In the Middle East, it is commonly said that "a hungry man would be willing to sell his soul for a dish of mujaddara." Though the statement might seem hyperbolic, here at Havenly, it is not surprising at all. Despite its seemingly simple outward appearance, mujaddara is not only a customer favorite, but also a delicious dish of profound cultural, historical and religious significance.
Mujaddara is a popular staple dish in the Arab world which consists of cooked lentils, spices and other grains, most commonly rice or bulgur. Mujaddara (مجدرة) is the Arabic word for "pockmarked," and the lentils in this dish resemble pockmarks on human skin. This dish can be served either hot or cold, and is usually garnished with sautéed onions. Side dishes, vegetables and yogurt are also often served on the side.
This meal has been widely-loved for centuries. In fact, the first formally-recorded recipe for this dish can be traced as far back as the Kitab al-Tabikh ("The Book of Dishes"), an early Arabic cookbook written by al-Baghdadi in 1226.
In general, cooked lentils are very popular in the Middle East, and often form the base of other dishes as well. This legume also holds religious importance, and has even been referenced in key texts. For instance, Prophet Muhammad mentions lentils in verse (2:61) of the Surat al Baqara chapter of the Quran:
And [recall] when you said, “O Moses, we can never endure one [kind of] food. So call upon your Lord to bring forth for us from the earth its green herbs and its cucumbers and its garlic and its lentils and its onions."
However, mujaddara's popularity transcends religious lines. The dish is also enjoyed by Arab Christian and Jewish communities, among others. Arab Christians also traditionally consume it during Lent. In the past, mujaddara with meat was eaten during special occasions and festivities.
In Iraq, where Havenly head chef and co-founder Nieda Abbas is from, mujaddara is a rice-based dish. However, when she moved to Syria, she became exposed to its bulgur-based version. This form of mujaddara is also especially popular in Palestine. For Nieda, the bulgur was an exciting alternative to rice.
Although it took some time for Nieda's children to get used to this new form of mujaddara, it eventually became a staple dish in the household. Its legumes also make it a very healthy dish suitable for people of all ages. Over time, Nieda also began to transform the dish. She started to incorporate elements of the Iraqi version to the Syrian one, and added some of her own spices. She also realized that she preferred crispier onions as garnish, as they provided additional flavor, and elevated the mujaddara's culinary quality.
At Havenly, we find that food always carries with it an anthropological significance. Enjoying a bowl of mujaddara places one in the long history of the dish, adding to that history in profound and important ways. Try Havenly’s Mujaddara for a taste of Iraq, Syria, the United States, and everywhere in between.
This post is part of Hikayat Havenly, a series of food highlights that tell a story of immigration and resilience.