Comfort from the Levant

Everyone Needs A Little Comfort Once in a While: When I lived in Germany, one of the things I missed most was the comfort food from back home. Coming from south Texas, that food was Mexican food, but more specifically, rice and beans. None of the dubiously named “Mexican” restaurants in the area where I lived served food tasting even remotely like what I was used to so I would cook my own and never be disappointed.

Warm Comfort: In Jerusalem: A Cookbook, author Yotam Ottolenghi discusses how he and his co-chef and co-author, Sami Tamimi, can easily waste many hours arguing over what makes the best comfort food and why but they can always agree that mejadra is true comfort food. Mejadra, a lentil and rice dish elevated with the addition of fried onion, is popular throughout the Arab world and after tasting it I know exactly why. Pure comfort. I have a theory that one of the most common ingredients found in the various dishes that people think of as comfort food is rice.

Simple Ingredients, Simple Process: None of the ingredients are super exotic or difficult to find. The only thing I didn’t have on hand or find at my local grocery store were the cumin seeds, but I just substituted ground cumin. 

  • Brown or green lentils
  • Basmati rice
  • Onions
  • Oil (for frying)
  • Water
  • A little flour, sugar, salt and pepper
  • Allspice, turmeric, cinnamon, cumin and coriander seedsMejadra ingredientsSimple but not Quick: When I say that it’s a simple recipe, I’m not saying it’s a quick one but nor is making it going to take up half your day. Boiling the lentils is quick and painless but I can’t say the same for slicing all of those onions and then frying them in three separate batches. But it is worth it because the onions really make the dish sing!

Lentils boiling

Sliced onions 2

I might have cried a little in the process of slicing these onions.

Onions frying

One of the three batches of onions frying.

Bringing it All Together: Once I cooked the lentils and fried the onions, I toasted the spices before stirring in the rice, lentils, and water then covering it to let simmer after bringing it to a quick boil. After that, I lifted the lid briefly to cover the whole pot with a tea towel and then quickly placed the lid back on and waited for ten more minutes before getting to stir in half of the fried onions, plate it, and top it with the remainder of the onions.

The Finish Line: The chefs advise serving it with a dollop of Greek yogurt. I ate mine with it and the creamy tanginess complemented the mejadra beautifully. I had the same problem I always have when eating legumes and grains: I couldn’t stop. The good news is that this is healthful dish so I didn’t feel any quilt about grabbing seconds (or thirds). The warm, generously spiced flavor of mejadra is addictive.

Make It Yourself! You can find the recipe to make mejadra here. Warning: Unless you are lucky enough to have a spice kitchen, your house will smell of the toasted spice for a day or two!

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7 comments

  1. Hey Alyssa – great post this week. Your comfort food looks FANTASTIC and I really want to try making it sometime. In terms of my favorite comfort foods, I think I go back to heavy foods (pizza, pastas, a quesadilla, etc) since I’ve really been trying to eat healthier lately and as such, those things are off limits!

    1. Thanks, Eric! It is pretty tasty and I will definitely be making it again. Make sure that if you make it you turn the vent setting to HIGH on your stove because things get pretty fragrant when you fry the onions and toast the spices. I also love all of the favorite comfort goods you mentioned and have to add the classic Southern comfort foods like mac and cheese, fried chicken, and hush puppies to the list–among many others.

  2. This dish looks fantastic; I’ve been trying to get more antioxidant-rich spices into my diet and this sounds like a great way to start! Thanks for your comment on my sliha and the suggestion to check out this recipe. I look forward to trying it out and topping it with a generous dollop of Greek yogurt, yum!

  3. Your enticing post inspired me to make the mejadra last night and it did not disappoint!!! I made the Yogurt with Cucumber sauce (p.299 – thanks for giving JT the cookbook!!!) first so it had time to ‘marinate’. It was simple and quick slicing the cucumbers then just mixing everything else in. I skipped the cayenne in case the little one would eat it. But since I always double garlic in any recipe…it has bite that she may not go for. The mejadra is true comfort food. My man loved it as is and said he wouldn’t change a thing. I had to add a little more salt to mine though :). I played it safe with lower heat for the onions and it took much longer than the ‘5-7 minutes’ so for the second batch (I did 2 instead of 3), I cranked up the heat and it was much quicker. Also…next time, I think I won’t wait to toast the seeds in the onion pan. I’ll just get all the ingredients ready and start the lentils and onions at the same time. While the onions keep going and going, I’ll get the rice/lentil mixture cooking. I served it with tomatoes and salad with balsamic dressing…de-lovely!

  4. I made it today and it was divine! I served it with tomatoes and plain Greek yogurt. My onions weren’t browned and crisp enough, but I had bought some packaged dried fried onions at the fabulous Ali Baba International Food Market and topped it with those. It turns out that my Syrian daughter-in-law Hanan grew up eating this food and they served it with a salad made of finely chopped cucumbers, tomatoes, green onion and also with yogurt mixed with cubes of cucumber, garlic and fresh or dry mint–it’s the number one Lenten dish back home. They make it with coarse groats and it’s even healthier. I can’t wait to try their version.

    I found many variations on the internet. One video showed a better way of thinly slicing the onions–quarter the onion first and then slice them. I used three large onions instead of four medium ones that I sliced into varying degrees of thinness–they were difficult to stir.

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