Egypt’s national dish, kushari, is a spicy medley of masterfully blended pasta, rice and lentils that is so much more than the sum of its parts.

What is it?

Opinions often diverge in Egypt, but one thing almost every Egyptian concedes is that kushari – a unique medley of pasta, rice and lentils with tomato sauce – reigns supreme.

Ingredients (serves 8)

For the tomato sauce: 
3 tbs olive oil 
½ cup finely chopped onion 
4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped 
400g (14oz) passata 
¾ tsp ground cinnamon 
½ tsp ground cumin 
½ tsp salt 
¼ tsp ground black pepper 
¼ tsp chilli flakes

For the kushari: 
1 cup long grain rice 
1 cup lentils (brown or black) 
2 tbs white vinegar 
½ tsp ground cumin 
½ tsp garlic powder 
8 tbs olive oil 
1½ cups sliced onion 
1 cup pasta (small macaroni or vermicelli broken into small pieces)

A very close-up view of a bowl of Kushari - an Egyptian dish of rice, macaroni and lentils mixed together, topped with a tomato-vinegar sauce; some add short pieces of spaghetti garnished with chickpeas and crispy fried onions.
This veggie dish is served up for breakfast, lunch and dinner © Fanfo / Shutterstock

How to cook

For the tomato sauce: 
Step 1: Heat the oil and onions on a medium flame until the latter are golden brown.
Step 2: Stir in the garlic and cook for 2 minutes.
Step 3: Add the passata, cinnamon, cumin, salt, pepper and chilli flakes. Increase the heat a bit and let simmer, uncovered, until the sauce thickens (approximately 15–20 minutes).

For the kushari: 
Step 1: Simultaneously, but in different pans, cook the rice and the lentils. The lentils should simmer, covered, until tender (20–30 minutes); then, use a strainer to remove the lentils (leaving the lentil water in the pot), placing them directly into a mixture of the vinegar, cumin and garlic powder.
Step 2: Heat the oil on a medium flame; add the onions and cook, deglazing as necessary, until they are lightly browned. Remove from the oil and drain on paper towel.
Step 3: Stir the uncooked pasta into the same oil used for cooking the onions; saute the pasta until it is lightly browned, then place it in the used lentil water, bring back to a boil and cook until tender.
Step 4: Assemble the kushari in eight bowls: lay down a base of rice, add a blanket of pasta with a few browned onions, and then a covering of lentils. 
Step 5: Spoon the tomato sauce on top and garnish with a few more onions.

Camel riders heading toward the three big pyramids of Giza (from left to right: Menkaura, Khafra & Khufu).
One mouthful of kushari is enough to transport you to Egypt © Sake Van Pelt / 500px

Tasting notes

Kushari is a delectable, any-time-of-day, year-round whole that is more addictive than the sum of its humdrum parts: pasta, rice and lentils. The magic finish comes from a spicy tomato-sauce topping and garnish of fried onions, all enhanced by garlic-vinegar or chilli. It is assembled in a few seconds – but the experience is downright percussive. In kushari-specific restaurants, the cooked ingredients are doled out from a drum set of food-filled basins. As it happens, the kushari composer raps his spoon against the bowls and basins in a virtuoso display of rhythm. It’s loud but mesmerising, a Stomp-style performance that begs an encore. Or is it just that the kushari’s so good one bowl is never enough?

Other recipes in this series:
Middle Eastern hummus
Italian tagliatelle al ragu
Polish bigos

Have you recreated any of the dishes featured in this series so far? Share your pictures with us on Twitter and Instagram by tagging @lonelyplanet. For more great recipes, check out Lonely Planet’s book The World’s Best Bowl Food.

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