koshari: the original flexitarian grain bowl

I ate my first bowl of koshari in 2013, and ever since I’ve been collecting bits and pieces of its eclectic history. Earlier this year, with Cairo standby Zooba opening a branch in New York and as my dissertation-to-book research began to inch forward, I decided it was time to write up what I’d learned so far––cobbling together meals mentioned in travelogues, discussions of koshari in a dozen oral histories, and recipes from midcentury Egyptian cookbooks written for housewives.

I pitched the story to Eater whose editors, to my delight, liked the idea. Originally the story was tied to koshari’s recent reincarnation as a fast-casual “it-food” in places like London, Berlin, and New York. My argument was going to be about the way that the dish’s long history explains its current popularity: ever since Ibn Battuta first transliterated khichidi as koshari, it’s exhibited multiple qualities that are held in high esteem in the trend-driven commercial food world of today: it’s vegetarian, convenient, and eminently customizable.

But then the pandemic hit and my scheduled visits to Zooba’s Nolita location were no longer an option, so I reworked the piece to be more about koshari as an ideal dish to cook from your pantry. The piece is still rooted in the dish’s rich history; one of the most interesting findings from my oral histories (and countless conversations with Egyptian friends) was that even though koshari is known more as a street food outside of Egypt, it’s also occupied pride of place in Egyptian home cooking for nearly a century. In terms of my historical argument, I’m piecing together a theory (which I first learned from food scholar Sami Zubaida) that contrary to popular belief, koshari’s arrival to Egypt in fact predates the British colonial period. An excerpt from the lede:

The appeal of koshari is easy to understand. It’s both filling and delicious — a mess of complex carbs and protein muddled with a range of acidic notes. A base of rice, lentils, chickpeas, and macaroni is shot through with sauces that meld tomato, hot pepper, vinegar, and garlic, and the whole thing is topped with crispy fried onions.

It’s also the perfect food for pantry cooking in an age of stay-at-home orders and two-hour supermarket queues..If you have an assortment of starches, pulses, and alliums on hand, plus some vinegar and tomato sauce or tomato paste, then koshari’s delights are within your reach.

To read the full story, including links to a handful of rice-and-lentil dishes and a cooking guide to making koshari at home, keep reading at Eater & check out check out my accompanying Twitter thread for even more historical content.

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