Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Mujadarrah: Lentils, Rice, and Onions

This simple Middle Eastern dish has very few ingredients. It's made with lentils, rice, and onions, plus a little olive oil and some salt and pepper. The recipe is uncomplicated. You boil lentils and rice in salted water. Meanwhile, you fry some onions. Then, you stir everything together and add black pepper. That's the whole recipe. It's quite simple. In fact, it's almost too simple. It's so simple that you might expect it to be a bit blah. But prepare to be surprised. This plain-Jane recipe produces delightful results. It is rich and earthy and entirely satisfying.

French green lentils are ideal in this dish because they have a firm texture and hold their shape nicely. Brown lentils are a fine alternative, but they'll produce a slightly mushier finished dish. Lentils are full of protein, which makes this an excellent vegetarian main course. The rice in the recipe provides a bright, starchy accompaniment to the lentils. Long-grain white rice works well, as does brown rice. At the heart of this dish is the onions. Dark ribbons of deeply-caramelized onions should punctuate every bite. Ordinary yellow onions cook down nicely without falling apart. The onions should sizzle slowly in olive oil until they are very brown and soft. Finally, a good amount of freshly ground black pepper is an absolute must. It adds a spicy note and focuses the flavor of the dish.

Now, for a side dish. And a story. My family was visiting last weekend and I decided to prepare mujadarrah with a cucumber salad for dinner. My mouth was watering at the thought of cucumbers with a garlicky yogurt dressing, but there was a problem. I had gone to the store earlier and bought a cucumber for the salad, but it was nowhere to be found. I searched high and low, with no luck. My mom suggested that I might have left the cucumber at the store. Or, perhaps it had rolled out of the bag of groceries and been forgotten in the car. She volunteered to go out and look for it. After a few minutes, she came back into the house. "I looked everywhere," she said. Then, in a somber voice, "I regret to inform you that your cucumber has been the victim of a hit and run accident." My poor cucumber had fallen out of the bag onto the street outside my house and been run over by a car! It was very sad. It was sad for the poor, mangled cucumber. It was sad for those who had wanted to eat the cucumber. In the end, we bought a replacement cucumber for the salad. It tasted bright and fresh alongside the heavier flavors of the mujadarrah. I definitely recommend the combination. Just do your best to keep your cucumber safe from reckless motorists.

Adapted from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison. Serves 2 as a main course or 4 as a side dish.
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large or two medium onions, halved from pole to pole and sliced crosswise
  • 2 cups water
  • 2/3 cup lentils
  • 1/3 cup long-grain rice
  • kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Place the onions in a large skillet with the olive oil. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. Cook over medium-high heat until the onions begin to brown. Turn the heat down to medium-low and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are a deep brown color. The heat should be high enough that you can hear the onions sizzle, but not so high that the onions become charred. It should take 20-30 minutes for the onions to fully caramelize. Turn off the heat and set the onions aside until the rice and lentils are finished cooking.

While the onions are cooking, bring two cups of water to a boil in a saucepan with a lid. Add 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt. Add the lentils, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for 15 minutes. Then, stir in the rice, cover the pot, and simmer 15 minutes more. (Brown rice version: Use the same amount of water and salt. Add the brown rice to the water, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for 15 minutes. Then, stir in the lentils, cover the pot, and simmer 30 minutes more.)

When the rice and lentis are cooked, stir in about two thirds of the caramelized onions and lots of black pepper. Stir very gently so the lentils don't fall apart. Taste and add more salt and pepper if necessary. Serve the mujadarrah in a big bowl with the remaining one third of the onions piled on top.

Cucumber Salad
Serves 2 to 4.

  • 1 English cucumber, peeled or not, according to taste
  • kosher salt
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2-3 ounces of plain greek yogurt
Slice the cucumber lengthwise into fourths or eighths. Slice the cucumber crosswise to make bite-sized pieces. Place the cucumber in a colander in the sink, sprinkle with half a teaspoon of salt, and toss to coat. After about 30 minutes, some water will have drained from the cucumber and it will be very crisp. In a medium-sized bowl, stir the cucumber together with the garlic and a few big spoonfuls of yogurt. Taste and add more salt if necessary. 


  1. Looks tasty! Middle Eastern dishes are great. I recently adapted this recipe: Check it out. The taste, texture, and healthiness were awesome. Cilantro is key!

  2. Yay! Thank you dear friend for posting the recipe I've been missing! I have a bag of lentils that are eager to be used in this recipe. I'll let you know how it turns out. On another note, I love your stories! Keep up the great work -- and save these for a cook book that is bound to come out of this some day.

  3. So simple but so so good!