Don’t Try This at Home: Kushari

There are plenty of fast foods that you can make better at home: this burger will beat anything that ever crawled out from under any golden arches, or, if Taco Bell is your thing, you can easily beat the experience at home by cooking up a bowl of oatmeal and throwing it in a tortilla. But there are some foods that are better never attempted at home; foods that benefit from economies of scale such that cooking them at home makes no sense.

Kushari is one of those foods. In Cairo, you don’t have to walk far to find a kushari stand, but the complexity of the operation – and these places only serve the one dish – is a clue to its unsuitability for adaptation at home. After indicating just how much kushari you’re interested in eating you can watch your bowl head down the line where it is filled from several pots, one man to a pot: rice, noodles, lentils, chickpeas, fried onions and tomato sauce.

canned chick peas and tomatoes with rice, pasta, lentils, and an onion

Yes, this is really a dish with both rice and pasta, lentils and chickpeas. It’s a starch-lover’s dream, packed with affordable calories – which partially explains its popularity in Egypt. Preparing these ingredients to all be ready simultaneously is something the many employees of the kushari joint have down to a science. Doing it at home, unless you have a ready brigade of helpers and extra stove space, is a challenge. And for the humble result , you are better off just hitting up the local kushari place.

Unfortunately, outside of Egypt such restaurants are rare. (I did once locate kushari in Minneapolis, a special at the Lyndale Grill and Grocery.) So for those of you with a craving that can’t be satisfied and some patience, here’s what I did: my stove has four burners; I used three of them (the fourth being taken up by a pot of old frying oil that I am too lazy to clean). On one, I started a pot of rice. At 30 minutes, this is one of the longest cooking items. In a pan on another burner, I started caramelizing some onions. In a large pot on the third burner, I brought water and lentils to a boil.

After 20 minutes, the lentils were toothsome and ready to come out. But don’t drain them! You need that hot lentil water! I used a mesh strainer to fish out as many lentils as possible from the water and placed them in a covered bowl to stay warm. After bringing the water back to a boil, I added in broken vermicelli.

In the meantime, the onions had become suitably browned. Transferring them to a small bowl, I quickly wiped out the skillet and began heating olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes until they were fragrant. To this, I added a can of tomato puree (actually a can of pureed diced tomatoes, but buying them pre-pureed would have been easier) and let the tomato sauce simmer. Soon, the vermicelli was within a minute of being done so I added a can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed, to the cooking pasta in order to warm them. If you wanted to make this dish more complicated, you could start with dried chickpeas.

The assembly of kushari proceeds in layers: a base of rice, topped with pasta and chickpeas, topped with lentils, garnished with fried onions and finally covered in tomato sauce. Whenever I ate this in Egypt it was served with a thin, vinegary hot sauce which I simulated at home by blending a little sriracha into a lot of rice vinegar.


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4 comments on “Don’t Try This at Home: Kushari”

  1. Sasha @ Global Table Adventure 28 January, 2011 at 8:30 am

    Thanks for sharing this recipe and clear description. While Kushari looks like a lot of work, I am curious to try it. 🙂

  2. Moeller 4 February, 2011 at 11:14 am

    Martha and Tom – Just found this site a few weeks ago. Great job! The photos of food are wonderful. But Tom, I did not expect you to take a cheap shot at Taco Bell!

  3. Lydia 24 June, 2012 at 5:28 pm

    Kushari is the BEST comfort food EVER! My in-laws, being Egyptian, do have preparation down to a science. I have never attempted this dish on my own because I am intimidated by cooking the lentils and rice together. This requires adding uncooked rice into semi-cooked lentils at just the right time with just the right amount of liquid. My husband’s family does it this way and one day I will be brave enough to try.