Avocado on toast, pesto pasta, cheese toasties or a warm cup of tea: sometimes the simplest foods really are the best. One dish that's been treasured for its simplicity and affordability for centuries in the Middle East is mujadara (pronounced moo-zha-dah-rah).
A traditional mujadara is made from cooked lentils and rice, garnished with crispy, caramelised onions. The dish originated with the need to provide maximum nutrition at minimum cost, and for this reason it's been nicknamed the "poor man's food".
Paul Farag, executive chef at contemporary Middle Eastern Nour Restaurant in Sydney's inner city suburb of Surry Hills, explains, "Meat was a luxury and was reserved for occasions. [Mujadara] is very much like peasant food, a dish that fills you up, gives you enough energy to go out and work your day, come back and be satisfied."
The first recorded recipe for mujadara appeared in a 1226 AD Iraqi cookbook called Kitab al-Tabikh, which translates to The Book of Dishes. For this reason, the dish is believed to have come from Lebanon, but is now so popular in the Eastern Mediterranean that it's difficult to isolate it to one country. Mujadara can be found in these regions under similar names including mujaddara, majadra, m'jaddara, mejadra, moujadara and megadarra.
Farag says, "It's just a staple and mums and aunties and grandmas all over the place, have their own version."
Common to all varieties is the three core ingredients of green lentils, rice and onions. The dotting of lentils through the rice gave mujadara its name, which translates to pockmarked in Arabic.
Chef Tom Sarafian used to cook a variation of mujadara when he worked at East Brunswick's Middle Eastern restaurant, Rumi. "The dish on the menu was in a slightly less traditional format but with the essential ingredients being lentils, rice, fried onions, lots of cumin, black pepper and Baharat cinnamon," Sarafian explains.
Mujadara is now a staple in most Middle Eastern households because it's so quick, easy and cheap to make.
Sarafian says, "My favourite kinds of food are those sort of simple pleasures. Lentils and rice and onions are some of the most accessible, most affordable ingredients you can find at a market, but they're also such warm, comforting ingredients."
"Lentils and rice and onions are some of the most accessible, most affordable ingredients you can find at a market, but they're also such warm, comforting ingredients."
The first step to recreating mujadara at home is to ensure that you have the correct ingredients.
Farag says that at his restaurant Nour, his team use an aged basmati rice since it has a firmer texture. "You can't just use normal, white long grain rice, because it breaks apart."
Sarafian also recommends investing in high quality ingredients; this is the key to success when cooking simple dishes.
"Get your hands on good local, organic lentils, he says. "Don't buy pre-ground spices from the supermarket. They don't taste like anything in comparison to spices that you buy from a good quality deli, or spice store."
Sarafian recommends grinding and toasting the spices to achieve the richest flavour profile. This helps to bring out the deep, bittersweet taste of the caramelised onions.
Farag says, "We [cook our onions] in a very traditional way where they're just slowly caramelised in oil. Drop the temperature down to 150 degrees Celsius, throw your onions in there and then keep stirring them until they go all nice and golden."
The crispiness of the fried onions, paired with the soft rice and tender lentils, makes this dish remarkable. Enjoy it hot or cold and as an entrée or side along with yogurt and other vegetables.
There is an eastern Arab saying: "A hungry man would be willing to sell his soul for a dish of mujadara". After tasting it, you'll understand why.
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