There's that old saying about doing as the Romans do when in Rome. But when you're in Cairo, don't mimic the Egyptians like you would the Romans–at least when it comes to eating street food. The number of food carts in the country's capital is as many as the warnings you'll receive from fellow Egyptians to dish your heart out elsewhere. The last time I visited Egypt, no matter how many words of vigilant caution I received from my aunts, uncles, cousins and cousins' wives, there was a type of street food my taste buds couldn't resist–koshari. Koshari is to Egyptians what mac 'n' cheese is to Americans, a household staple, minus the cheese, plus a whole bunch of other carbs.
It's an Egyptian lasagna, vegetarian style. A layer of elbow macaroni
covers a bed of a soft lentil-and-rice mixture imbued with the
salty-sweet flavor of fried onions. A cumin-and-garlic spiced tomato
sauce drenches the two-tiered layer of carby goodness; the onions
garnish the mound. Finally, chili-spiked vinegar seeps through the
onions, across the sauce and down to the bottom, where it spices the
last lentil and/or grain of rice. The vinegar's shocking tang elevates
the mess of flavored layers underneath, with a red-hot zest that fires
up the spiciest of peppers.
The next time you find yourself in the land of all things ancient and
dusty, eat koshari wherever you may find it, even from a dingy street
cart. It's harmless, I promise! But if you don't plan on traveling
there, you can make koshari on your own per the recipe below, which is
not as complicated as it seems. You won't find this recipe anywhere
else; it's from the ultimate source of knowledge on authentic Egyptian
cooking: an Egyptian mama (“mother” in Arabic–see? We're not that
different from everyone else!) You can count on her to make Egyptian
cuisine the hearty, delicious, and usually carb-ridden delight that it
always is. Don't have one? Koshari will do in a pinch.
The recipe is sectioned off according to layers. It comes together at the end.
Two large, chopped onions
3-4 cups of water
1 cup small lentils
1 cup rice
1cup elbow macaroni
1 can tomato sauce
6 or 7 cloves of garlic
1.5 tsp cumin
1 tsp crushed red chili pepper (can increase to 1.5 depending on the level of spiciness you can handle).
1 cup vinegar
RICE AND LENTIL LAYER:
1. Fry the onions until browned. Take 1/2 of it out and set aside. Leave the other half in the pot.
2. Pour 2 cups water over the potted onion, bring to boil until water turns brown.
3. Rinse 1 cup lentils, pour it in the browned water and bring to boil for 5
minutes and simmer until lentils become semi-soft (about 20 minutes).
4. Add new water to the lentils, then add rice to the lentil mixture.
Bring to boil for 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly. Make sure there is 2
inches of water above mixture. Add salt to taste. Simmer until rice is
cooked (about 20 minutes).
1. Boil elbow macaroni in water. Drain when done. Set aside.
1. Smash and fry 4 cloves of garlic in oil. When color turns gold, pour 1
large can of tomato sauce. Add 1.5 tsp cumin and salt to taste.
1. Smash 2-3 cloves of garlic. Add 1 cup of vinegar and 1 tsp crushed red chili pepper
1. Pour the rice/lentil mixture in a pan.
2. Cover with macaroni.
3. Add the tomato sauce
4. Garnish with the remaining fried onion.
5. And finally, pour the garlic-vinegar sauce on top.