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Archive for the ‘rice’ Tag

Mujaddara, my first post from Aleppo

I’ve had an incredible start to my Fulbright in Syria. It’s been almost two weeks since I arrived — a perfect time for a quick update.

My flight landed in Aleppo on Saturday night, around midnight. After 28 hours of traveling, door to door, I arrived at my grandmother’s sister’s house in Aleppo. Like a true Halabiye (Aleppan) she had a delicious spread of mezze laid out as soon as I walked through the door: muhammara (محمّرة), olives, pickles, homemade mortadella, hummus (حمص), labne (لبنة), zeit w za’atar (زيت و زعتر); I slept like a baby that night.

meet my grandmother’s sister
my grandmother's sister

I spent my first few days doing administrative things: I got a cell phone, registered at the University of Aleppo, exchanged currency. I took a bus down to Damascus to meet with the other Fulbrighters as well as the Fulbright committee here in Syria. We were all invited to dinner at a restaurant called Marmara where we got to meet the Syrian Fulbright students who are getting ready to study abroad in the US.

University of Aleppo, College of Literature and Humanities
University of Aleppo

I think I’ve already gained five pounds since I’ve arrived. It’s hard not to. Everyday I come across new recipes that I want to blog about. I walk as much as I could and take the stairs whenever possible. My grandmother’s sister, bless her heart, pulled me aside the other day and asked whether I had a phobia of riding the elevator. I told her I take the stairs so that I can eat more of her delicious food. I’m sure she will hold me up to this for the next nine months that I’m here.

why I walk and take the stairs
la7me el 3ajeen

The picture above is from a lunch I recently had at a friend’s house. The star of the meal was the traditional meat pizzas called lahm bil ajin (لحمة بالعجي). I will have to dedicate a complete blog post to these pizzas. They’re incredibly delicious and are an important part of Aleppo’s cuisine. There are small bakeries in Aleppo where you can prepare your own meat mixture, and the bakery will make dough and form all the pizzas for you. My friend’s mom prepared her meat mixture in the morning and sent my friend and I later that afternoon to pick up the prepared pizzas from the bakery. I posted a few photos from the bakery to my flickr.

Last Friday my grandmother’s sister prepared mujaddara for lunch. Mujaddara is a simple, but traditional Middle Eastern dish of rice and lentils. Some families make it with bulgur wheat, and in Egypt they add noodles to the rice and lentils, and serve it with a spicy tomato-based sauce. Egyptians call this dish Kosheri (كشري).

The same day I had mujaddara at my grandmother’s sister’s house, I visited two friends, and both their families had also made mujaddara for lunch. For families that abstain from eating meat on Friday’s, mujaddara is a quick and healthy vegetarian meal for the family.

I had photographed mujaddara before I left the States, but never got around to posting the photos on my blog. These photos are from then.

mise en place
mise en place
cover lentils with water
cover lentils with water
the more onions, the better
onion slices
fried onions
fried onions

Usually people will not fry the onions in extra virgin olive oil because it has a low smoking point. I prefer the taste of olive oil, so I take extra time to cook the onions over low heat for a long time until they become crisp. If you’re in a rush you can use canola oil or any relatively flavorless oil that has a higher smoking point.

cooked lentils
cooked lentils
Mujaddara (مجدّرة)

Pickles are traditionally served with the mujaddara. Saha w hana — bon appetit!


yields approx 4-6 servings


  • 1 cup lentils
  • 1 cup rice (or bulgur wheat*)
  • 6-8 onions, sliced
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • water
  • salt, to taste
  • pickles, optional

Putting them all together

  1. Add sliced onions and olive oil in a large skillet. Cook over medium-low heat for an hour and a half, stirring occasionally. If you like them very crispy you can fry them in canola oil over high heat — this method takes considerably less time. Season onions with salt to taste.
  2. Wash lentils under cold water and remove any pebbles.
  3. Add lentils to a medium sized pot, and cover with water by 1 inch (approx 3 cm). Place lid on the pot and cook over medium heat for approximately 15 minutes, or until lentils are al dente. Important: do not add salt while the lentils are cooking. Adding salt at this stage will make the lentils grainy.
  4. After cooking the lentils, discard any leftover water (if there is any). Add 2 cups of water to the pot and bring to a boil.
  5. Add the rice (or bulgur wheat), season with salt, stir once, and cover the pot. Lower the heat to low, and cook for 15-20 minutes, the same way you always cook your rice.
  6. Continue cooking your onions until they are crispy to your liking (the crispiesr the better, in my opinion).
  7. Serve the mujaddara on a platter and top with the crispy onions. Serve with pickles.

Note: If you are in a rush, you can fry the onions at a higher temperature using canola oil. Thanks Samir for the tip to discard any leftover the lentil water before adding the rice.

Update (02/09/2013): Ever since I returned from Aleppo, I’ve been making my mujaddara with coarse bulgur wheat. I enjoy the flavor and texture more than the mujaddara with rice. You can find coarse bulgur wheat (often called Bulgur Wheat #3) at some Whole Foods or certainly in any Mediterranean market.


Disclaimer: The opinions I express in this blog are my own and do not reflect those of the Fulbright program.

Stuffed Eggplants and Seattle

As I write this, I’m sitting in O’Hare International Airport, debating whether or not I should give up my seat on my flight to Seattle for a free round-trip domestic ticket (not valid to Hawaii or Alaska, non-transferable & non-refundable).  The representative from United said I would be able to sit in first class on the next available flight, which is not scheduled to depart, however, for another 12 hours. Yes, 12 hours! Since I’ve never been to Seattle, and plan on visiting Pike Place Market as soon as I arrive, literally, I kindly declined.

Although Pike Place Market is supposed to be a lot of fun, the main reason I’m going to Seattle is for the annual Web Design World conference. This is my first time going, but from what I’ve heard from friends, it’s an awesome place to go if you’re into all the web 2.0 technologies. If any food bloggers are attending the conference, or are in the area, shoot me an e-mail!

Before the flight starts boarding and I get left behind, I should tell you about these stuffed eggplants. I made these with my mom when she came up to visit me last weekend.

mom being a good sport: pomegranate molasses

I think the most difficult concept for my mom to get used to was all the photos. “Do you really have to photograph every step,” she asked.

The broth that these eggplants are cooked in, in my opinion, is what makes the dish really special. It is flavored with lemon juice, dried mint, some tomato paste and, one of my favorite ingredients, pomegranate molasses. Pomegranate molasses, or  دبس رمان , is a dark, tangy, slightly acidic molasses made from fresh pomegranates, which are extremely abundant throughout the Middle East, especially Syria. You can probably find it at your local Whole Foods, specialty store, or definitely in any Mediterranean/Middle Eastern market. note: do not try and use the regular molasses for ginger snaps, for instance, it won’t taste the same.

mise en place

The mise en place for this dish is pretty simple, but note that the eggplants I used here are tiny. The smaller the eggplants are, the less bitter they will be, but also, proportionally speaking, the better they are for stuffing with rice and meat.

the smell of freshly ground allspice makes me happy

If you’ve been following the past couple Middle Eastern recipes I’ve posted, you’ll notice each of them is flavored with a bit of freshly ground allspice. As I mentioned in those posts, allspice among of the most common spices used in Middle Eastern cooking, second probably to salt.

prepping eggplants for stuffing

Nothing in this dish, except maybe the stem of the eggplants, goes to waste. You can use an apple corer to create the cavities in the eggplants and then keep carving out any excess flesh with a small knife. Some people will leave a little more flesh than I did in the photo, but that becomes a matter of personal preference.

meat & rice mixture go in

When you’re stuffing the eggplants make sure not to pack the rice and meat mixture because once the rice cooks, it will expand. I leave about 1 inch from the opening of the eggplant empty, and then squeeze the eggplant lightly so as to distribute the meat filling equally.

use carrots to prevent the eggplants from burning

The carrots on the bottom will provide the perfect protection to keep your hard work from turning into charcoal. They’ll also add flavor to the broth, and a beautiful color for presentation.

mahshee (محشي)

I should clarify that the term mahshee, in Arabic, literally means “stuffed.” In this case I used eggplants, but that’s only one example. In the Middle East (and throughout other parts of the Mediterranean, like Italy, Greece and Turkey) this preparation is common with other vegetables as well, like peppers, zucchini, grape leaves, swiss chard leaves, and the list goes on from there.

a peak inside

I actually did not beat the clock and had to board the flight before finishing the post. I am now in my hotel room in Seattle, but will make sure to post post the recipe for mahshee once I get back to DC.

Stuffed Eggplants

yields 4-6 servings


  • 6-8 baby eggplants
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1/2 lb rice
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 5 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 4 tbsp tomato paste, divided
  • 2 tsp allspice
  • 1-2 tbsp ice-cold water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • 3 tsp dried mint
  • 2 tbsp pomegranate molasses
  • water, to cover eggplants
  • carrots, thickly sliced

Putting them all together

  1. Wash rice in plenty of water and set aside.
  2. Mix rice, meat, 2 tbsp of tomato paste, butter, allspice and salt together. Sprinkle in some ice-cold water to keep the mix from sticking to your hands. You want it to remain somewhat fluffy.*
  3. With an apple corer and a paring knife carefully hollow out the eggplants, making sure not to puncture any of the sides or the ends of the eggplants (save the eggplant “meat”).
  4. Stuff the eggplants with the rice and meat mixture, stopping about 1 inch from the top. Lightly squeeze the eggplant to remove any excess meat mixture that pours out from the hole.
  5. Scatter the sliced carrots and carved eggplant “meat” across the bottom of a large pot. This prevents the eggplants from sticking to the bottom and burning.
  6. Neatly position all the stuffed eggplants inside the pot.
  7. Mix the lemon juice, dried mint, pomegranate molasses, minced garlic, the two remaining tbsp of tomato paste and an extra sprinkling of salt (to taste) to make the broth. Pour over the eggplants and cover what’s left of the eggplants with water.
  8. Set a heavy (heat-resistant) plate over the eggplants to weigh them down.
  9. If you have any left over filling, set it on aluminum foil and crimp the edges lightly to form a small pouch. Set the pouch over the place and make sure that the pouch is at least half-way covered in the broth (if not, add more water).
  10. Place the lid over the pot leaving a little hole for steam through vent through. Cook over medium, medium-high heat for 45-60 minutes and enjoy.

notes: Mix the meat and rice mixture with the tip of your fingers to avoid compacting the mixture – you want to mix, not knead.


This is how I roll

With winter quickly approaching, everything gets pushed off to the back burner. Getting out of bed, hopping out of the shower – the basic tasks that were once a drag begin to feel even more impossible. I had originally intended on writing this post last night, but I failed. I was laying in bed, snuggled under my warm blankets with my powerbook perched over a pillow, typing away. The arrangement seemed perfect… except, I woke up the next morning to the annoying sound of my alarm, my laptop around my arm and a blog post that was complete rubbish. Needless to say, I’m writing at my desk today. 

Stuffed grape leaves were a treat growing up. Mom, grandmas, and aunts would always gather around the same square table, each with their own pile of grape leaves to roll, while my cousins and I ran around getting into all sorts of trouble. When we were exhausted we would offer the grown ups our finest grape rolling services, but they always kindly declined. The adults sometimes handed us a few leaves to entertain ourselves with; but beyond that we were instructed to play more in order to get hungry and eat more later on. If you’re familiar with Middle Easterners, or most Mediterranean cultures for that matter, you’ll notice that the more you eat, the happier mom is, and the better off you are. 

This past weekend I decided to make mom proud and make my own stuffed grape leaves. They’re different from the Greek or Turkish dolmas in that these are thinner and are served hot after slowly simmering in a garlic-lemon broth. They’re a staple in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan and have different names depending on where you’re from: يبرق (yabraq)، ورق عنب (waraq a’nib)، ورق عريش (waraq a’reesh) are some of the more common ones.

mise en place

Traditionally you won’t find pork chops used in this recipe. Instead, lamb chops or beef ribs are used to keep the stuffed leaves from burning. I couldn’t find beef ribs and the lamb chops looked kind of shady, so I opted for the pork chops.

just keep rolling, just keep rolling

Rolling the grape leaves is where some technique is involved. It takes time to get used to, but you’ll have plenty of tries to perfect your skills. The trick is not to roll them too tight (or you end up with a dry dish) and not to roll them too loose (or the broth floods the leaves and you end up with mush).

halfway there

Although this amount is certainly child’s play  for a veteran cook like my grandma, it was a major feat for a newbie like me. Luckily for me though, I had my mac and the wonders of youtube to get me through the mission. **Bonus for whoever can name that very famous Lebanese singer that is on my computer screen. 

you can never have to much garlic

Another important part of the dish is aligning the rolled grape leaves into the pot. This will ensure even cooking and safe unveiling when you go to flip the pot after cooking. Once you line the bottom with the meat and any leftover/torn up grape leaves, you want to carefully position your rolled leaves in a circular fashion. I suggest positioning them in the 3-6-9-12 (clock) position first and start filling in the gaps accordingly. Halfway through you’ll want to throw in the garlic cloves that will become soft and sweet after cooking. 

yabraq (يبرق)

At the end, your hard work doesn’t go unrewarded. This, my friends, is what it’s all about. صحة و هنا … saha w hana (bon appetit in Arabic).

Stuffed Grape Leaves

approx 6 servings


  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1/2 lb rice
  • 3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 lb of grape leaves
  • pork or beef ribs
  • salt, to taste
  • 2 tsp allspice
  • 15-25 cloves of garlic (to taste)
  • 1 cup lemon juice
  • 3 cups water

Putting them all together

  1. Soak rice in water for 10-15 minutes, then drain water.
  2. Mix rice, ground beef, olive oil, salt, pepper and allspice together until well mixed.
  3. Fill and roll all the grape leaves with the meat mixture as displayed in the picture.
  4. Season the pork or beef ribs with salt and allspice.
  5. Line the bottom of a large pot with the meat, followed by any unused/torn up grape leaves – this prevents the rolled leaves from burning.
  6. Carefully align half the grape leaves on top in a circular fashion.
  7. Distribute garlic cloves over the top.
  8. Finish layering the rest of the rolled grape leaves.
  9. Mix the lemon juice and water with some salt and pepper to make the “broth.” 
  10. Pour the broth over the grape leaves, making sure the liquid reaches the top layer of the grape leaves. 
  11. Cover with a medium plate and bring to a boil. 
  12. Once at a boil, cover the pot with a lid (leave the medium plate inside to serve as a weight) and cook on the lowest heat for 1 and 1/2 hours.
  13. Turn off the heat and drain the broth.
  14. Flip the cooked leaves onto a large decorative platter and enjoy.

note: You can find grape leaves at any Middle Eastern market and some specialty supermarkets.