Spiced Lentils and Rice with Fried Onions (Mejadra)

I recognize that early January is a time of year traditionally reserved for repentance and asceticism, but I’ve never been much good at either of those.  After many years of making my never-changing Annual New Year’s Resolution (yeah, I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours), this year I didn’t make one at all.

So while better women are perfecting their green smoothie technique or annoying the regulars at the gym, I’ve been getting over my fear of deep frying.Lentils and Rice with Fried OnionsAnd I’m so glad I did.  This dish is spectacular for a few reasons.  The flavors are deep and rich and sweet, beautifully spiced but not at all spicy.  You probably already have all the ingredients in your cupboard, but I bet it won’t cost you $2 if you have to restock anything for this recipe.  And the leftovers just get better and better as the days go by.

The recipe is from Jerusalem, my favorite cookbook of the moment, and we’ve been enjoying this dish alongside those roasted squash and onions from the same source.  Apparently I’m not the only one who’s captivated by Jerusalem; Beth of OMG! Yummy has started up a virtual cookbook club on Facebook and Twitter to cook through “and beyond” its pages.  Sounds good, right?  Join us!  I always like the chance to cook with friends.

So anyway, about the frying.  I’ve never liked the idea because (a) a pot of hot oil is scary and (b) it seems like adding an unnecessary amount of oil to the food.  But I did it, and I will do it again to have these onions again.  And again.  I used my heaviest pot on a back burner, and long-handled tongs in order to keep a safe distance.  I measured the oil before and after cooking and you know what?  Only a few tablespoons were actually absorbed by the onions (plus the paper towels, plus drips).  I’m a convert.

One word of warning: in spite of its simplicity, this isn’t a quick recipe, so plan ahead to spend some time in the kitchen.  It took about half an hour to fry the onions, and another half an hour to cook the rice and lentils together.  Adding in the time it takes to pre-cook the lentils and get the rest of your ingredients together, I suggest that you get started well before dinnertime.  If you are a more experienced fryer maybe you can deal with cooking other parts of the dish while the onions are cooking, but as a novice they required my full attention.

Lentils and Rice with Fried Onions: Sort through 1 1/4 c. brown lentils to remove any tiny hiding stones.  Rinse them well, put them in a small pot covered with plenty of water, and bring them to a boil.  Lower the heat to a gentle boil and cook for 12-15 minutes, until they are softened but not completely cooked.  Drain and let them cool.  Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine 1/2 tsp. turmeric, 1 1/2 tsp. ground allspice, 1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon, 1 tsp. sugar, 1/2 tsp. salt and several grinds of black pepper.  Set spice mixture aside.

Peel 1 1/2 lbs. onions (for me this was 2 large onions), halve them, and cut them into thin crosswise slices.  Spread the onions on a big plate or platter, sprinkle with 3 Tbsp. flour and 1 tsp. salt, and toss well to distribute the flour and salt.  Be brave: pour a cup of sunflower oil into a medium-sized, heavy pot and turn your burner up to high.  You’ll know that the oil is hot enough when a piece of onion sizzles merrily the moment you drop it in the pot.  Fry the onions in 3 batches; mine took about 10 minutes each.  Use a slotted spoon or tongs to stir and turn them occasionally, and then to drain them a bit as you lift them, deeply golden and fragrant, from the pot to a paper-towel-lined colander.  Sprinkle them with another pinch of salt.  Taste one.  See what I mean?  Turn the heat down a bit once the oil gets nice and hot to keep them from burning as they cook.

Once all the onions are done, wipe out that same pot and add 2 tsp. whole cumin seeds and 1 1/2 Tbsp. whole coriander seeds to it.  Toast the seeds over medium heat until fragrant, 1-2 minutes.  Add 1 c. basmati rice, 2 Tbsp. olive oil, and the spice mixture (turmeric, etc.) you made earlier.  Stir for a moment to coat the rice with oil, then add the drained lentils and 1 1/2 c. water.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook, covered, for 15 minutes.  Remove from heat, stretch a clean dishtowel under the lid, and leave the pot to steam for 10 more minutes.

Just before serving, stir half of the fried onions into the rice and lentils.  Transfer to a serving dish and pile the remaining onions on top.


34 thoughts on “Spiced Lentils and Rice with Fried Onions (Mejadra)

  1. Beth (OMG! Yummy)

    I can tell I’m going to enjoy cooking with you Emmy – a new year’s resolution that includes frying – yahoo! Cathy Barrow of Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen also made the Mejadra and loved it. And thanks a bunch for the shout out!

    1. emmycooks Post author

      I’m so looking forward to it! I always like getting recommendations from friends as I make my way through a cookbook, and this is going to be even better! :)

  2. Kalyn

    This is one of my favorite dishes of all time. I learned to love it in a SLC restaurant that’s no longer open, so I started making it myself. Have only caramelized the onions though, never fried them. (And I have Jerusalem and LOVE the book too.)

    1. emmycooks Post author

      Hi Kalyn! I often have a stash of caramelized onions in the fridge, so I’ll have to try using them on a day when I can’t stand over the stove for so long. Have you made other recipes from Jerusalem that you’d recommend? I hardly know what to make next, it all looks so good. Take care!

  3. sweetveg

    Emmy, I am with you on the frying. I get a little antsy. I usually only deep fry tempura, but those onions look amazing! Actually, the whole dish looks incredibly beautiful and tasty.

  4. Hannah

    Mmm, I’d love a bowl of this right now! Your photo looks so enticing. I’m delighted we’ll be cooking together for Tasting Jerusalem! I’ve loved everything so far from the book and am excited to join others in cooking up some deliciousness.Love your New Year’s resolution, too. Last year, mine was to drink more champagne (and I think I’ll continue with it this year). Cheers! :)

    1. emmycooks Post author

      What an excellent resolution. I’d say you’re setting yourself up for success! :) And hurray for cooking with friends–I’m looking forward to it!

  5. baconbiscuit212

    This is one of my favorite meals ever! I first had it when I was studying abroad in West Africa. The only differences are that instead of lentils, there are black-eyed peas. And instead of sunflower oil or olive oil, it’s palm oil. Which I never knew was solid at room temperature until I got back to the States. Because room temperature in West Africa is over 100°F!

    Also just got Jerusalem too! Looking forward to cooking from it too!

  6. Eileen

    I got a copy of Jerusalem for xmas, and can’t wait to start trying it out! Deep frying is kind of intimidating for me, but I may have to grit my teeth and deal with it so I can have some of these amazing-looking onions. :)

  7. Michelle

    I’ve been drooling over my copy of Jerusalem, but haven’t cooked anything from it yet. Have made variations of this dish before, though, and loved it. (Very nice photo!)

  8. Allison

    This sounds so good. And I admire you for attempting to master your fear of deep-frying. (I say, that’s resolution enough! …I have that fear, too.)

    Also, I love that you meticulously measured the oil before and afterwards! That’s definitely encouraging that the onions only absorbed a few tablespoons of oil. I really need to buy myself a copy of Jerusalem, and soon!

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  10. leroywatson4

    Dear Emmy, it is outrageous how many of the same things we cook and often when I have a craving for something, it appears on your site! I had planned on seeking out a recipe for this dish which I loved on the streets of Cairo. Its so simple and super tasty. We are also cooking alot of Yotam food at the moment. Expect some of his recipes on the BHK soon. Have you tried his shakshuka! Its awesome. Im pooping this on the BHK if you don’t mind. Happy days and nibbles, leex

  11. leroywatson4

    Reblogged this on the beach house kitchen and commented:
    I absolutely love this dish and enjoyed it many times on the streets of Cairo. Emmy and I have a very strange connection, I crave a food and Emmy cooks it, in Seattle!!!! I would happily retire as a food blogger and just cook the recipes on Emmy Cooks.

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  13. beejay

    You can really cut down on the prep time by cooking the rice and lentils in a rice cooker, if you have one. I have the very lowest of the low end ones – just press the button and ignore until it clicks off — and I do mine in there. No pre-soaking, and you can add the seasonings into the cooker, too. I usually bloom my spices in a bit of ghee or olive oil, mix that in with the rice/lentils, and use broth as the cooking liquid, but you can use water, too. That gives me time to do other things, like make a salad or saute a salmon filet, which I love with this dish. Or, you could deep fry your onions and prep the other stuff ahead of time! ;)

    Great recipe, thanks for sharing.


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