How Koshary Saved a Starving Student
I suddenly stopped on the pavement, momentarily bewildered to find my grandfather on my mind. I tried to think why—l looked around me on the street for clues. But I don’t connect him with London in any way. No one had mentioned him to me recently. Then, just as I decided to carry on walking down St Martin’s Lane, I knew. Fried onions—their smell carried on a breeze from a restaurant’s open doorway. It was impossible to catch the scent of crispy fried onions without thinking of Gedo (as I called him). He was a university professor of genetics, a talented artist with an encyclopedic knowledge of the world, but for me, his signature legacy was koshary.
Koshary is an Egyptian dish of beans and rice. There’s a bit more to it than that, but to understand how a dish can be so simple and so complex all at once, we have to start in the South.
You wouldn’t know it now; it’s been twenty-three years since I lived in the United States, and my accent bears no hint of Southernness. But I actually grew up in Mullins, South Carolina, and then a couple of places in North Carolina, from about age five to seventeen. My parents were from Egypt but had left well over a decade earlier and settled in America following nine years in England. I remember the hallways of my elementary school in a small town called Kenansville, and that my dog actually knew what time to come back to school in the afternoon to walk me home. I remember people being curious about me because I used to get really dark from the sun in the summer and they had never met anyone from Egypt before. People just could not work me out: they asked me whether we walked backward in Egypt, and if there was electricity there. They were under the impression that we must be enormously wealthy because my father was a doctor. I suspected I didn’t fit in there, so deciding I was a vegetarian at about fourteen, even though I’d never met one, didn’t seem all that unusual. I ate popcorn shrimp, sure, and Chicken McNuggets. But when it came to real meat—like things my mother made—every bite conjured a mental image of a voracious saber-toothed carnivore. So as soon as I went away to boarding school in Winston-Salem, NC, at fifteen and didn’t have to worry about offending my mother by turning down her cooking, I stopped eating all forms of meat and fish.
When I went to university in Cairo, I had only been vegetarian for two years, so it made sense that every single member of my extended family assumed that this was just an adolescent phase brought about by rebellion and foolish bravado. A few comments began to make regular appearances in conversations any time food was being served, like a familiar refrain from a song: “But God only forbids pork—you can eat the rest.” “This is rabbit—what about rabbit? Okay, shrimp, how about shrimp?” In Egypt, the Arabic word for vegetarian is nabati, but this really referred to the main “aim” or theme of the dish, rather than a lack of meat. What this meant in practical terms was that pretty much any dish that looked like it was just vegetables had two key accomplices: tomato sauce and ground beef.
Still, Egyptian cuisine is fantastically rich and diverse—so much so that I still don’t understand why it’s always Lebanese restaurants you find abroad and almost never Egyptian. So even though absolutely no self-respecting Egyptian would contemplate a meal without meat, there were many dishes that one could find that didn’t include it. These, of course, were the street food dishes because, like in most countries, in Egypt meat is more expensive than vegetables. So if you were one of the millions of Egyptians who lived below the poverty line, your nourishment was dependent on a few staples: ful (brown fava beans), tamiya (Egypt’s version of falafel), and koshary. And what did all three of these dishes have in common? Beans were the principal ingredient.
Beans are a humble food, very unassuming given their long history of cultivation and incredible capacity to nourish. Their dietary presence can be followed around the world, with many countries declaring them to be part of a national dish. Although popular recollection whittles down their dietary contribution to protein, they unassumingly offer our cells calcium, iron, potassium, B vitamins, and many other nutrients. They are cholesterol- and fat-free—the original superfood.
My vegetarianism in Egypt initially felt like a bit of a punishment, with the cafeteria at the American University in Cairo decreeing death by prandial monotony: each day the only thing I could choose was white rice and the vegetable of the day (usually zucchini) swimming in oily tomato sauce. It was there I learned that yogurt actually cut through excessive grease, masking it enough to make it digestible. After weeks and months of the cafeteria’s stomach-turning, repetitive fare, I took my nutrition into my own hands and ventured past the canteen. The university was a city campus at the time, so within seconds of leaving campus I was in Cairo proper, just off the now-world-famous Tahrir Square. I wandered past shops with window displays that were so full it seemed everything they had to sell had been suspended by fishing wire in the hopes of reeling in passers-by for a sale. Shop after shop after shop, turn a corner, walk under a green footbridge, and then suddenly, there it was: a galley kitchen–shaped restaurant that meant serious business.
At the time I didn’t know the significance of koshary, or what it would come to mean to me. I remember well my mother’s laments when my grandfather wanted to fry up onions to put on his food, but no one ever told me that his plate of rice and lentils with some fried onions thrown on top was a national treasure—an institution. It was ironic, actually; my grandfather had told me the history and origins of so many things, but he never once explained the story of koshary. In fact, cooking it was one of the few things he did quietly, almost like a ritual. Perhaps it was so second nature, it never occurred to him as something he might explain.
The sheer pulsation of energy and controlled chaos attracted me to this take-away restaurant. If Henry Ford did kitchens, this would be how they ran. Men were standing shoulder to shoulder at a counter and at the same time were moving around in a well-practiced dance of service. Four massive brass pots were lined up in a row, each containing an essential ingredient: white rice mixed with browned vermicelli, macaroni, lentils and chickpeas, and fried onions. The dish was topped up with a good splash of tomato sauce with garlic and vinegar, and for the adventurous, shatta, a spicy chili sauce.
Now there are two things about students: they love to eat, and they never have any money. A meal of koshary was served in a plastic tub and cost one Egyptian pound, which, even in 1992, was basically nothing in dollars. Pretty much before you could finish asking for a tub of the stuff, it was being handed to you. Fast, delicious, nutritious, and cheaper than chips. I was in love, and I began eating there as often as I could.
Beans and rice: almost everyone thinks the dish was invented where they come from. A dish laden in local lore, eaten the world over—from Louisiana to Latin America, from the Middle East to Mumbai. Rice brings its own strength to the partnership; far from being just a bed on which the beans can rest, rice is an excellent source of energy and also contains iron, vitamin B, and protein. Together, beans and rice make up a complete protein, nourishing us with the amino acids the body needs and cannot produce itself. Beans and rice bridge national divides—the dish is the soccer of the culinary world: everyone embraces it. If only I had known this as a child, that my culture had beans and rice, too, maybe I could have gotten the kids in that small Southern town to understand me. Maybe my grandfather could have taught them to fry onions that taste better than fried chicken.
More than twenty years later, I’m not just vegetarian, but vegan. Now I live in London, where the reputation of local food has moved from abysmal to one of the best places on the planet to dine. Any cuisine you could possibly desire is here, along with an entire expatriate community to delight in it. Gone are the days when the British had to apologize for their cooking; today, London has some of the best restaurants in the world. It also has some of the best food markets. What makes them great is the mix of not only luscious local farm produce but artisanal gourmet produce and products from Europe and beyond.
A few years ago, I decided to let food become my sustenance in every sense: it didn’t just feed me—it paid the bills too. I opened my own one-woman vegetarian catering business and called it Nadia’s Kitchen. I cooked for birthdays, weddings, and other celebrations. I gave cooking lessons in my own home. I used to theme them: sometimes by ingredient, other times by geography. People used to find me on the Internet, ecstatic that they could get someone to help them vegetarianize their favorite cuisine. One day, a lady contacted me in a slight desperation: she was Egyptian but had never learned to cook. Until recently, her mother had been living with them and cooked all the traditional food for her children. When grandma returned to Egypt, the kids were beyond consolation: who was going to cook for them? The mother admitted to me: she only knew how to make fish sticks. Would I teach her some classic Egyptian dishes? Well, I said, as a vegetarian, I might not be able to help. Not to worry, their favorite dish was koshary. And so I taught her to make it: the art of frying the onions to a crisp without burning them; the secret that you just need to use plain old white vinegar and tomato juice, nothing fancy; and how to brown vermicelli. It was a hit, and I like to think I played a small part in her becoming a hero in her children’s eyes.
Now and then, I make the recipe myself, and I remember my grandfather, quietly frying onions. Such a basic connection, such a primal form of nourishment. The simplicity of the dish reminds me of how little we need—so much less than we imagine—to be happy.
(to serve four)
1 cup/ 210g brown lentils
1 cup/185g short grain rice (like for paella)
½ cup/ 60g vermicelli
1 cup/150g macaroni (elbow pasta)
½ can chick peas (optional as garnish)
1 large white onion, cut in half, then sliced
8 tbsp oil for frying onion
For the tomato sauce
2 cups/500ml tomato juice
6 cloves/30g garlic, crushed
¼ cup/60ml oil (sunflower, vegetable, corn)
¼ cup/60 ml white malt vinegar
cayenne pepper to taste (optional)
(1) For the tomato sauce, fry the garlic in the oil in a small saucepan, stirring constantly, until browned. Add salt and tomato juice (and cayenne if using) and cook until oil rises to the top. Add vinegar and bring to a boil. Turn off heat and set aside.
(2) Place the lentils in a small to medium sized pan and add a pinch of salt. Cover with 3-4 cups/700-900 ml of water, bring to a boil and leave simmering for about 20 minutes, until tender but still firm.
(3) Whilst lentils are boiling, heat oil in a medium saucepan and add onion slices, spreading them out. Stir only occasionally and allow to become a deep golden brown. Remove from pan and set aside.
(4) Using the same pan as the onion, add a little more oil and fry the vermicelli until browned, stirring regularly.
(5) Add 1.5 cups/ 350ml water, the rice and a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Turn heat down and cook until water is absorbed.
(6) Whilst the rice is cooking, bring a small pot of water with a bit of oil and salt to a boil, add the macaroni and cook until ready, about 10 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Assembling the dish
Either in one main dish, or in individual bowls, layer the ingredients as follows:
- Tomato sauce
- Chick peas