Monday, December 08, 2008

Eating Well on a Budget: Mjadara

While Karen, Jasper and I are in New York, it is my pleasure to bring you a special guest blogger, Muna Hijazi. To help you cope with hard financial realities, I've wanted to do a story on foods to cook at home on the cheap and mjadara is the first thing that came to mind. It's one of my favorite winter comfort foods, and no one makes it better than my old friend Muna. Some of you might remember her selling her cuisine at the Farmers Market in 2003/4 under the name, Muna Food. Either way, you're in for a treat. Make this once, and you'll have a new addictive and easy meal in your repertoire.

This is Muna and her mjadara recipe/background-story:
Mjadara is a true staple for Palestinians, and popular throughout the Arab world. Infinitely affordable and incredibly delicious, it's made from simple, hardy ingredients that are dirt cheap, easy to find, and even easier to store for long amounts of time. This dish has sustained many generations of Palestinians through war, displacement, curfews and trade embargoes. There is no vowel sound between the M and the J. Pronounce the M the way you would say "Mmm" with the first whiff of a wonderful meal, then say the rest of the word as transliterated and you'll be just fine.

My favorite version is adapted from one the first Lebanese cookbooks published in English, written by Madelain Farah in 1975. When I first started making the dish, I tried to wing it -- I mean, how hard could it be? It's just lentils, rice, and onions. But I could never get it right.

I finally looked it up in this book passed down by my mother and was in disbelief at the prescribed 1/2 cup of oil used to first fry to crucially crispy onions, then to in effect season the lentils and rice as they cook. The oil makes all the difference. Do not skimp on it. You'd be doing a great disservice to this already very healthy meal.

Regarding those crucial onions: This is everyone's favorite part. Fried until just-past-golden brown and spooned on top, you can never have too many of these. Make sure you do actually use two huge red onions (other hues will do, but red are the tastiest), and if they are not enormously bulbous enough, definitely supplement with more. If you lapse on this, be prepared to break up the fights over the last few delicious strands.

Here's the recipe:

1 cup uncooked brown lentils
4 cups water
2 large red onions, julienned
1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup uncooked white rice
(basmati or jasmin is recommended)
1 tablespoon salt

Rinse the lentils and add to the water. Bring to boil and cook over medium heat for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, saute the onions in the oil until just-past-golden brown. With a slotted spoon remove the onions from the oil to drain on newspaper.

Add this onion-seasoned oil to the lentils, along with the rice and salt. Bring to a boil, then drop the temperature to as low as possible. Cover with a tightly fitted lid and cook for 20-25 minutes. Use a fork to test it -- the mjadara should not be mushy or sticky, but rather each grain should cleanly pull away from the other.

Place on a serving platter, with the fried onions. Mjadara is traditionally served with a dollop of whole milk yogurt and a fresh Arabic village-style salad of equal parts finely chopped tomato, cucumber, and onion (and jalapeno if you're truly Arab), mixed with lemon juice and salt . I for one cannot eat this dish without these two elements. It would be like eating spaghetti without the sauce.

Now for the most important part, a real truth passed on to us from Kahlil Gibran:

"If you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half a man's hunger."

No meal is complete without the care it requires in its preparation. That is the real trick to how sustaining this dish is during hard times. I made this dish with several other of my family's favorites under the banner of Muna Food for people at the 17th Street Farmers' Market, gosh, I guess about five years ago. Muna Food was wildly popular, but I stopped when I felt like I wasn't able to put enough care into the dishes anymore, given the demand.

On another note, I've just recently finished reading M.F.K. Fisher's "How To Cook A Wolf". MFK is perennially by far my favorite food writer, full of grace, wit and good taste. She wrote this book as America emerged from World War II. The title wolf is the metaphor used throughout the book for the panic and fear that real hardship and poverty inspires in everyone who must, one way or another, put food on the table.

Aside from interesting recipes, it is full of wonderful advice and fascinating asides. I'm just about to update my page with quotes from the book. One of my favorites puts in context our current economic woes:

"As for your icebox. (It is easiest to take for granted that you still have one, and that it works, and that it is not an annex for the local Red Cross and filled to bulging with blood plasma)."
Can any of you readers help me interpret this icebox quote? Muna? Whenever Karen wants to go to the grocery store, I say, "Why don't we just eat something from the freezer?" Anywho, I think cheap eats like this are a common thread among all cultures. Caramelized onions help bring people together. So, no antagonistic comments about the Middle East peace process in the comments. In my world, the best way to promote peace is for people at odds to sit at a table and appreciate each other's favorite foods. Of course, folks in the Jerusalem might throw down over mayo vs. tahini in the baba ghanouj. If you feel like you need to taste mjadara in order to know how to make it (that's how I tend to cook), just head over to the Mediterranean Bakery and Deli on Quioccasin for the best stuff in town (since Muna doesn't deliver).


  1. Not sure what happened to the peanut gallery. Maybe they'll chime in when they find out how many layers of flavors come out of that short ingredient list. It mystifies me every time.

  2. absolutely one of my favorite dishes in the world, and the Mediterranean Bakery does do a great job. True comfort food.

  3. Anonymous8:00 AM

    Can you use brown rice instead of white? I assume the cooking time would be longer - would that ruin the dish?

  4. I've made it using brown rice and just added the lentils 10 minutes in, instead of at the same time. Plenty of recipes online call for brown rice, or even bulgar wheat.

  5. Holy smokes, the holiday rush led me to forget to check this until now! Regardless, on that icebox quote -- I like being reminded by it that there are far worse things than not being able to put a bunch of good things in the fridge. We can be thankful that we have fridges and homes and in general such a wonderful assortment of things that haven't been bombed out by war or pressed into the service of fighting one.

    You can, it's true, use brown rice or bulgar wheat. Just as it's possible to use use wheat or spelt pasta for your fettuccine alfredo. Whether these substitutions make are a delicious dish is entirely up to the dishee.


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