Mujadara is a classic Middle Eastern blend of lentils, rice or bulgur, and caramelized onions. Spices, if you want to get fancy. Although it’s not a dish that I grew up eating, I still find it wonderfully comforting and satisfying. The first time that I cooked mujadara, I was still in graduate school. Like most days when I decided to cook, I was procrastinating on starting or completing some assignment. I’d have my laptop nearby, open to the task at hand – writing a paper, completing a project, reading an article – as a reminder of the work yet to be completed.
These days, I can concoct and create dishes in peace, without an assignment deadline looming over me. In fact, cooking these days is often synonymous with family and story time. And by stories, I mean memories that my parents share. Having grown up in Iraq, the experiences that my parents narrate are so wonderfully exciting; they offer insight to my parents’ childhood, which was so different than my own.
As I caramelized onions for the mujadara, my dad and brother were chatting about the appearance of TVs in family homes in Iraq. Their discussion reminded my mom of a visit to her uncle’s house in Tel-Keppe, a predominantly Assyrian town in Northern Iraq. It was late at night, and my mom and her cousin were bored. In an attempt to placate their boredom, the adults told them to go watch TV at their aunt’s house, next door. When they arrived at the house, which was not even a few minutes walk, her front gate – an unpenetrable gigantic iron mass – was locked. Unable to climb or open the gate, my mom and her cousin decided that their best plan was to visit a neighbor’s house, climb to the roof of that house, and cross over to the roof of their aunt’s house, in order to enter. Now, when my mom first told me this story, I was bewildered. She climbed a roof?? to get to another roof?? My parents explained that houses in the village shared walls, which meant that the roofs were connected. Climbing to the rooftop, or gareh, was common practice, since all the houses had stairs that led to the gareh. On nice evenings, people sometimes slept on the gareh. And, someone who is incredibly loud is often described as being “born on the roof” or “hwaleh b’gareh.”
It’s wonderful memories like this one that I love hearing so much. Cooking and spending time with family bring out these fascinating stories that represent a time, place, and culture that have since changed.
Mujadara is a flexible recipe. You can add spices or mix the lentils with white rice, brown rice, quinoa, or any other grain that you love to eat. I’ve seen recipes with greens and other veggies added, and, where all ingredients were cooked in one pot. I decided to cook the bulgur and lentils separately, because the lentils generally take longer to cook.
Prep Time: 5 – 10 minutes • Cook Time: 45 minutes • Serving Size: 4 to 6
- 1 cup green lentils
- 1 cup bulgur
- 1.5 cups veggie, chicken or beef stock (for bulgur)
- 3 cups veggie, chicken or beef stock (for lentils)
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 3 onions onions, sliced
Pull out two small pots. Add about a tablespoon of oil in each. Heat the oil and add half the chopped onion to each pot. Stir the onions until lightly browned.
In one pot, add the green lentils and stir. Add 3 cups of stock to the pot. Cover and cook on medium heat. Cook for about 20 to 30 minutes, until the stock has cooked away, and the lentils are tender but not mush. Try the lentils; if they aren’t as tender as you like, add about 1/2 cup more stock or water.
In the other pot, add the bulgur and stir. Add 1.5 cups of stock to the pot. Cover and cook on medium heat. Cook for about 10 to 15 minutes or until the stock has cooked away. Let the bulgur sit for about 15 minutes.
While the bulgur and lentils cook, heat a tablespoon of oil in a frying pan. Add the sliced onions and cook on low to medium heat. Cook the onions for 20 to 30 minutes or until they achieve a caramel golden color. As the onions cook, you may need to add more oil to keep them from burning.
When the bulgur and lentils are done cooking, mix them together in one pot. Taste, and add salt if needed. Serve the mujadara topped with caramelized onions.