Koshari: Egyptian king of foods, or over-hyped and over-carbed? | Rachel Shabi

A new restaurant, Koshari Street, has brought Egypt’s much-loved street food and national dish to London

The food that apparently fuelled a revolution has arrived in the UK. Koshari, Egypt’s much-loved street food and national dish, just made a grand entrance in London, via Koshari Street a new “hole-in-the-wall” restaurant serving it up for lunch.

If carb-bombing is your thing, then this is the food for you: a mountain of rice, lentils, vermicelli, macaroni and chickpeas, all layered together with a spicy tomato sauce and crunchy caramelised onions. Egyptians seemingly can’t get enough of the stuff – plus, it was dispatched to the protester frontlines of Tahrir Square during the 2011 revolution, so now it has near-mythical status.

Cheap, easy and filling, koshari is ubiquitous on Egypt’s streets and thought to be an adaptation of the Indian kitchari – a rice-lentils creation brought to Egypt in the late 19th century, during British occupation of both countries. Iraqi Jews, thanks to the British Mandate period in Iraq, are big fans of a similarly derived variation on the rice and lentils combo called kichree, although they sensibly managed to refrain from chucking a load of other carbohydrates into it (Egypt’s Italian community is held responsible for koshari’s pasta factor). Levant countries such as Lebanon and Palestine go more for mujaddara, a classic rice-brown lentils dish that perfectly works the principle of less is more.

London’s Koshari Street is thus far getting an enthusiastic response from the British press, and is brought to us by Middle Eastern food expert Anissa Helou, who was asked by two Egyptian entrepreneurs to get on board the project. It is inconceivable that this London-based, Lebanese-born chef, author and all-round food legend would come up with anything less than carefully sourced, exemplary cooking – and here’s the giveaway detail: Koshari Street serves the dish as developed by Helou and flavoured with her own secret “doqqa”, the unique mix of spices, dried herbs and nuts that can make or break a dish. Honestly, I don’t mean to burst this food bubble for Egypt, but the nation is not really known for its fine cuisine.

Across the Middle East, the country is celebrated for plenty of other raved-about cultural contributions – cinema, literature, music – but food champions? Sorry, but that title is generally assigned to other Arab and Muslim countries, such as Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Iran or, well, just about anywhere else, really. This only stops being true if you get to taste Egyptian home-cooking: stuffed pigeon, for instance (pest-turned-delicacy), or molokhia – the green mallow leaves with the delicious, gluey consistency. Also, OK, we’ll give Egypt its ful medames, since that’s clearly a genius fava-bean creation (although a friend reliably informs me that this Egyptian favourite was actually, ahem, borrowed from the Sudanese).

As regional food disputes go, this one about Egyptian food isn’t remotely on par with the Great Hummus Wars.

And as street food, koshari is great – even if you do need a long nap afterwards. But I’m just not convinced that it is worth the high-volume gushing currently on display from British media foodies with a possible tendency to fetishise “ethnic food”. Or do you think that koshari properly deserves the food king label?

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