Mujadara is a comforting dish made with lentils and rice, then topped with caramelized onions. This vegetarian dish is popular all throughout the Middle East. The first recorded mujadara recipe can be found in a cookbook from Iraq that was published in 1226, though the origins of the dish stretch back much further than that. Mujadara one of my favorite vegetarian side dishes. Additionally, I have been known to cook it as a lighter main dish. Thanks to a healthy combination of legumes and rice, this recipe is a gluten free complete protein. It’s also very satisfying.
I first learned this recipe for mujadara from a Sephardic Jewish family with Indian ancestry (to learn more about the Jewish community in India, click here). The Ashtamker family moved to Israel not long after it became a nation, then made their way to America about 20 years ago. They have shared many special meals with us over the years. I love their family recipes, but most of them require a trip to the local Middle Eastern or Indian markets—the spices and ingredients are difficult to find in a regular grocery store. However, the way they prepare lentils and rice is very easy; their mujadara recipe doesn’t require any specialty items. You should be able to find the ingredients for this dish at almost any grocery store.
What is Mujadara?
Mujadara – sometimes spelled mujaddara or mujadra – is a simple preparation of lentils and rice, topped with caramelized onions. This dish is popular throughout the Middle East and Arab world, and there are many ways to prepare it. Some cooks use more spice than others; some mix the caramelized onions into the rice. Mujadara is widely consumed throughout the Levant – particularly in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. In Israel, Sephardic Jewish families enjoy this dish because it is inexpensive to make, kosher, and dairy free. The word mujadara is Arabic, and translates to “pockmarked.” This is because the lentils look like pocks on the bed of rice. It’s not the most appetizing analogy, but I promise you, the dish is quite delicious.
How to Cook Lentils and Rice
While mujadara might seem like a simple dish, there is definitely an art form to cooking lentils and rice. The best mujadara is made with fluffy white basmati rice, not brown rice or short grain rice. Soaking and draining the rice prior to cooking removes excess starch, resulting in a lighter texture. When prepared this way, the grains of rice do not stick together. Likewise, pre-cooking (parboiling) the lentils helps them to reach a perfect tenderness in the pot. The family I learned this recipe from also uses a bit of lemon peel in the pot as it cooks, for a touch of lemony essence. Follow the directions exactly as written, and you are sure to end up with aromatic, fluffy mujadara.
Although mujadara is typically served as a side dish, I often eat it as a vegetarian entrée. Mujadara is vegan, when made as written below. If you are eating this as a main dish and you don’t mind adding dairy, try topping it with some Greek yogurt along with the caramelized onions. This simple and delicious modification truly makes it a filling meal.
Mujadara – Lentils and Rice with Caramelized Onions
- 2 cups white basmati rice
- 1 cup brown lentils
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 strips lemon peel, about 2 inches long each (just the yellow part of the peel, not the white pith)
- 2 large onions, peeled and sliced thin
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, more or less to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, more or less to taste
- Rinse and sort the rice, removing any small stones or impurities, then cover it with cold water. Cover the bowl with a clean towel, then let the rice soak at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours.
- Rinse and sort the lentils, removing any small stones or impurities.
- In a medium saucepan, bring 4 cups of water to a boil. Add the lentils. Reduce heat to medium and simmer the lentils till they are tender, but not soft or mushy (about 15 minutes). Remove from heat and drain, then rinse in a colander with cold water.
- Drain and rinse the soaked rice until the water runs clear.
- In a large pot, heat 1/4 cup olive oil over medium heat until hot enough for frying. Add the lentils to the pot along with the cumin, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/4 tsp pepper. Sauté for 2 minutes.
- Add the drained basmati rice to the pot and stir. Turn heat to low.
- Rinse out the smaller saucepan where you cooked the lentils and pour in 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then carefully pour the boiling water into the larger pot over the lentils and rice. Stir, then raise heat on the large pot to medium high. Add bay leaves and lemon peel to the pot and bring water to a boil. Cover the pot. Reduce heat and let the rice steam at a low simmer for 20 minutes, or until all the liquid is absorbed.
- Meanwhile, heat up 1 tablespoon olive oil in a nonstick skillet. Fry the onion slices over medium or medium low heat, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and nicely caramelized. This is a slow process, and can take 30 minutes to 1 hour depending on how deeply caramelized you want them. Add water as needed to prevent burning or sticking.
- After 20 minutes turn off the rice, uncover the pot, fluff the rice with a fork, cover the pot again and let it steam for another 15 minutes.
- Fluff the mujadara with a fork again. Season caramelized onions with salt and pepper. Serve mujadara topped with the caramelized onions. If you like the flavor of butter, you can substitute melted butter or ghee for olive oil in this recipe. If you do this, please keep in mind that the dish becomes a dairy dish, rather than vegan or parve.