Last September, the Egyptian fast-casual chain Zooba opened a branch in Lower Manhattan. Among Egyptian classics like taameya and hawawshi, one of the most popular dishes on the menu from the start has been koshari — a centuries-old grain bowl that’s suddenly found itself an unlikely global “it” food. Manhattan’s Zooba is just the latest in a series of hot spots in cities like Cairo, Berlin, London, and New York that are serving the ancient staple to an entirely new and very eager customer base.
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. But while it’s a fast-casual trend around the world, in Egypt, koshari is better known as a historic national dish, one that gracefully straddles the divide between street food and home cooking.
It’s also the perfect food for pantry cooking in an age of stay-at-home orders and two-hour supermarket queues. With a long history as a hardy, adaptable, filling meal of choice among traders and travelers, it’s designed to provide maximum nutrition and flavor from cheap, accessible ingredients and local trimmings. 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.
“Egyptians have a long history of hodgepodge cooking, stuffing carbs with even more carbs — and we aren’t the only ones.” — Egyptian novelist Nael El Toukhy
Koshari’s history has always been something of a mystery. One thing most Egyptians agree on is the dish’s connection to khichidi (sometimes spelled kitchari), an Indian dish that is also built on the winning combination of grains and pulses — a catchall term for the edible seeds of legumes like beans and lentils. But how did it get to Egypt?
Most popular accounts cite Britain’s occupation of Egypt, which began in 1882 and was accomplished with the help of Indian troops. While it’s perfectly plausible, even likely, that Indian soldiers brought khichidi with them to Egypt, they probably weren’t the first or the only such link in koshari’s history: Centuries of earlier, sometimes indirect, connections between Egypt and India likely also form part of the dish’s evolution. As the powerhouse rice-and-lentils combo traveled along the pilgrimage and trade routes that have connected South Asia to Arabia to Egypt via the Red Sea for centuries, it absorbed new ingredients and flavors along the way.
Today, traces of rice-and-lentil dishes dot the ports and coastal regions that long tied Egypt and India together. The crews of dhows — short-range sailing vessels of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean — once ate a dish made with rice, lentils, ghee, and hot peppers, according to one traveler’s account from the 1930s. Food scholar Sami Zubaida recalls a weekly meal of rice, lentils, tomato paste, and garlic during his childhood in Baghdad, adding that the dish was also well-known in Iraq’s port city of Basra. It was Zubaida who pointed me in the direction of several 19th-century British accounts that placed koshari — or something very like it — along the east coast of the Arabian peninsula as well as in Suez, an Egyptian port at the northernmost end of the Red Sea. An East India Company official stationed there in the 1840s described the locals eating a mixture of lentils and rice cooked with ghee and flavored with “pickled lime or stewed onions.”
In 1941, Egypt’s most famous cookbook, known as Kitab Abla Nazira, included two koshari recipes, one with yellow lentils and one with brown lentils. But before its canonization in a cookbook written for middle-class housewives, koshari was likely best known as a local street food. British public health authorities granted a license to a street vendor peddling “rice and macaroni” in 1936. It’s a vague archival detail, but I like to think it may have referred to Cairo’s first recorded koshari cart.
The addition of pasta and tomato sauce to koshari was a testament to the considerable influence of the Italian communities in Cairo and Alexandria at the time, which infused everything from the local diet to its dialect. (Modern Egyptian Arabic is peppered with Italian loanwords for everything from a Primus stove — “wabur,” from “vapore” — to the check at a restaurant, “fattura.”) Pasta and tomato sauce offered cheap ways to stretch koshari’s portions even further.
Contemporary koshari is commonly served with as many as three different dressings: a tomato sauce, a local hot sauce called shatta, and a garlicky, vinegar-based dressing called da’ah (pronounced with a glottal stop in the middle, like “uh-oh”).
Even today, koshari is never just one thing. Within Egypt, variations abound: Yellow lentils are associated with Alexandrian koshari, while Cairene koshari typically features brown lentils. Many home cooks told me how they’d tweak their mother’s or grandmother’s recipes, swapping in whichever pulses or pasta shapes they prefer or adding more spice. Sometimes elements of the dressings are combined, like hot pepper added to the tomato sauce, for example. There are variants topped with an egg or a smattering of chicken livers. Cairo Kitchen, another fast-casual Egyptian restaurant specializing in homestyle meals, introduced brown rice and gluten-free variations of koshari. And further afield, Koshary Lux in Berlin serves up koshari with jasmine rice, beluga lentils, and caramelized rather than fried onions.
For now, the signature neon lights of Zooba’s Nolita dining room are switched off, just like the lights on the Nile party boats in Egypt they’re meant to resemble. Until they light up again (it recently opened for takeout and delivery!), the world’s original flexitarian grain bowl is easy enough to make yourself.
The robust grain-and-pulse genre provides a handy template for building a grain bowl from whatever’s on hand. For some good jumping-off points, try Meera Sodha’s twist on kitchari; Maureen Abood’s take on koshari’s Levantine country cousin, mujadara; or novelist Ahdaf Soueif’s koshari recipe. But koshari doesn’t so much require a hard-and-fast recipe as it does a list of stuff to put in a bowl, and a mixture of contrasting textures and tastes is more important than any one ingredient. Here, then, is a basic guide to building your own koshari-inspired pantry grain bowl.
Step 1: Form a base
The foundation of the dish should include at least one grain (rice, pasta, or in a pinch, bulgar, freekeh, or even couscous) and one pulse (lentils, chickpeas). Today’s koshari typically includes at least two of each (chickpeas, lentils, rice, and pasta), but you can always keep it simple, like many earlier versions of the dish, with just rice and lentils.
Aim for short pastas, such as elbow macaroni; for longer pastas like vermicelli and spaghetti, break into pieces before cooking. Most koshari recipes call for a grain-to-pulse ratio of at least 2 to 1. Increase the ratio to stretch the recipe into more servings; decrease it for a lighter meal.
The culinary teams at Zooba and Cairo Kitchen suggested that preparing multiple ingredients in the same pot is the secret to rich, homestyle flavors (also fewer dishes!), so feel free to cook your lentils and rice together.
Step 2: Sauce it
Sauces and dressings can make or break a grain bowl. If you have a jarred marinara-style tomato sauce — ideally something with tomatoes, onion, and garlic — on hand, warm it up and stir it right into your koshari or mix in a bit of your favorite hot sauce first. If you only have tomato paste, improvise a substitute by stirring in some hot sauce and olive oil.
Then you need something with a little more garlic and acid. Whip up a quick dressing with some crushed fresh garlic and cumin steeped in white vinegar (traditional) or lime juice (nouveau). You can also start with a basic citrus vinaigrette and experiment with layering other dressings on top, like a drizzle of pomegranate molasses or a balsamic glaze. A squeeze of fresh citrus never hurts.
Classic koshari is topped with crispy fried onions, which you can replicate with whatever alliums you have on hand, some oil, and a microwave, one of my favorite hacks. Reserve the oil and toss it with the pulses and grains, and add a dollop of butter or ghee for even more richness. For a crunch that doesn’t involve frying things in hot oil but still feels Egyptian, try dukkah, an Egyptian seed and spice mix.
Step 3: Customize
From there, you can pepper in some caramelized onions or add your favorite pickles, fresh herbs, greens, or a soft-boiled egg. Follow the lead of dhow sailors with some hot chiles or pickled citrus.
Step 4: Eat for days
Koshari’s reliance on so many shelf-stable ingredients makes it great for cooking from the pantry, but it can also make the process of preparing it daunting. Pace yourself and split the preparation over a couple of days, remembering that most grain bowl ingredients can be building blocks for multiple meals. If you’re planning a pasta dinner with a green salad on the side, make some extra tomato sauce and a garlicky vinaigrette to dress your koshari the next day. And as you well know, crispy onions make anything better.
So the next time you look to your own pantry for dinner inspiration, borrow a page from koshari’s long, global tradition of piling together sturdy nonperishables with the zingiest trimmings on hand — for a combination that has been satiating sailors, traders, street vendors, and home cooks for centuries.
Anny Gaul is a food historian, blogger, and translator. She’s currently a fellow at the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University.