Koshari: The Ultimate Vegan, Egyptian Comfort Food
Because the best way to enjoy a carb is layered on top of other carbs
I am forever haunted by a Goop recipe for “Super-Healthy Kosheri,” originally featured in Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbook It’s All Good: Delicious Recipes That Will Make You Look Good and Feel Great. I have fond memories of eating koshari — the national dish of Egypt, a meal comprised of rice, macaroni, and lentils, topped with tomato sauce and crispy fried onions — at my Egyptian grandmother’s house. But I could barely recognize the Goop version, which features the most non-traditional, blasphemous ingredients imaginable (quinoa? cinnamon?!).
Don’t get me wrong — I love crunchy health food. The bulk of my diet as a vegan consists of fresh fruits and raw vegetables, but eating koshari isn’t a time to think about whether you “look good and feel great,” which is precisely why I love it so much. It’s best enjoyed by plowing through several bowls while dressed in your comfiest pants, passing out on the couch for a two-hour nap in the aftermath of the ensuing carb coma, then waking up and doing it all over again. In the spirit of doing right by my ancestors, I have considered it my duty ever since to redeem koshari from this clean-eating adulteration and introduce to the uninitiated this perfect food in all its unabashed, carb-laden glory.
The individual ingredients that comprise koshari are humble and unassuming — plain boiled macaroni, rice, lentils, tomato sauce, and crispy fried onions. And yet, due to some sort of Egyptian culinary alchemy, layering them in a bowl and mixing everything together produces the most heavenly result possible. Koshari is the ultimate comfort food — nourishing, delicious, cheap, and filling.
When I went vegan at thirteen years old — along with my mother and sister — it was a seamless transition. I did it for the animals, and never felt like I was missing out on any foods or experiences. But my Italian father, Egyptian grandmother, and the rest of my extended family — suddenly faced with three new vegans — reacted to the news not unlike a canonical moment in My Big Fat Greek Wedding when Toula’s aunt, upon discovering that Toula’s boyfriend, Ian, is a vegetarian, emphatically and indignantly asks, “What do you mean he don’t eat no meat?!” The booming question brings the lively music to an abrupt halt, and a glass shatters as family members look on, horrified. Her aunt continues reassuringly, “Oh, that’s okay, that’s okay… I make lamb.” In the eyes of many omnivores, vegans present an undesired challenge to their cooking and eating habits. Adopting a vegan lifestyle, therefore, can mean facing the new challenge of navigating social gatherings centered on food that are so essential to bonding, socializing, and a sense of belonging.
These meals also taught me that one of the best ways to introduce people to the vegan lifestyle is to simply feed them awesome food free of animal products to demonstrate that veganism can be both wholesome and indulgent, and free from sacrifice or deprivation.
In my early vegan days, it was a great comfort to turn to “accidentally vegan” meals like koshari, which made family gatherings easier and less tense for both host and guest. My grandmother didn’t have to think about what ingredients she’d have to eliminate or substitute, and I didn’t have to worry about politely declining the dish she had made, or feel like I was being an inconvenience. Plus, the chances of someone starting a heated debate about veganism over dinner were slimmer when everyone was in a carb coma.
These meals also taught me that one of the best ways to introduce people to the vegan lifestyle is to simply feed them awesome food free of animal products to demonstrate that veganism can be both wholesome and indulgent, and free from sacrifice or deprivation. This ethos is particularly well suited to a dish like koshari, which is in many ways an “everyman” food enjoyed by people from all walks of life in Egypt, and served everywhere from humble food carts to high-end restaurants.
Going vegan expanded my culinary world to include new ingredients, cooking techniques, and cuisines, but most importantly it breathed new life into all the foods and dishes that I ate growing up that happened to be vegan, even before I knew what veganism was — from my father’s signature pasta with garlic and tomato sauce or homemade pesto, to other traditional Egyptian dishes from my mother like ta’ameya (Egyptian falafel) with tahina, ful medames (simmered fava beans seasoned with olive oil, lemon, and garlic), warak enab (grape leaves stuffed with rice), besarah (pureed fava beans cooked with cilantro, garlic, olive oil, and spices), and molokhia (a soup made of mallow leaves served with rice, tomato sauce, onion, and pita bread). These foods that I always loved — now viewed through a vegan lens — took on new joy and meaning in my life, providing familiarity and contentment while still being aligned with my ethics. My family also developed new traditions as we came together to veganize traditional foods with a few simple swaps, like making basbousa (a semolina pastry topped with nuts) and konafa (a dessert made of long, thin strands of semolina dough cooked in sugar syrup and filled with nuts) with oil instead of butter.
Because North African and Middle Eastern foods are so veg-friendly, many of these dishes have become vegan staples (stereotypes be damned, look into any vegan’s fridge and you’re bound to find a few tubs of hummus). This is the case partially because meat isn’t always the centerpiece of meals in MENA cuisines, but also because many “accidentally vegan” foods, I discovered, aren’t accidentally vegan at all, but deeply shaped by religious and cultural traditions. Many Egyptian foods are vegan, for example, because the indigenous Coptic Orthodox population (of which my family is a part) fasts for over 200 days of the year, abstaining from all animal products and adhering to a plant-based diet on fasting days. While the principle behind fasting is limiting indulgent foods in the name of religious piety, fasting practices have shaped traditional Egyptian cuisine, and have also led to a boom in plant-based offerings year-round for the general public.
Though I didn’t fast growing up, and do not consider myself religious, learning about the history of Coptic cuisine and its veg-friendly origins ultimately brought me closer to both my veganism and my Coptic identity. Cooking these traditional meals provides both literal and cultural sustenance, allowing me to keep the rich traditions that I learned from my mother and grandmother alive, and also ensuring that I’ll have no shortage of delicious ways to enjoy carbs for a lifetime.
Koshari has a lot of individual components, and getting a few pots going on the stove at the same time to cook the starches is most efficient and drastically cuts down on prep time. You’ll likely go back for second and third helpings, and leftovers are a real treat, so make more than you think you need, doubling the recipe if needed. The most time-consuming part of the recipe, which requires constant attention, are the crispy fried onions, but don’t skip them — they’re the pièce de résistance of the authentic koshari experience (and so important, my family reminisces, that the person responsible for preparing and frying the onions at their favorite koshari joint back in the day in Egypt used to be paid the most of all of the workers).
For the Koshari
- One cup brown lentils (canned brown lentils also work in a pinch)
- One cup short grain rice
- Two cups elbow pasta
- Rinse lentils in a sieve under running water. Place lentils in a pot and cover with a few inches of water (about three to four cups of water). Bring to a boil, then reduce to a gentle simmer and cook until tender, about 25 minutes. Drain and set lentils aside.
- Rinse rice in a sieve under running water. Cook according to package instructions with salt to taste until water is absorbed and rice is tender. Set rice aside.
- Bring pasta to a boil in salted water and cook according to package directions until al dente. Drain pasta and set aside.
For Tomato Sauce
- Two cloves of garlic, finely minced
- Two tablespoons olive oil
- 15 ounce can of tomato sauce
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Optional: favorite hot sauce, to taste
- Sauté garlic in olive oil for one minute in a pot.
- Add tomato sauce to pot, with salt and pepper to taste. Bring sauce to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes until sauce thickens slightly.
- Optional, but highly recommended if you love spicy food: Reserve ¼ of finished tomato sauce and stir in hot sauce to taste. Serve spicy sauce in a separate bowl.
For the Crispy Fried Onions
- Four large yellow onions
- Favorite vegetable oil, for frying
- Slice onions into thin crescents.
- Fill bottom of pan with oil. Add sliced onions and fry over medium heat until they’re a dark, caramelized brown.
- Remove onions from oil with a slotted spoon and place them on paper towels to drain excess oil.
- Optional: Reserve some oil after frying crispy onions and add a spoon to lentils, pasta, and rice after cooking and before serving for extra flavor.
- Reheat and fluff any starches, if necessary. Optional: Toss a spoon of reserved oil from frying onions with lentils, pasta, and rice before serving for extra flavor, if desired.
- Serve each ingredient (rice, lentils, pasta, tomato sauce, and fried onions) in a separate bowl, family style.
- To assemble the perfect bowl of koshari, first spoon a layer of pasta in a bowl, followed by a layer of rice, then a layer of lentils, making each layer slightly smaller than the last. Then add a few spoonfuls of tomato sauce, and top with fried onions.
- Enjoy and repeat!