“When you hear the ingredients, you may feel they don’t really go together – that’s it’s a bit strange – but when they’re mixed together, it’s a beautiful dish,” says Tereza Tawfek, the owner of restaurant Leyalina in Carlton.
She’s talking about what’s considered to be Egypt’s national dish, koshari (also spelled kushari and koshary). It’s made with rice, brown or green lentils and macaroni, and topped with chickpeas, fried onions and tomato sauce. So not exactly all ingredients that you’d associate with Egypt, but there’s an explanation.
The dish can be traced back to the 19th century, probably to the British occupation of the country. The British are believed to have brought khichdi (a rice and lentil dish) from India to Egypt. Other ingredients and spices would have been added to the dish, at a time where the country was more multicultural.
A popular street food
Koshari is first and foremost a street food in Egypt. The “koshari man” has a cart with all of his ingredients ready in containers. He assembles the dish for each customer.
“I grew up in Alexandria. I called my business Koshari Korner because you can find a small cart selling koshari in every corner of Egypt. It’s a very popular dish,” says Walid Elsabbagh, who is based in Sydney.
Restaurants have also started making the dish, and some people prepare it at home, but it’s mostly eaten out. “When I lived in Egypt, we’d eat it at home sometimes, but there are many steps to follow. It’s more delicious in the shop, I don’t know why,” says Tawfek.
How to make koshari
Each part of the koshari is cooked separately. A few places, like Leyalina, cook the rice and lentils together. “But it takes skill,” explains Tawfek.
The tomato sauce is spiked with garlic and a Middle Eastern spice blend called baharat. The exact blend varies from country to country and cook to cook, but usually contains seven spices, including black pepper, coriander, cumin and paprika. Chilli and vinegar can be added to the tomato sauce, but it’s also common to have a separate vinegar sauce.
“When we plate the dish, it comes in layers. The first layer is rice and lentil. We top it with pasta, that is then topped with chickpeas, tomato sauce and fried onions,” says Tawfek. She serves extra tomato sauce, vinegar sauce, onions, chickpeas and chilli on the side – so you can tailor the koshari to your liking.
When you’re ready to eat, you mix all the layers together. If the combination of ingredients don’t make sense to you on paper, it will once you bring the fork to your mouth. It’s comforting, flavourful and happens to be vegan.
Where to eat koshari in Australia
At Koshari Korner, Elsabbagh uses his grandmother’s recipe. “My grandma didn’t like us eating in the street when we were small children, so she’d make koshari at home, the same way it’s made in the streets,” he explains. Alongside the tomato sauce, he also prepares vinegar sauce and chilli oil.
“When I started this business in 2015, Egyptian food wasn’t popular. I made samples for people to try because they thought it was confusing to mix lentils, rice and pasta on one plate,” he says.
Since then, his business has taken off and his stall has found a permanent spot at the Addison Road Community Centre in Marrickville.
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This tasty rice and lentil dish is Egypt’s national comfort food. Flavoured with tomato, garlic and chilli, it’s hearty, flavoursome and inexpensive to prepare. Koshari is a specialty of street vendors who dish it out from huge metal cauldrons. It’s also a staple in Egyptian homes, commonly eaten during meat- and dairy-free fasts during Lent and Christmas.