mujaddara: spiced lentils + rice with fried onions


Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about ties the bind, the power of female friendships. For most of my childhood I lived in the confines of my imagination. I devoured books at an unusual pace, and assumed a small role in every story I read. Mostly I immersed myself in a succession of books about blonde girls with credit cards. They drove fast cars, wore silk blouses, and lived in houses with two floors. Panic was breaking curfew. Tragedy was selling the pearls and the minks. Forced to wear cotton and bow out of boarding school, the blondes pressed their hair, frantic, and wondered how they’ll live and whether they’d be found out. But in the end, the stock market never crashed, money mysteriously appeared, and everything had been set to rights. The blonde girls’ lives were a power ballad played on repeat.

I grew up in a place where endings weren’t tidy and happy, rather happiness was simply the fact that could endure the hand dealt to you. Escape was tantamount, and I sought refuge in the seemingly uncomplicated pristine worlds of the affluent and privileged.

Since I was alone a lot, and often teased and picked-on for most of my childhood, books were my companion. On the occasions I had friends, I was clingy, possessive and idolatrous. I was jealous and insecure. Frightened of abandonment, I imagined my friend as a life raft and I was hanging on for dear life. I typically had a single friend, one who rose above the din, and I would fixate all my energy on her. People used to call me intense, ferocious, because nothing existed outside the confines of my friendship. And anyone who threatened that friendship–a new friend, a boy distraction–became objects for me to conquer and ruin. It’s funny–I’m reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and I deeply identified with Elena and her fixation on her fractured, yet brilliant friend, Lila. I always befriended girls who were strong-willed, beautiful, and admired because I thought proximity to people who didn’t only shine, but glared and burned, would somehow rub off on me. That I would be the one who would inevitably burn bright.


Suffice it to say, I didn’t know how to be a good friend. It wasn’t until S and I parted ways that I finally understood the meaning of unhealthy attachments. That it was perfectly normal to have more than one friend. That it’s okay to grow past the notion of having a “best friend.” That I didn’t need to be a barnacle. That I didn’t need to be surrounded by a crowd, rather it became natural for me to float amongst a few. That I didn’t need for my friends to meet my every need and desire. That I didn’t define the strength of a friendship in relationship to the frequency and intensity of our encounters.

This week I read an article about how women of a certain age get surgical about the people in their life. They crave fewer friends, and work to enrichen the ties that bind them a smaller number of people. I’ve written at length about my desire to have fewer people in my life. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become comfortable with solitude–I actually need to spend time by myself because I become drained when surroundeded by people for extended periods of time. I need space and quiet to think, and that, coupled with a considerable amount of professional obligations, doesn’t leave much time for people in my life.

So I had to get surgical. I’m disciplined about the people with whom I surround myself. I’ve a handful of very close friends whom I see pretty regularly, as well as a host of acquaintances whom I see less frequently. However, I’m starting to realize that with my pending move I’ll be separated from the people I love. And while I’m not at all concerned about my beloveds and losing them (friendship, real friendship, extends beyond the confines of a zip code), I’m actually worried about meeting new people.

I’ll be honest–new people exhaust me. I’m an introvert who spent a decade cultivating incredible people in my life, and the very idea of having to rebuild makes me anxious. I keep telling myself that one or two people are all I need to stop me from going bonkers in another state (because even I have limits to how much time I can spend alone), and part of me feels grateful for the online space because it’s allowed me to connect with people I’d otherwise never encounter. So I’m building these friendships slowly, virtually. One or two people at a time, in each state, as that’s all I can manage. In a weird way, I feel part of me has reverted back to my childhood, where I’d fill out pages in “friendship books,” mail them to a pen-pal in hopes that I’d meet a couple of new people.

New people. I’m still anxious.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe from Jerusalem: A Cookbook
1 1/4 cups/250 g green or brown lentils
4 medium onions (1 1/2 lb/700 g before peeling)
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
about 1 cup/250 ml sunflower oil
2 tsp cumin seeds
1 1/2 tbsp coriander seeds
1 cup/200 g basmati rice
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1 1/2 tsp ground allspice
1 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp sugar
1 1/2 cups/350 ml water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Place the lentils in a small saucepan, cover with plenty of water, bring to a boil, and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, until the lentils have softened but still have a little bite. Drain and set aside.

Peel the onions and slice thinly. Place on a large flat plate, sprinkle with the flour and 1 teaspoon salt, and mix well with your hands. Heat the sunflower oil in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan placed over high heat. Make sure the oil is hot by throwing in a small piece of onion; it should sizzle vigorously. Reduce the heat to medium-high and carefully (it may spit!) add one-third of the sliced onion. Fry for 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally with a slotted spoon, until the onion takes on a nice golden brown color and turns crispy (adjust the temperature so the onion doesn’t fry too quickly and burn). Use the spoon to transfer the onion to a colander lined with paper towels and sprinkle with a little more salt. Do the same with the other two batches of onion; add a little extra oil if needed.

Wipe the saucepan in which you fried the onion clean and put in the cumin and coriander seeds. Place over medium heat and toast the seeds for a minute or two. Add the rice, olive oil, turmeric, allspice, cinnamon, sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and plenty of black pepper. Stir to coat the rice with the oil and then add the cooked lentils and the water. Bring to a boil, cover with a lid, and simmer over very low heat for 15 minutes.

Remove from the heat, lift off the lid, and quickly cover the pan with a clean tea towel. Seal tightly with the lid and set aside for 10 minutes.

Finally, add half the fried onion to the rice and lentils and stir gently with a fork. Pile the mixture in a shallow serving bowl and top with the rest of the onion.


16 thoughts on “mujaddara: spiced lentils + rice with fried onions

  1. I’ve always had one or two very close friends as far back as I can remember. At 21 I moved and the friends I made in my 20s became my family. We moved and all live in different states. We meet up with our families for graduations, weddings, births and deaths and we never skip a beat. Where I live I have friendly acquaintances. Makes my life just so. I totally enjoy my alone time as well. I definitely don’t get the adults that every friend they make becomes their “best friend”. You’re not 5. But then again some need many people in their lives to feel whole. I feel whole with or without.


  2. Very beautifully written. I can totally relate to your line, “I’ve written at length about my desire to have fewer people in my life”. As we get more comfortable in our own skins, we cherish the relationships we have painstakingly built over the years. Wishing you the very best.


  3. Love to see those three books on your pile, Elena Ferrante is a captivating writer, as are her characters Elena and Lila. I devoured them all one after the other and can’t wait to find out what will happen in the next book. Such a refreshingly unique perspective, and one that has crossed many borders to arrive at our doorsteps. Glad to see you’ve succumbed to #FerranteFever!


  4. Just a thank you for giving me…repeatedly…a lot to think about in terms of what place/s friendships can have in our adult lives. I am still not quite willing to face up to some of the more unpleasant aspects of those thoughts but am getting there…


  5. I’m frequently teased by my friends about my lack of desire to meet new people. Most people my age (I’m 20) want to meet everyone and make as many friends as possible, whereas I’m happy with the few that I have. That being said, when I am drawn to someone I do make an effort to get to know them (maybe because this happens so rarely). I believe that we each have our own “set” of people. True friendships that, as you said, transcend zip codes and time zones. But the trouble is finding these friends. It might be difficult, but it is often worthwhile.


      1. Our version requires the lentils to be blended in a food processor until it becomes very smooth- like a thick paste. Then the rice is added to the lentils and stirred until they both become thicker.

        The version you wrote about is called “Mudardara” in Beirut!

        They’re both super yummy!


      2. So fascinating. There’s a place in NY called Kalustyan’s, where their version is creamier. I wonder if it’s because they’ve blended the lentils. I want to try this!

        On Mon, Feb 16, 2015 at 9:29 AM, wrote:



  6. It’s so great seeing recipes with lentils in it! My mom used to make lentil soup when I was growing up, and that’s the only place I’ve ever been exposed to lentils. Thanks for the post, will be trying this recipe soon 🙂


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