In 2011, it was handed out to keep protestors in Tahrir Square going as they demonstrated against former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s 30 year rule; since 1950 Abou Tarek’s downtown restaurant, which serves up huge bowlfuls of the dish to four floors of customers in Cairo, has been one of the city’s landmarks and has attracted vast media attention.
Koshari; eaten by a whole spectrum of Egyptians, as of May this year has arrived in London. At £4.50 a (regular) pot, it is considerably more pricy than Cairo’s version. Yet London’s answer to the Egyptian national dish bears many similarities to the traditional lentil, rice, pasta and chickpea, fried onions and tomato and garlic sauce combination.
Deep within Covent Garden, a new hole-in-the-wall eatery, Koshari Street, is home to a different blend of koshari, the product of renowned Lebanese cook and food writer, Anissa Helou, and two Egyptian entrepreneurs Salah Khalil and Karim Shousha. Among the secret, added ingredients are a blend of spices, nuts and dried herbs which give it a unique flavour and distinguish it from its Egyptian counterpart.
Though it sounds heavy and carb-rich (in some parts of Egypt you can also get koshari sandwiches), Helou’s version is surprisingly light. The ingredients are all specially sourced; the rice, lentils and chick peas are from Spain, the olive oil from Sicily and the tomatoes are fresh from Italy. The drinks are freshly squeezed and there are no artificial flavourings; despite the mixture of carbs, it is healthy and offers a welcome alternative to a traditional sandwich lunch.
Egyptian cuisine is not widespread in London, and Koshari Street is the first restaurant to specialise in the dish, giving the eatery a novelty factor. Because of a lack of venues serving the fare, little is known about the cuisine in Britain; the same can be said of the Middle East, where people are far better versed in Levantine gastronomy than that of Egyptian.
Koshari is believed by many to originate from the Indian version, khichri, which was brought over to Egypt during the British occupation. Other favourites in the country are molokia, a stringy, herby, green soup and ful medames made from fava beans, spices, oil and served with egg and bread, and eaten for breakfast.
Though Koshari Street is nicely designed, with a great location, without the nostalgia of having tasted it in Egypt, it’s hard to imagine the dish being as popular in London. There is something about the ritual of watching Abou Tarek’s chefs scoop up the ingredients, from huge piles, and throw them into plastic bowls; koshari just doesn’t taste the same away from the hot, lively streets of downtown Cairo.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.