Mujaderra (Mujadara), a hearty and satisfying lentil and rice pilaf, has for centuries been a staple in the Middle Eastern diet, as well as in the cuisine of Jews around the world with Middle Eastern heritage. Nutritious, a good source of protein, and inexpensive to prepare, Mujaderra was often referred to as “poor people’s” fare. It now has a place on restaurant menus from Egypt to Israel to the U.S. According to some Semitic traditions, Mujaderra is the “red, red pottage” that enticed the famished Esau to sell his birthright in exchange for a portion. (Genesis 25:30) A difference of opinion persists as to whether this biblical lentil pottage was in fact Mujaderra, or another of the age-old lentil dishes popular in the region. What is clear is that recipes of this kind have been essential to Levantine cultures since Neolithic times, when lentils became one of the first farmed crops.
Variations of Mujaderra can be found in the kitchens of different countries. Some use the red lentils referred to in the Bible, others use brown lentils. The lentils are pureed in some versions, or left intact as in this recipe. An assortment of grains, from rice to bulgur, can be simmered along with the lentils. Mujaderra can be enjoyed warm or room temperature.
The key to perfecting this seemingly austere recipe lies in browning the onions properly. Mujaderra calls for frizzling (frying + sizzling) the onions in oil until they curl and just begin to blacken around the edges. This provides for a wonderful flavor contrast to the natural sweetness of the caramelized parts of the onions.
The following version of Mujaderra is the one my Syrian grandmother used to make on Thursday nights. In her home, dinner on Thursday was usually a simple dairy meal, since the next night — Shabbat — would be an elaborate feast. Always health-conscious, my grandmother made her Mujaderra with brown rice and usually served it with plain yogurt, sliced cucumbers and salad.
1/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons oil
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup brown lentils, sorted and rinsed
1 cup whole grain brown rice*
2 1/2 cups water
2 large white onions, sliced in thin rings
Paprika to taste
Combine water, salt, and 2 tablespoons oil in a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Add the brown rice and lentils to the saucepan. Once the mixture has reached a boil, cover and reduce heat to low. Let simmer for about 45 minutes, until the brown rice and lentils have cooked through.
While the rice and lentils are simmering, prepare the onions. Heat 1/4 cup oil in a skillet over medium high heat until oil glistens and coats the bottom of the skillet. Add the thinly sliced onions, and cook for about 20 minutes, or until desired color is achieved, stirring as needed. When cooked, sprinkle the onions with paprika to taste.
Serve Mujaderra topped with browned onions.
*If substituting white rice, first bring lentils to a boil in 1 cup water and simmer, un-covered, for about 15 minutes. Then add white, long-grain rice and enough water to equal 1 1/2 cups total, along with the oil and salt. Raise heat to medium, and once mixture has reached a boil, cover and simmer over low heat for a reduced cooking time of 25-30 minutes.