Middle Eastern Lentils and Rice with Caramelized Onions (Mujaddara, Mengedarrah)
This week, my belly needed a rest. After a few Ottolenghi and Cotter recipes, literally bursting with flavour, as well as a potluck dinner that left me in pain, I knew I needed some tummy down-time. I didn’t even want to cook, it was that bad.
Thankfully, Rob was eager to make me a nice, simple Nepalese lentil and rice dish (recipe to come!).
When I finally had the motivation to turn to the kitchen myself, I still didn’t want an elaborate meal. I wanted something homely and comforting. I didn’t want too many flavours. I wanted something simple. Enter another spin on lentils and rice, Middle Eastern-style.
In Olive Trees and Honey, Gil Marks outlines the progression of lentil and rice dishes from different cuisines. Apparently, the traditional version of lentils and rice with caramelized onions from Turkey is called Mengedarrah, whereas Mujaddara (which is what I thought I was making) is from the Levant and spiced with allspice. Then you have the Indian khichri/kitchree with cumin and garam masala. Or the Egyptian version, koshari, with noodles such as macaroni or spaghetti with tomato sauce. The book actually has a map that chronicles the name changes as well: kichree in Iraq, ados pol in Iran, mejedra in Greece, enjadara in Yemen and jurot in Uzbekistan. I wonder how my bastardized red lentil and quinoa kitchari fits into this?
There are a few ways to tackle this dish, and I think I’ve discovered my favourite way. You could cook your lentils and rice separately, although in my case the rice cooker was already in use and we all know I have trouble cooking rice on the stovetop. More traditionally, though, some recipes, including the one in Olive Trees and Honey, recommend partially cooking the lentils, then removing all of the cooking water, then returning the proper amount of water to cook the rice with the lentils. This is necessary when using white rice since the rice would be finished before the lentils. However, brown basmati rice and green lentils take nearly the same amount of time to cook, which lends to a perfect match and less fuss.
So, I simmered my brown basmati rice and green lentils with a cinnamon stick. In a separate skillet, I caramelized my onions. You could start the lentils and rice after the caramelized onions are finished so they can get added to the cooking liquid, but I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to cook my onions, low and slow, to get the perfect caramelized onions. Since I had to wait 40 minutes for my lentils and rice, this timed out perfectly. I threw in some onions into the lentil-rice mixture before it finished and kept half for the garnish. Using Rob’s large non-stick wok helped me get perfect caramelized onions, much better than when I added them to my socca with oven-roasted cherry tomatoes.
Now, I know this is a deceptive bland looking dish: lentils, rice, onions, cinnamon, smidgen of oil and salt. But it is so much more than that. It is a comforting bowl of lentils and rice with sweetness from the onions. The cinnamon is optional but it adds a little depth of flavour. Next time, I may try the Syrian version with allspice, as I have a feeling this may become another potluck favourite – made from pantry items, simple to prepare, tasty, healthy and great as leftovers and served at room temperature. While this seems like a daunting meal with the long caramelization process, it is a simple meal to prepare. This is a great emergency meal to have under your wings, both when you have nothing in the fridge and when you are not feeling well.
Middle Eastern Lentils and Rice with Caramelized Onions (Mujaddara)
1.5 lb yellow onions, thinly sliced (4-5 onions)
1 tsp oil
1 cup green lentils, rinsed
1/2 cup brown basmati rice, washed
1/2 tsp salt
1 cinnamon stick
1. Begin by caramelizing your onions. Next, heat the olive oil in a large non-stick frying pan over medium-low heat, adding the onion and sauté, stirring all the while, over a high heat for about a minute. Reduce the heat to low and continue cooking the onions for another 45 minutes, stirring them occasionally. You want them dark and caramelized. Split into two portions, adding half to the lentil mixture and reserving the other half for garnish.
2. Meanwhile, add lentils, rice, salt and cinnamon stick to 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then simmer on low, covered, for 40 minutes. Hopefully this times out well with the caramelized onions. Add half of the onions whenever they are ready.
3. Watch the mixture carefully towards the end. Brown basmati rice and the lentils should finish cooking around the same time and the water should be fully absorbed. Watch to make sure the mixture doesn’t dry out, adding more water as needed. When it looks nearly done, turn off the heat, cover and let sit for 10 minutes.
4. When ready to eat, serve the lentil mixture with the reserved caramelized onions overtop.