In every Middle Eastern country, people eat Majadra, the working man’s dish of lentils and rice topped with fried onions. The basic recipe is the same in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and Israel, with variations evolving from the local tradition or the taste of the cook.
Some might cook the grains in stock instead of water. A variation exists that calls for cooking the lentils till they explode and then mashing them.
Then again, some cooks stick to the basic lentils, rice and onions, while others add layers of flavors with cinnamon and paprika. Medieval recipes included ground lamb.
Even the name varies from region to region: I’ve heard the dish called Majadra, Majadehra, and Mujaderah. My Moroccan relatives call it Majadra, so I do too.
To save fuel, many people cook the rice and lentils together. But the dish looks more attractive with the fluffy white rice and firm, dark-green lentils distinct from each other. And I like to taste each separate ingredient: pungent, earthy lentils and light white rice aromatic with garlic, all the flavors united under a light cover of carmelized onions.
Traditionally, majadra is served with yoghurt. To this, add a cooked vegetable or a salad, and you have a complete protein and an inexpensive, balanced meal.
Leftover lentils freeze well, as does the whole cooked dish.
For a substantial main dish, I use proportions of 50/50% rice to lentils. For a side dish, I’ll serve it about 2/3 rice to 1/3 lentils, as in the photo above. Actually I just mix it by eye, till I judge that there are enough lentils.
3/4 cup brown or black lentils
1 bay leaf
2 cups water
More olive oil
1 tsp. powdered cumin
salt, pepper to taste
1. Pick over and rinse the lentils. Simmer them in the water, with the bay leaf, till they are soft but not mushy. Depending on the quality of the lentils, this might take 30-40 minutes. Do not add salt. Add more water if it looks like they’re drying out, but if they finish cooking and there’s water left over, just drain them and return them to the pot.
Add salt to taste after the lentils are done. Remove the bay leaf.
1 1/2 cups rice
2 Tblsp. olive oil
3 cups water, boiling
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1. Rinse the rice and allow it to drain almost dry.
2. Heat the oil gently and add the rice, stirring to coat the grains with oil.
3. When the rice has become transparent, add the garlic. Stir half a minute, then add the salt and the water.
4. Bring to a boil, then cover the pot and lower the flame to the lowest setting. Cook the rice till all the water has evaporated and the grains are tender and separate.
Now slice the onions thinly.
Pour 2 Tblsp. olive oil into a non-stick pan and carmelize the onions over the lowest possible flame, stirring once in a while. You want them very soft and golden, not brown and crisp.
When the onions are done – 10-15 minutes – add the cumin and a little salt and pepper.
Final step: fluff the rice with a fork. Combine the cooked lentils and the rice, mixing gently with the fork so as not to mash them. Stir some of the carmelized onion in, and top the dish with the rest of the onions.
- I’ve never seen a recipe including cilantro, but occasionally I chop 1/2 cup of cilantro leaves and add them to the onions a minute before taking them off the flame.
- Another thing I sometimes do is add a little powdered turmeric to the onions.
- You can also add small amounts 1/4- 1/2 tsp. – of grated fresh ginger root and powdered cinnamon, if the fit takes you; that’s also traditional in some countries.
- Majadra is even more delicious if you carmelize the onions in a mixture of butter and olive oil, or drizzle a little melted butter over the dish before serving.