Amusement Park. Every street had a brand new ride to discover, in the form of an ethnic restaurant or cafe. For the first time I tried Ethiopian, Sri Lankan, Filipino, Moroccan, Lebanese, Persian…you name it, Toronto is filled with fabulous ‘roller coasters’!
I guess I have a soft spot for all the various Mediterranean styles of cooking. Fresh, flavours, full of sunshine and warm winds, you just feel healthy eating these dishes. Italian, Provencal, Spanish and Greek are an easy fit. But then the Egyptian, Lebanese, Arabic, Jewish styles are the flip side of that coin. Maybe a bit more exotic, but they share a spice palate that I adore.
We all want to eat healthier. A hundred plus years ago, calorie counting, cholesterol levels, fibre intake, were just not a concern. You ate hearty, because you were up at 5am and probably going out to plough the back forty. Grains were whole, because there were no other kind. Bacon was OK! Refined, GMO, additives, processed, etc were words that didn’t even hit the dietary radar. But today… well, different story. Since I don’t have fields to plough daily from here in my condo, I have to find a way to eat that is fun, tasty, and good for us. So in the journey to explore colourful cuisines and track down healthy ones at the same time, I came across Koshari. I made it for the first time around 10 years back, and have had fun adjusting it ever since.
Koshari is Egyptian street food, vendors selling it from carts to line ups of eager people. It’s also the national dish of Egypt. It’s a combo of rice, pasta, lentils, smothered in a tangy tomato sauce, and garnished with frizzled onions and chick peas. Sounds strange maybe, carb overload surely…but then you taste it, and are hooked. The street vendors are a source of entertainment to the onlookers by the way they dish out the various components. Sure, rice and macaroni aren’t originally from Egypt. The British brought a lentil and rice dish over from India called ‘khichri’ when they began to colonize Egypt back in the 1800’s. The starches are covered in a tangy tomato sauce that has a kick to it thanks to a variety of spices. If you can find baharat (Egyptian spice blend) or ras el hanout (Moroccan spice blend) you are ahead of the game. These days, spice blends can be found in more and more grocery stores. I’ll include the recipe for baharat below. The best garnish: crunchy frizzled onions – the crunchy sweetness is amazing. Some also add chick peas on top- I’m sure it tastes lovely, but I’ve never had it this way, and I’m good with the amount of carbs already!! I am making this a bit healthier than the traditional recipe- alternative grains etc, but it doesn’t affect the taste AT ALL. This recipe serves 4 generously, 6 easily. And this is a recipe you can easily personalize, by changing up the ingredients and spice blend. Below is an example of using black forbidden rice, brown Turkish lentils, ditalini pasta, roasted pureed tomatoes, and fried shallots tossed in dukkah. The recipe for my Dukkah blend is here. And if you use gluten free pasta, this can be enjoyed by those with gluten intolerances or worse.
Egyptian Koshari (Rice, Lentils and Pasta in a Rich, Spicy Tomato Sauce)
A wonderful blend of rice, lentils and pasta in a spicy, tangy tomato sauce. Chilli. Stew. Egyptian!
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 3/4 cup brown basmati rice or any medium grain rice. If you are using white grain rice, the cooking time will be less than stated below. Adjust accordingly
- 2 cups vegetable stock or water (enough water to cover the rice by a good inch)
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 3/4 cup brown lentils
- 1 1/2 cups water or vegetable stock
- 1 cup brown rice macaroni or any whole grain small pasta, or even gf pasta
- 1 garlic clove quartered
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 onion diced
- 2 garlic cloves minced
- 1 29 oz (796 ml) can of San Marzano tomatoes crush the tomatoes with your fingers and use all the juice in the can
- 2 tsp or up to 1 tbsp baharat spice blend see Notes below
- 1 tsp chilli flakes
- 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
- kosher salt and cracked black pepper
- 1 large onion finely sliced (top to tail direction)
- 1/4 cup AP flour
- oil for frying
This is a dish that is all about assembling. The various starches can be prepared while the tomato sauce is simmering. If you are using brown rice, you will want to start this before the tomato sauce. Keep them warm, covered in their various pots, or in oven safe bowl and tin foil in a low temp oven, if you only have a couple of saucepans. As each ingredient is ready you can keep adding it to this bowl.
Heat 2 tbsp of olive oil in med saucepan over med-high heat. Add the rice and stir. Add ground cumin and stir to cover with oil. Saute for 2 minutes. Add the stock or water and 1/2 tsp salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cover. Cook for 30 minutes, or until rice is tender. (If you are using a different style rice, cooking time will be reduced) Strain any excess water. Cover and set aside. (or add to the bowl to be placed in the oven) And if you have a rice cooker, well, fabulous!
Heat 2 tbsp olive oil in med saucepan over med-high heat. Add onion and saute till golden, about 5 minutes. Add minced garlic and saute 1 minute longer.
Add tomatoes and juices, spice blend, chilli flakes and vinegar. Bring to a simmer, cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, with the lid off to allow for the sauce to thicken. Season with salt and pepper, and add more seasonings to taste. I like more rather than less!
LENTILS AND PASTA
Rinse the lentils under cold water and add them to another saucepan with at least 1 1/2 cups water or stock. Add the quartered garlic and bay leaf. Bring to a boil, then reduce to low, cover and simmer for 20-30 minutes till tender. Add more liquid if the lentils are soaking it all up- they should be covered until tender. Drain any excess liquid and season with salt and pepper. Add to the bowl of rice in the oven.
Cook the macaroni according to the package you are using. Only cook till al dente. Strain and toss with a little olive oil. Add to the bowl of rice and lentils in the oven. Cover with foil.
Take sliced onions and toss in a bowl with just enough flour to cover.
Fill saute or saucepan with about 3/4" of oil. Heat to med-high.
Take small handfuls of onions, shaking off excess flour, and gently place into the oil. Fry until golden (this should take about 2-3 minutes, but watch), turning occasionally.
Remove to paper-towel lined plate, sprinkle with salt. Continue until all the onions are done.
Alternatively you can toss the finished onions in a tbsp of dukkah spice blend (search in blog for this recipe) for added Egyptian flavours!
Place the rice, lentils and pasta into a large bowl with a sprinkling of the baharat and a tbsp or so of olive oil. Toss to combine.
Either take this combo and put it onto a serving platter or put into individual bowls. Top with tomato sauce and then garnish with the frizzled onions.
This recipe serves 4 generously.
Baharat Spice Blend (will keep for up to six months) This makes about two cups, so you may want to halve, depending on your cooking style. This can be used in all sorts of dishes, or spice rubs, giving any dish an Arabic twist!
4 tbsp cracked pepper
2 tbsp ground cinnamon
2 tbsp ground coriander
2 tbsp ground cloves
3 tbsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground cardamom
4 tsp ground nutmeg
4 tbsp paprika
Combine well. Store in airtight jar and keep away from sunlight
Baharat Blend adapted from Daring Gourmet