Is Egypt's Koshary A Spin On Indian Khichri?
- Slurrp Team
Updated : October 19, 2022 17:10 IST
The koshary’s composition could almost be a metaphor for its history.
𓀀 Koshary is a mix of rice, lentils, pasta, chickpeas, a spicy tomato sauce and fried onions, topped off with garlic vinegar.
𓀁 Its origins are mired in conflicting accounts, with some calling it a cousin of the Indian khichri and others, a variant of the Arabic mujaddara.
You May Also Like
𓀂 There is evidence indicating that it was being eaten in Egypt much before the commonly accepted period — which is circa World War I — since the early travelogues of both Ibn Battuta and Sir Richard Francis Burton contain references to it.
OVER OCTOBER 22, thousands of tourists will gather at the Temple of Abu Simbel in Egypt to witness a twice yearly phenomenon: the rays of the sun align perfectly to enter the innermost chambers of the ancient rock-cut temple, to light up the face of the Pharaoh Ramesses II. The other date of the year on which the sun’s rays line up in the same position is February 22.
Both in October and in February, the occasion is one that envelops the area with a carnival-like air. To cater to the throngs of visitors, vendors sell everything from kitsch to koshary — Egypt’s “national dish” that is also one of its most popular street foods.
Koshary is a mix of rice, lentils and pasta, topped with a spicy tomato sauce, chickpeas and fried onions. Condiments like garlic sauce/garlic vinegar or a chilli option are also offered alongside. Each element of the koshary (also spelt kushari or koshari) is cooked separately, and assembled together in a single bowl for the diner at the time of serving. Expert koshary servers can assemble a bowl in five deft seconds — complete with toppings, sauces et al. Eateries that specialise in koshary will have an “assembly line” set-up, where each server down the line will add their designated ingredient to the bowl, before being presented to the customer.
The koshary’s composition could almost be a metaphor for its history. Conflicting accounts attribute its origins to different time periods and also different sources. A common narrative seems to be that [Indian] soldiers in the British Army — or even British soldiers who had previously served in India — brought the khichri to Egypt during World War I. The mix of rice and pulses was a perfectly wholesome, low-fuss meal that would have sustained the soldiers through long shifts. The addition of pasta to the pot is believed to be an Italian influence.
But other accounts dispute this. The famed traveller Ibn Battuta is said to have recorded one of the earliest mentions of koshary in his logs. “Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to el Medinah and Meccah”, published by the British explorer Richard Francis Burton in 1855, was an account of his hajj journey two years previously — whilst disguised as a Pashtun Muslim, and with the backing of the Royal Geographical Society — to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In it, Burton is said to make note of the breakfast of people in the Suez region: “When the sun rises, the people of Suez eat their breakfast, which in the summer consists of a pie. In the winter, the breakfast is a dish of (koshary): lentils, rice, ghee, and onions sliced on a slow fire, or pickled lemons” [an approximate translation from Arabic via Google].
Some food historians have theorised that the koshary is in fact, a cousin of the Arabic mujaddara (rice, lentils, fried onions). Pasta could be an Italian inspiration, but it does have an Arabic connection as well, as described in mediaeval food texts.
However long and winding its road to the serving bowl may have been, and no matter how shrouded in mystery some of the twists and turns on that path, koshary is firmly entrenched as an Egyptian staple — the go-to meal for rich and poor to keep hunger pangs in check. No matter what your budget, there’s always a koshary vendor or restaurant to suit it: from peddlers who dish it out of their carts to tiny street eateries and fine dining establishments. Since servers clang their metal spoons against the side of their bowls every time they finish dishing out four portions, there’s a particular symphony that forms the soundtrack to people — locals and tourists alike — relishing their bowls of koshary.
This post was originally published as Slurrp's daily newsletter, Just One Thing, on 19 October 2022. If you like what you read, subscribe here. We're really good about not spamming your inbox!