From the Middle East comes a tasty vegan and gluten-free recipe, which can be prepared with very simple ingredients: mujaddara (in Arabic مجدرة), also called mujadarah, mjadra, majadra, mjaddara, mejadra, mudardara, mjaddara, mjaddaret, or megadarra.
What is mujaddara?
In Arabic, mujaddara means “riddled with small holes”, or “pockmarked”. It is certainly not very appealing but it is a reference to the lentils among the rice that look like little pimples. This dish is nonetheless delicious.
Mujaddara consists of cooked brown or green lentils, usually combined with rice but sometimes bulgur or groats, with a good amount of caramelized onions, fried in olive oil.
Everywhere, it is nicknamed “the dish of the poor” as it doesn’t include any meat or expensive ingredients. It is to the Middle East what couscous is in the Maghreb countries.
The variants of mujaddara around the world
Persian cuisine features a dish similar to mujaddara made of rice and lentils called addas polo.
In Cyprus, another lentil and rice dish is called fakes moutzentra. In Greek, fakes means lentils.
In Lebanon, mjaddara is one of the variations of the dish and the word refers to its version in the form of purée, rather than the classic version with whole lentils and rice. Mjaddara generally has the same consistency as rice pudding, whereas in the classic Lebanese variant, better known as mudardara, rice and lentils remain relatively intact and distinct.
In Israel and the territories under Palestinian rule, rice is often replaced by bulgur. The dish is called mjaddaret-burghul to differentiate it from mjaddara, which is served with rice.
Arab Christians traditionally eat mujaddara during Lent.
This dish is also very popular among Jewish communities of Middle Eastern origin, especially those of Syrian and Egyptian origin. It is usually prepared with rice rather than bulgur or groats. Traditionally, Syrian Jews eat this dish twice a week: hot on Thursday and cold on Sunday.
In many Jewish communities throughout the Middle East, and especially in Israel, mujaddara is widely consumed during the period of Tisha Bev (the ninth day of the month of Av of the Hebrew calendar), a period when Jews mourn the fall of the first Temple of Jerusalem, but also the destruction of the second Temple of Jerusalem, the persecutions of the Jews during the Crusades, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the extermination of the Jews during the Second World War.
The 9th, which is the saddest day in the Hebrew calendar, is preceded by a period of 8 days during which meat is banned.
Mujaddara, which is a parve dish, which means that it doesn’t contain any meat or dairy products, is a very popular dish among Middle-Eastern Jews, during this period of mourning.
In addition to the simplicity of cooking lentils and rice (or wheat or groats) together, the only key to perfecting this easy recipe is to brown the onions properly. To make a perfect mujaddara, the onions need to be fried in olive oil until they curl and start to brown around the edges.
What is the origin of mujaddara?
When a dish is so old and so popular as the mujaddara, it is not possible to definitively attribute it to a particular territory or culture and, as is often the case, the more ancient and simple a dish is, the more a culture or country attributes tries to claim its paternity.
The first recorded recipe for the mujaddara appears in Kitab al-Tabikh, which simply means “cookbook”. It was written in 1226 by Mohammed bin Hassan al-Baghdadi in Iraq.
The original recipe, which included rice, lentils and meat, was served this way during celebrations. Without meat, it was an Arab dish of the Middle Ages commonly prepared by the poor, a version that has become, over time, the most traditional.
Beside being known as the “dish of the poor”, mujaddara is also called “Esau’s favorite”. This dish would indeed have biblical origins.
Esau (Hebrew, עֵשָׂו) is a character from the Torah (Old Testament). He is the son of Isaac, one of the three patriarchs, and Rebecca. Esau is Jacob’s twin brother, whose story is told in the book of Genesis (Bereshit, in Hebrew: בראשית).
One day, Esau came back hungry from a hunting trip. Jacob was then preparing the meal. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat, I pray thee, of that red, that red pottage ; for I am weary.” Jacob replied, “Sell me your birthright today.”
Jacob then agreed to feed his hungry brother with a dish of lentils on the sole condition that he gave him his birthright, that is to say, the inheritance of the family. At the time, the tradition required that the eldest be the only heir.
The famous “lentil dish”, known in English as the “mess of pottage”, that Jacob served to Esau was obviously a variant of the mujaddara.
Because of its importance in Arab cuisine, and in reference to this biblical episode, there is a saying in the eastern Arab world that says: “A hungry man would sell his soul for a dish of mujaddara”.
If Esau abandoned his birthright for a plate of mujaddara, it must have been delicious. And so long after Genesis, I confirm it.
This recipe is validated by our expert in Iraqi cuisine Nawal Nasrallah. An award-winning researcher and food writer, Nawal is the author of the definitive cookbook on the Iraqi cuisine Delights from the Garden of Eden.
- ¾ cup brown lentils , well rinsed with cold water
- ⅔ cup fragrant rice
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 4 large onions , sliced
- ¾ cup boiling water
Add the drained lentils in a large Dutch oven and cover with 4 times their volume of cold water.
- Cover for 20 minutes after reaching boiling point: first 10 minutes on high heat and then, 10 on medium to high heat.
Add the rice and ¾ cup (200 ml) of boiling water. Mix well and cook uncovered for 15 minutes over medium heat, stirring regularly.
- If necessary, add a little boiling water if the rice absorbs the water quickly.
- A few minutes before the end of cooking, season with salt and pepper and mix well.
- While cooking the lentils and rice, heat olive oil in a large skillet and fry the sliced onions until the edges curl and turn golden brown.
When the 2 preparations are ready, pour the hot oil (without the onion) into the mujaddara pot, and mix well.
- Arrange on a plate.
- Top with the fried onions.