It was only a short flight. Leave Athens at 1.30, land in Cairo at 3.30. After 24 hour train rides and 36 hour bus trips, this was nothing. Through travel, I have learnt many profound lessons - one of them being how to sit still in an upright position for days on end. So, it was a short flight and I decided it wasn't worth getting a book out of my bag. The iPod battery was flat and I had taken to flicking through the documents stashed in the pocket on the seat in front of me. Passenger Safety Card? Boring. Duty Free Catalogue? Can't afford it. My only other option was the Egyptair monthly magazine. I read an article about the Cairo museum and one about Horus, the Egyptian sun god before I found a page about Koshary, a traditional Egyptian dish. Immediately sensing that this may become useful information, I pulled out my notebook and jotted down the recipe. "Please fasten your seat-belts and return your seats to the upright position as we begin our descent into Cairo". The announcement came just as I wrote the final lines.
After some trouble at my intended hotel and a confused ramble around an unknown city (long story), I found myself in a warm and welcoming hostel and ready to hit the streets again in search of dinner.
"Ah, here comes Ahmed, the owner of the hostel" said the man at reception just as I was asking about a cheap place to eat.
A short man approached me, followed closely behind by three taller men - close friends or his bodyguards, I wasn't quite sure. Ahmed had a shaved head, a thick, long beard and generous looking face.
"Please" he smiled, "I would like to invite you to dine with us".
I gratefully accepted his offer and was provided with my first experience of Koshary. Once we were seated along opposite sides of the rectangular table, a young boy distributed our meals in small round dishes, similar to Chinese rice bowls. I initially mistook it for pasta with an Italian tomato sauce but was corrected by the English speaking man to my right. After acknowledging Allah for providing the food, we ate, drank tea and exchanged small talk.
Koshary, I believe, like the traditional dishes of most countries, became so ingrained in culture because it is prepared with the cheapest of ingredients. It is accessible to all and eaten by the majority of the population, the working class. It is a layered dish which starts out with lentils in the bottom of the bowl, covered in rice, covered in macaroni. Combined with chickpeas, a thin, spicy sauce and crispy flakes of onion you have your dinner.
Two days later and several hundred kilometers away, I had my next encounter. It was in Dahab, a tourist center for cheap scuba diving and seaside bars. I was scanning the menu outside a restaurant when I spotted a man pushing a white cart my way. Several metal bowls bounced around the top of the cart, their lids tightly fastened to conceal their contents. I am always partial to street food and the more mysterious the better.
The price was good so I nodded to the man, "One please".
He lifted the lids, one, two, three and sure enough it was Koshary. A ladle materialised in one hand while he passed a bowl over the cart with the other. In go the lentils, in goes the rice and in goes the macaroni. The ladle disappears and is replaced with a bottle of homemade sauce. Other condiments are added and before I can blink, I have a steaming bowl of Koshary in my hands. Although my first taste was at a table meant for entertaining, I sense that this is how Koshary is meant to be eaten. And being a working mans food, Koshary is well suited to the budget traveller - it's cheap and it's filling.
Fast-forward a couple more days and I find myself camping with my new tour group. I am on cooking duty for the night and we have stopped in town for supplies. Now this is a new experience for me. I often cook for myself and enjoy experimenting with new dishes. Sometimes I'll cook for another person and on one or two occasions I have tested my skills on a group of 4. Tonight it's dinner for 17 and my budget is $40. There's only one thing to do. I open my notebook and scan the pages for the Egyptian recipe.
And the result? A happy ending with everyone pleased and well fed. I only spent half the budget and managed to buy locally meaning less food miles and more support for the local economy. Koshary - a tick in every box.
3 Large sliced onions
1 quart water
Oil for frying
2 cups rice
2 tsps salt
1 1/2 cups brown lentils
1/4 kg macaroni
1 small can chickpeas
- Sauté onions until crispy brown. Drain on paper towel and set aside.
- Put 3 cups of water in a pot with a few drops of oil. Bring to the boil. Add rice and 1 tsp salt. After water returns to boil, lower heat, simmer till rice is cooked.
- Wash lentils and boil until tender. drain.
- Boil macaroni and drain.
- Boil chickpeas and add to the cooked macaroni.
Tomato Sauce Ingredients:
- 6 cloves minced garlic
- 2 Tbsp white vinegar
- 1 can tomato paste (450g)
- 2 Tsp Cumin
- 2 Tbsp oil
- Heat oil in a pot, sauté garlic until it pales
- Add vinegar, tomato paste and cumin.
- Cook until it boils. Lower the heat and simmer until it thickens slightly.
- Layer rice, lentils and macaroni.
- Spread the tomato sauce on top and garnish with the fried onions.
- You can add “shatta” sauce (chilli pepper, water, vinegar, shake well) if you like it spicy.
- Or, you can sprinkle Da’a sauce (mashed garlic, salt, cumin, chili peppers. Add lemon juice, vinegar and water. Mix without heating).