Kushari is a must-try Egyptian vegan street food that you could easily create in your own kitchen. It encapsulates heaps of playful vermicelli rice, mixed with cooked-to-perfection lentils and tender chickpeas. All get topped with crispy fried onions and are served with two sauces: a fiery tomato sauce, and Daqqah, a tangy, cumin spiked vinegar-garlic cooked sauce.
“To understand a country, you better start with its cuisine. It should mirror its history, cultural heritage, and main sources of wealth.” No better evidence exists for this timeless wisdom than Egyptian cuisine in general and Kushari in specific. Though it is a staple street food, Kushari remains an epitome of a cosmopolitan era that once prevailed in Egypt. This dish is an effortless fusion food in its best form.
I attempted to find the origin of that dish, yet my earnest research wasn’t rewarded with any reliable, documented info. That said, there is a general opinion among expert Egyptian cooks and foodies regarding its origin. They argue that the first version of the dish was brought to Egypt by the Indians, who used to serve with the British troops deployed in the country in the late 19th century.
The initial Indian version of Kushari was made of rice and lentils and an unsurprisingly spicy sauce of some sort, and probably fried onions. It was a filler – a cheap and quick-fix dish that fueled overworked Indians to confront exhaustion and nostalgia. The popularity of the dish organically expanded among Egyptians, who shared with their Indian guests their exotic food as well as their grievances against the British imperialist.
Ostensibly, the Indian dish was set on evolving. Kushari soon landed in the kitchen of some Italian expats in Egypt who artfully added their signature macaroni pasta. To baptize the dish Egyptian, locals elaborated two secret sauces to serve with the dish. In my humble opinion, the sauces are the indisputable heroes here. Together they are nothing short of a miracle. Thanks to their tuned garlicky bite, calculated acidic tang, and moderate spiciness, they morph dry heaps of bland carb staples into an edifice of nuanced textures, and juicy, tantalizing flavors that hit all taste buds at once. Hands down, Kushari rivals the fanciest meat dishes.
Stay warned that this dish loses its glory if it tends towards lumpiness. Breaking down the tasks over two days is good advice on busy days. As I mentioned earlier, the sauces are indispensable and call for some precision to get the same result every time.
The Egyptian Christian minority often eat Kushari around Lent, which, in the orthodox faith, lasts 55 days and culminates with Easter.
In our household, Kushari has become our dish to celebrate International Women’s Day. It is laborious dish that I admittedly keep for exceptional events that overlap with lent.
Kushari is a dish that transcends boundaries, and it doesn’t stop evolving. In 2013, the London-based, Lebanese-born food writer Anisa Helwe launched, in the heart of London, “Koshari Street,” a hole in the wall eatery that serves her signature Kushari. The smashing success is propelling the humble Kushari joint to a promising food chain fate.
Now it is time for a well-earned tribute: The recipe below is inspired by my mother-in-law, the Chef Youssri cookshow, and my Kushari fans, of eclectic ethnicity. They have proactively improved my recipe with their constructive feedback until it became my “Essential Lent Crowd Pleaser.” Clearly, it is a dish that never ceases to impress.
Recipe of Kushari
Serves 6 – 8 people
- 5 big onions, thinly sliced (see notes)
- 1/4 cup corn flour or all purpose flour
- 2 1/2 cups oil for frying
- 2 cups white basmati rice, soaked and rinsed several times.
- 1 cup broken vermicelli
- 1 cup brown lentils
- 2 cups elbow pasta
- 2 teapoon of cumin
- 2 cup of chickpeas, cooked or use canned chickpeas
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 heaped tablespoon of crushed garlic
- 1/2 cup of white vinegar
- 1 cup water, room temperature
- 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
- pinch of salt
Spicy Tomato Sauce
- 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
- 2 cups tomato juice
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon of sugar
- 1 heaped tablespoon of crushed garlic
- salt and pepper to you taste
- To make the crispy fried onions, with a sharp knife or a mandolin, thinly slice the onions, add them to a zip bag along with the corn flour (or flour). Mix well until all the onions rings are coated. When the oil is sizzling hot, shake the onion rings to dust off the excess of corn flour (or flour), and dip them in the hot oil. Once they turn into a golden shade, remove them with a slotted spoon and lay them in one layer over an absorbent paper towel. When you are done frying all the onions, use a fine mesh sieve to drain the oil. Discard any solids and keep the filtered oil to use in the following step.
- To make the vermicelli rice-brown lentils, add three tablespoons of the frying oil used in the previous step to a deep heavy-bottom pan on a medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the rice and stir for few minutes until it is well coated with oil, add the vermicelli, and stir a few more minutes until its color slightly darkens. Add the lentils and stir for one minute or two. Add the water and cover. The water level should be 2 inches over the vermicelli rice/lentil mix. Bring it to a vigorous boil, over high heat, for 15 minutes. Lower the heat and let it cook another 10 minutes covered with a kitchen towel and the lid. Turn off the heat, uncover the pan, fluff it with a fork, and let the steam escape. The rice should be fluffy and perfectly cooked at this point (see notes).
- To make the pasta, add the macaroni and one tablespoon of filtered oil to salted, boiling water, and let boil for 10 to 12 minutes. When the pasta is cooked through, turn off the heat. Drain the pasta and rinse it with cold water. Add one tablespoon of the oil to the empty pasta pan, then add the cumin and stir. Return the pasta to the pan, mix it well until all the pasta is coated with the oil-cumin mixture. Turn off the heat.
- To cook the chickpeas, Add them to water in a deep pan on a medium heat. Let them boil for 30 minutes or until tender. For flavor, you can add one bay leaf and one clove of garlic. Or you can skip this step and use canned chickpeas.
- To make the spicy tomato sauce, add a tablespoon of frying oil to the pan, add cayenne pepper and stir, add the crushed garlic, stir for few seconds, add the tomato juice, tomato paste, and let it simmer. Salt and pepper to you taste.
- To make the Daqqah, vinegar and garlic sauce, add the oil, sauté the crushed garlic in the hot oil few no more than few seconds. Before the garlic color darkens, add the vinegar and then the water. Salt and pepper to taste.
- To serve the Kushari, pile high each dish. Start first with the vermicelli rice-lentil, then, in the following order, add the macaroni, chickpeas, and some of the red sauce. Then add the crunchy onions on top of it. Serve the two sauces on the side. A zesty green salad served on the side is always a plus.
- Relax, and watch everything quickly disappearing.
- To avoid burning tears, keep a lit candle on your workstation where you are slicing the onions.
- Invest in a good quality of basmati rice. This specific ingredient could make or break Kushari. Soak the rice for 20 minutes and then rinse it several times until the water runs clear.
- Best Kushari places in Cairo are “Abu Tarek” and “kushari Al Tahrir.
- It is fair to say that you can confidently double up the ingredients for a second batch of Kushari.
- Corn flour or flour ensure the crispness of the onion rings. The starch absorbs the moisture in the onions before frying.