Koshary: Food that travelled from the east
Culinary traditions from Islamic empires, such as Persia and the Ottoman empire have deeply influenced Indian cuisine. The story of Koshary is of a reverse journey of sorts. This ‘national dish’ of Egypt certainly travelled from India. Not only the idea of the food, but the name itself also reflects Indian influence. Once a food for the poor Koshary just in about a century has entered the world of Egypt’s haute cuisine. It’s still cheap, delicious, and healthy. It is also a story of an essentially Indian food modified with local Islamic culinary traditions.
Origins and the travel of Koshary
All scholars agree that Khichdi, an ancient Indian dish primarily of lentil and rice, first travelled to Britain. Thanks to the long colonial rule over India, many Indian dishes were being absorbed into the British culture. Thus the Indian Khichdi first entered into the kitchens of the British officers employed in India. Soon, it travelled to the British kitchen with wives of retired British officers falling for the spicy taste of Indian food. By the end of the 19th-century Indian cookbooks mushroomed all across Britain. Khichdi, of course, featured prominently, in the content. However, soon adjusting to British taste and tradition, local cooks added haddock fish and even eggs to the humble dish. And the name changed to Kedgeree.
At this juncture happened the Anglo-Egyptian war in 1882. And the so-called ‘veiled protectorate’ was established over Egypt, which lasted till 1914. A more formal British rule over Egypt was secured following the first World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. It was during this period that the British Kedgeree travelled to Egypt.
Soon via this colonial connection, some Indians also travelled to the North African Nation. As they settled, in a bizarre twist of culinary history, they brought their own plain dal-and-rice simple Khichdi. Lower class Egyptians soon adapted both as their own food and emerged the Koshary (also spelt as Kushari).
But there is a little more to the story. Among the ‘local’ ingredients that the Egyptians added to the simple lentil-and-rice affair, was the macaroni pasta. This had come with the small number of Italians who have been living in Egypt for centuries. Thus the Indian Khichdi quickly turned into Koshary adding macaroni with lentil and rice.
In the 19th century, this new dish used to be vended across the poorer quarters of Cairo on donkey-driven carts. Soon, hole-on-the-wall eateries included Koshary in their menu. And today, even highbrow star restaurants boast of their Koshary, the national dish.
Today the Egyptian capital is agog with restaurants with the word Koshary, Kushari, or Koshari in its name. And many of them are in plush downtown Cairo, each claiming its Koshary to be ‘the best’. A standard recipe is therefore difficult to produce. Here’s a simple one from a popular site:
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 cups uncooked white rice
3 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
16-ounce uncooked elbow macaroni
1 cup beluga lentils, soaked in water
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
5 onions, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
4 ripe tomatoes, diced
½ cup tomato paste
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 ½ teaspoons ground cumin
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
· Step 1
Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in rice; continue stirring until rice is coated with oil. Add 3 cups water and 1 teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to low, cover, and simmer until the rice is tender and liquid has been absorbed.
· Step 2
Fill a large pot with lightly salted water and bring to a rolling boil. Stir in the macaroni. Cook the macaroni uncovered until the it has cooked through. Drain well in a colander. Return macaroni to the cooking pot, cover, and keep warm.
· Step 3
Soak lentils for 30 minutes. Drain and rinse. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a pot and stir in lentils. Cover and reduce heat to low. Simmer until lentils are tender. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt.
· Step 4
Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in a large skillet. Cook the onions in the oil, until they begin to brown. Add garlic and cook another minute. Remove from pan, drain on a paper towel-lined plate.
· Step 5
Place half of the onion mixture into a saucepan. Mix in the vinegar. Add the chopped tomatoes and tomato paste, black pepper, 2 1/2 teaspoons salt, cumin, and cayenne (if using). Bring to a boil then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for about 12 minutes.
· Step 6
Serve by placing a spoonful of rice, then macaroni, and then the lentils on serving plates. Sprinkle with some of the browned onions, then top with tomato sauce.
(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)