Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cheap Eats From the Land of the Pharaohs

[This week's special recipe is brought to you by fellow frugal writer, VirtualStranger.]

My thanks to Ace, who’s asked me to contribute a few thoughts and recipes of my own to this shiny new blog. It’s been just over three years now that I’ve been living 100% off my writing, so I’ve got an idea or four on how to live cheap here in the big city, not to mention a few money-saving recipes of my own. Of course, as has been mentioned here before, if you’re determined not to live without all your creature comforts and nights out, well... maybe you should stick with that steady paycheck.

So, that being said, I’d like to talk to you about one of the best vacations I’ve ever had in my life.

Just over ten years ago I had the pleasure of visiting Egypt for a few weeks. It was something I’d wanted to do since I was about nine. My then-girlfriend and I (we’ll call her Abby) spent six days in Cairo and then took the train all the way to Aswan and started working our way back. I got to hike the ridge around the Valley of the Kings, spent an entire day at Karnak, and discovered a disturbing number of similarities between myself and the mummified remains of Ramses II.

Anyway, we’d been in Cairo for a few days when some local friends of hers suggested we go grab some koshari (also translated as koshary). I had no idea what it was, but for some reason the name made me think it was a pastry or something. No clue why, to this day. As it turns out, it’s nothing of the sort. It’s the Egyptian equivalent of hamburgers and hotdogs. You can get it from street vendors, little hole-in-the wall places, and even a few full-on restaurants. The average koshari vendor has four or five steaming vats, sometimes in the twenty gallon range, each one with its own ladle. You get a bowl, one ladle-full from each vat, and spice to taste.

I’ll be honest-- at first glance it was unappealing. The ingredients seemed a bit random and I couldn’t picture them possibly tasting well together. Needless to say, I was very wrong and Abby and I ended up using koshari as our fall-back food three or four times during the trip. It also didn’t hurt that a very large bowl of koshari rarely cost more than two Egyptian pounds (about sixty cents, American, at the time).

So, you ask, what is this miracle food and how do I make it?

Okay, first tip. Koshari is made in batches. Big batches. It’s far more difficult to make it in small amounts, so just accept you’ll be making enough to feed six or seven people (or one starving writer for a week). Once you accept that, you’ll need...

12 oz dry chick peas (about 2 cups)

10 oz dry lentils (about 1 1/2 cups)

2 cups of uncooked elbow macaroni or 2 cups of uncooked rice

1 26 oz can of spaghetti sauce (something without meat or chunky veggies)

hot sauce

You should be able to get all of these ingredients for $5, or perhaps even less. You’ll also want to get a small bottle of your favorite hot sauce. I’m fine with Mexican ones like Tapatio. My lady friend likes Vietnamese sriracha. [Ace adds: hooray for “rooster sauce!”] Plain old Tabasco would probably work, too, if you’ve already got some handy.

You’re going to need to soak the chick peas for at least 12 hours before you start cooking. They’re going to expand a lot, so make sure they don’t get wedged into a mass and try to keep a good water level. You may also notice kind of a beery foam. Don’t be worried, it’s just what chick peas do. [Ace adds: If it’s a hot day and the chickpeas start to ferment like crazy, put the bowl in the fridge.]

Lentils cook very quickly and don’t need to be soaked ahead of time.

To cook:

CHICKPEAS: Drain pre-soaked chickpeas. Place chickpeas in a large pot of fresh water and bring to a rolling boil. Turn heat to “low” and simmer chickpeas for 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours, stirring infrequently. Drain cooked chickpeas and set aside.

LENTILS: Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add lentils. Turn heat to low and simmer for 25 - 40 minutes, or until lentils are tender but not mushy. Drain lentils and set aside.

PASTA and/or RICE (koshari sometimes includes both): Cook until “el dente,” according to package directions. Drain pasta.

Once everything’s cooked, grab a bowl. Traditionally you layer koshari, starting with a layer of macaroni or rice, then the chick peas, lentils, tomato sauce, and hot sauce on top. We generally go about 40% macaroni, 30% chick peas, and 30% lentils. A lot of the flavors here are going to mellow the hot sauce, so don’t be scared to go a tiny bit heavier than you normally would. We tend to do this in an assembly-line style for the first meal, and then it all gets mixed in a large pot or tupperware container. One batch generally makes about six or seven meals, split between two people.

That’s koshari. I’ve found it’s good for potluck dinners or other social food events. You can prepare everything and mix it in advance, but if you bring it in separate pots it becomes a bit more of an event and you can explain it as you prepare bowls. You get to brag to your friends about your worldly, international cuisine, and feed all of them for less than the cost of a Starbuck’s cup of coffee.

And if you ever happen to be in Luxor, there’s a great little place for it about two blocks north from the McDonalds.

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