Given my complicated relationship with lentils, it’s amazing how many dishes containing lentils I have eaten during my time abroad in Israel.
Within a few weeks of being here, I walked into my apartment to find my Israeli roommate, Ruthy, cooking up a big pot of – you guessed it – lentils. She proudly announced that she was making mujaddara, a very traditional Middle Eastern meal of equal parts lentils and brown rice, and that she was making a massive amount of it because she was sure everyone would love it. I must have had quite the unenthused look on my face, because the next thing she said was something along the lines of “what do you mean you don’t like lentils?!” Clearly there was something wrong with me. Or I had just never had mujaddara.
Meaning “smallpox” in Arabic, mujaddara was so named due to the pock-marked appearance of the lentils among the rice. Appetizing, I know. But mujaddara has been eaten in the Middle East literally forever, and is even said to be a version of the “mess porridge” Jacob used to buy his brother Esau’s birthright in the Bible. It used to be a common dish for the poor, but is eaten by practically everyone nowadays. Mujaddara is an incredibly simple dish, and as Ruthy predicted, surprisingly tasty. She made the biggest pot of it I have ever seen – yet within three days the six of us had managed to devour it. Mujaddara is super low-maintenance – one pot, five ingredients, cover and cook – but it’s healthy and it only takes a little to fill you up! As I am nearing the end of my semester here, I have yet to use up the kilo of lentils I bought at the beginning. Looks like a bit batch of mujaddara is in order…
Sarah McAnaw is a junior at American University where she studies International Studies and Biology. After cooking (and eating!) her way through a semester in Florence, Italy last fall, she’s spending the spring in Haifa, Israel studying the Arab-Israeli conflict and learning to cook authentic Middle Eastern food from her Israeli roommates.
Note: I included salt and pepper in this recipe, but Ruthy usually only uses cumin, sometimes adding a little bit of salt. If you have ground coriander on hand, I would also recommend adding it along with the cumin – the more flavor the better!
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
½ one medium sized onion, diced
1 cup brown or green lentils
1 cup brown rice
2 tablespoons cumin
salt and pepper to taste
In a medium-large pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Lower the heat slightly and add the onions, cooking until golden brown. Add the lentils, rice and spices and sauté for an additional minute. Pour in 3 ¼ cups water and cover the pot.
Let cook over medium-high heat for about half an hour, stirring occasionally. Keep an eye on the liquid level as you may need to add more (the only way to know whether or not you need to add more liquid is by tasting it – you want both the lentils and the rice to be cooked through). Spoon a healthy portion into a bowl, adding more spice if you want, and eat hot.