Kushari and Karkaday

20140131-200612.jpg I spent a month in Egypt when I was 18. Enthusiastic if not particularly knowledgable about food, I knew a little about Middle Eastern cuisine but nothing at all about Egyptian food; then and now, it is not much written about. Surprisingly, Claudia Roden, a native of Cairo, has never devoted a book to the subject. Perhaps history is too close to memory for her; perhaps she simply finds it boring. Anyway, my ignorance gave me a sense of exploration, of discovery – I found and knew less than if I had pored over guidebooks, but everything I did find was mine. Vegetarian at the time, idealistic and foolish, I regret not trying the brain kebabs that were sold on the corner of every block in Cairo, but everything I did eat still sticks in my mind – the Mubarak brand cheese (the former president was known as The Laughing Cow, for some reason) with milk rolls and eggs for breakfast, rice and black tea to get over a stomach bug, juicy papayas and sticky basbousa from the market below my hotel, tomato stews enriched with yoghurt, cumin-spiced lentil soup… Egypt has a good tradition of vegetarian food, largely from the Coptic Christian population and their elaborate calendar of fast days, and I was spoilt for choice. This was my favourite, though, and something I make all the time. A street food classic, there are diners all over Cairo serving this and nothing else, except maybe some rice pudding for afters. KUSHARI This has a few elements, but they’re all pretty easy, and some can be done in advance. To serve four. CRISPY ONIONS 3 large Spanish onions sea salt extra virgin olive oil Slice the onions into half moons, as thin as you can manage. You should be able to see through them. Put them in a colander, sprinkle over about a tablespoon of salt, and rub it into the onions. Leave for about half an hour. Rinse the onions, then squeeze out as much moisture as you can. Heat a couple of inches of oil in a deep pan, and fry the onions in batches, swirling and turning often with tongs. They won’t seem to be getting anywhere, but will eventually (15 minutes or so) turn a lovely golden brown. Remove, drain on kitchen roll, and repeat with the rest of the onions. SPICY TOMATO SAUCE 2 tins chopped tomatoes 4 cloves of garlic, crushed 100ml red wine vinegar 1 tsp chilli flakes Put everything in a pan, bring to a simmer, and reduce until thick and intense. Season. It should be almost unpleasantly tart and hot. LENTILS 200g green lentils 2 bay leaves 1 head of garlic, halved Stick everything in a large pan, cover with twice the volume of cold water, bring to a boil, then simmer for half an hour or so until tender. Al dente lentils are disgusting; veer on the side of too soft. Drain and keep warm. MACARONI 100g macaroni Cook the macaroni. You could use another pasta if you like; I’ve used vermicelli, which works well. Macaroni is authentic, though, at least to the diner I went to. RICE 1 large onion, diced 1 tin chickpeas, drained and rinsed 1 tsp ground cinnamon a little fresh grated nutmeg a couple of cloves 500g basmati rice 1125ml of vegetable stock (knorr stock pots are good, but most other cubes and powders taste of dried herbs and salt – plain water would probably be better if you can’t go fresh) oil Heat a little oil in a large pan, and sweat your onion until good and soft. Add the chickpeas and the spices, and cook for a minute more. Stir in the rice, making sure it’s well coated in oil. Add the (hot) stock, and boil hard until well reduced, with a few pits starting to appear in the surface of the rice. Stick a lid on the pan, turn the heat right down, and leave for about ten minutes. Different brands of rice take different times, and the size and shape of your pan will make a difference too, so it’s difficult to be exact – just leave on the low heat until the rice is nicely cooked through. ASSEMBLY fresh parsley fresh coriander chilli oil or chilli vinegar or both Stir the lentils and pasta into the rice, serve up into bowls, and top each portion with spicy sauce, crispy onions, and a good scattering of herbs. Add chilli condiments if the sauce isn’t hot enough for you. KARKADAY They love hibiscus in Egypt, and drink it all the time as either a tea, or here, as a cordial. This recipe is adapted from Thomasina Miers, as they apparently drink something similar in Mexico. Makes a fair bit, but it keeps. 50g dried hibiscus flowers 300g caster sugar 1125ml water (that number again, strange) 2 lemons Put the flowers, sugar and water in a pan, bring to the boil, then simmer for about half an hour. Cool, then stir in the lemon juice. You might not want all of it, but it should be good and tart. This makes a cordial which is good with water, soda, and I imagine prosecco.

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