On a busy street in Cairo, Egypt, stands a customer at a street stall waiting to eat the country’s national dish. They may be a regular at the stall or a tourist who waited all day to try out the dish that’s grabbing attention for a while now. We’ll never know.
However, we do know one thing – every diner travels the world in this dish. Well maybe not the world over, but a few picturesque countries would do just fine. The Egyptian koshari is what we are talking about. Or is it Indian? Maybe, it’s Italian….
Made from a harmonious blend of rice, lentils, chickpeas and pasta, all cooked separately without spices, the dish comes as a wonder to many. Perhaps, the soul of the dish lies in a peppery hot sauce called shatta and garlicky vinegar called da’ah, which is poured on top with fried onions, bringing in a whole new flavour altogether.
The origin of this dish remains a mystery of sorts.
Koshari is to Egypt what khichdi or khichri is to India. It is apparently a colonial legacy from the British in the 1800s. However, the credit can’t go to the British, because they were accompanied by Indian troops who introduced it in the form of khichdi or khichri, a dish made with rice, split yellow lentils, vegetables and spices.
Koshari made for the perfect solution on the days there were a shortage of ingredients or time. This is how rice, lentils and chickpeas became the first three layers of the dish.
By the mid-1800s, large groups of Italian workers came to work on the Suez Canal project, and with them came culinary influences including the addition of tomatoes, onions and pasta in almost every dish. Several food historians argue that pasta was in Egypt long before the Italians arrived, only then it was called maacarona and has mentions of it in Arabic manuscripts from medieval times.
Others dismiss this origin story and say Koshari have evolved from the traditional Egyptian mujaddara, which is made using rice, pigeon lentils and caramelised to crispy onions.
As the debate continued, three more layers were added to koshari – the pasta, the sauce and the crispy onions or what we call, birista.
Of course, there is a unique Egyptian tweak to the dish. The famed sauce, shatta, made using an Arabic spice blend called Baharat, red chillies, lemon juice, garlic, and chilli powder – all of which bring the dish together. Be warned, this sauce isn’t for the weak-hearted.
The beauty of eating a good bowl of Koshari
While no one can really put a pin on where it came from, a lot of opinion goes into where one can eat the dish right. Some would say nothing tastes better than what you get at home, but a majority would still opt for what they can find at a street food stall.
Not to mention, the koshari served in Cairo is quite different from the koshari served in Alexandria. The former city uses brown lentils and the latter uses yellow lentils. Today, the recipe takes on several variations where pulses and pasta are swapped for, based on preferences. Since it’s more of a vegetarian dish, sometimes an egg or two is added, some shredded chicken, cheese, hot sauce or any other ingredient that would serve as a delicious finale.
Eat Koshari for breakfast, lunch or dinner, whether you are at home or in a restaurant. Moreover, if you want to make it at home, here’s a recipe:
Moreover, if you want to make it at home, here’s a recipe:
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