This morning, an old family friend surprised me when she said that her father's family was Syrian, and she missed the Syrian foods from her childhood, especially a lentil dish that sounded like "shudthra." Carol said that she remembers eating it on meatless Fridays, by scooping it up with pita bread. There is no mistaking that she meant Mujaddarah.
Mujaddarah has always been a huge favorite in our house. Jerry loved it, of course, since he grew up eating it, but so did I, and curiously, so did my Acadian French father and my Italian Auntie Anna. As a little tiny girl, my daughter used to beg for it, and she still does! I never dreamed that such a simple, homestyle dish would have such universal appeal!
Mujaddarah is a very ancient dish in the middle east. In fact, it is the pottage for which Esau traded his birthright in Genesis 25. Esau lived in Canaan, which corresponds to the area known as the Levant, a geographic and cultural term referring to the eastern Mediterranean region, between Anatolia and Egypt, including most of modern Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Cyprus, and parts of Turkey and Iraq.
Mujaddarah can be made with rice or bulgar wheat, soupy or fluffy, with or without cumin (Lebanese don't use cumin, but Jordanians do), but it always consists of lentils flavored with lots and lots of carmelized onions. In fact, over the years, I have found that the more onions I carmelize, the more my family clamors for more more more!
4 C water
1 C brown lentils
4 large onions (about 1 - 1 1/2 lbs), peeled, cut in half length-wise and sliced thinly, lengthwise
1/2 C olive oil
1 C white rice
1 Tbs salt
1/8 tsp pepper
In a large, deep-sided, heavy fry pan, over med-low heat, carmelize onions in oil until they are dark brown, sweet, and almost sticky, but not burned. This is going to take a while, maybe half an hour or more, and will need constant attention. When carmelized, drain the onions on paper towels, and try to keep yourself from eating them. Save the oil.
Pick over lentils, discarding deformed lentils and any rocks or other detritus, and rinse well. In a large pot, bring 4 C water to a boil, and add the lentils, bring back to a simmer and simmer for 12 minutes. Remove from heat. Add the rice, salt, pepper, 2 Tbs of the reserved oil, and half the carmelized onions to the pot. Stir well, return to heat, and bring the water back to a boil. Give one last stir, lower the heat to a gentle simmer, cover tightly and steam rice mixture for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand for ten minutes, then fluff gently, adjusting for salt and pepper.
Serve this the traditional way, on a platter, with the last bit of the oil drizzled over, and the rest of the carmelized onion on top. It's delicious hot or cold, with yogurt, green salad and olives on the side. First, you rip a pita in half, separate the two layers, and use some of the bread to scoop up the yummy goodness.