Beans and Rice go global: Koshari
If you stop to think about it, virtually every culture has some permutation of beans and rice. Most vegetarians know that this has to do with the dietary principle of eating complementary proteins. Unlike animal sources of protein, most vegetable proteins do not contain all 9 essential amino acids that our bodies cannot manufacture. (Although some exceptions include soybeans, quinoa and teff). Generally speaking, grains tend to have the amino acids that legumes lack, and vice versa, so if you eat them together, you’ll get all of the building blocks your body needs to synthesize whatever proteins it needs to make. Since our bodies don’t have capacity to store amino acids in any significant way, its important to eat these complementary foods at the same meal, together. In other words, your body can’t hang on to some amino acids at breakfast and wait for the others to show up at dinnertime in order to make what it needs to make.
I first tasted koshari in Egypt in 1995 at some nameless roadside hole-in-the-wall. I remember it being a very comforting (and cheap) dish with rice, macaroni, lentils, crispy onions and some sort of savory sauce that tied it altogether. Although this was before the Atkins craze, I still remember thinking it was somehow subversive to eat both rice AND pasta in the same dish. It’s not exactly considered haute Egyptian cuisine, so you’re unlikely to see it at an Egyptian restaurant in the U.S. But if you’ve ever eaten at an authentic Middle Eastern restaurant owned by Syrians, Jordanians or Palestinians, you may have seen its sister dish, Mujadara, which is a similar but simpler lentil and rice dish–sans pasta– topped with those signature crispy onions.
Fast-forward to today, when gluten-intolerance has rendered this traditional comfort-food staple off limits to people with intestines like mine, and when white rice and white pasta in the same dish is frowned upon by those even with perfectly functioning intestines. Koshari was the perfect candidate for a makeover.
So imagine my delight to find a koshari recipe in my trusty Mayo Clinic cookbook hiding under the name “Lentils with Wild Rice and Crispy Onions.” (Why would you call it that when it has a name as catchy as koshari?) Since I’ve previously confessed to my beanaholic tendencies in a prior posting, it should come as no surprise that I was all about trying out a new way to dress up my weekday dinner staple.
OK, full disclosure up front: this recipe isn’t difficult at all, but quick it is not. Put the wild rice on first before you start anything, as it will take somewhere between 45 minutes to an hour to make. Cut all the onions and garlic at once, and I’d make extra crispy onions, because with such a tasty (and time-consuming garnish), you’d hate to have to skimp. Have a good movie on TV in the background to help pass the time as you babysit the crisping onions, which will take a good 30 minutes. I assure you that the dish is worth it: between the combination of textures, the tangy, picante sauce and the almost-sweet lentils, this is not your abuela’s rice and beans. The recipe says it serves 10, but I think that’s a huge stretch, especially if you’re using it as a main dish. I’d say 5.
And unlike its starchy ancestor, this new-generation koshari is a high-fiber, whole-grain, complex-carbohydrate powerhouse. We’re talking satiety central, here, people. Between the slow-digesting complex carbs, a hefty amount of fiber and a solid amount of protein that comes from both the lentils and the wild rice, you won’t find yourself scavenging for a snack 2 hours after eating. In fact, this dish is a perfect example of the utility of the right type of carbohydrate in helping with weight maintanence… so I hope my carb-phobic friends are taking notes! Pair it with a green salad or a cup of broth spiked with some ground shiitake mushrooms, and you’ve got yourself a light but super-satisfying vegetarian meal fit for a pharaoh.