TALES OF EGYPTIAN KUSHARI

BY EYAD AOUN

This piece was quite literally inspired by how much I love the dish it is dedicated to, which motivated me to dive deeper into its origins. The product of my interest was this memoir—one that dissects the roots of Egypt's favorite food and introduces a bit of my own experiences along the way. I discovered during the research process that kushari is the result of linking many cultures together, a detail I incorporated into the narrative and one that is quite fitting, seeing as this was the purpose that brought me to write about it in the first place.

Illustrated by Kristine Huynh


After your first visit to Egypt, you return home and begin describing your experience to your children. You paint pictures of buildings, streets, sun-kissed crowds—but when you arrive at the anticipated topic of food, your tongue halts for a moment of nostalgia as you try to recall the warmth of a peculiar taste on your tongue. Then you look again to your children and sigh, “Ah, the kushari.” Their attention is now riveted as you recount the saga of a dish at the heart of Egyptian cuisine.


Egyptian rice, lentils, macaroni, fresh tomato sauce, and a special sauce called “daqqa”—a magicked brew of vinegar garlic and a secret spice mix—are the agents in this tasty dish prepared by a “kushari man” in carts and restaurants spread all over the country. It is the coveted speciality in those like the Abou Tarek Koshary, on Maarouf Street in downtown Cairo, and only a dish among many for others; nevertheless, you will always feel its presence in any restaurant.


* * *


Although Egyptian, I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia for the first 15 years of my life. Throughout the years, I had always heard about how Egypt’s food makes it stand uniquely and remarkably among other cultures because of the traditions that are always present whenever friends or families gather to eat a particular meal. I never partook in these rituals, although my mom always cooked the same dishes at home. I never really felt the essence of “uniqueness” every time I chewed nonchalantly over her handmade Egyptian plates.


On my last day in Saudi Arabia, I roamed loosely over the thoughts in my mind while waiting for my plane’s number to be called. Egypt was about to welcome my family abroad, and I observed with excitement the airport reunions of families and friends and how tears of happiness fell from their eyes. Then, once the crowds had dispersed and left me alone in my airplane seat, I recalled the research I did on the “kushari,” Egypt’s national dish, for my last school assignment. I remembered the story of its origin: how it was passed down from the British colonials when Egypt was under English rule, how the Italians who were living in Egypt at the time introduced pasta to the recipe, and how, finally, the Egyptians claimed the dish for their own by mixing it with fried onions and their signature “daqqa” sauce to create the “classic kushari” we know today. It was only when I had fallen deeply into my thoughts that I realized how much the spirit of multiculturalism was embodied in this stone-soup medley of a dish.


"They exchanged plates and returned them back to each other, newly refilled—imagine lending someone a plate of rice, and the next time you see it, it is overflowing with spaghetti and meatballs."


After having stepped on Egyptian land for three days, my cousins and I at last decided to visit a kushari restaurant. While walking through the neighborhoods that fell across our path, I noticed with fascination the details in culture and community that were so different from the ones I was accustomed to. Children played joyfully. Residents of each building behaved as if they were members of one big family. They exchanged plates and returned them back to each other, newly refilled—imagine lending someone a plate of rice, and the next time you see it, it is overflowing with spaghetti and meatballs. The soul of the place was filled with purity and camaraderie, something I had never felt surround me to such a degree.


Kushari carts and restaurants are always noisy, yet filled with a buzz just forgiving enough to let you hear the odd symphony of a dish of kushari being prepared. The kushari man takes a round, deep dish and begins scooping in a little bit of each ingredient in elegant and trained movements. Every time he reaches for a different bowl, he hits it with the flat edge of his serving spoon and produces a sound that can be recognized no matter your surroundings or the number of people present there. If anyone were to walk down the street of a neighborhood and sense this charming cacophony in their ears, they would quickly assume that there was a kushari restaurant nearby.


I slowly finished my meal while admiring the scenery of the place, but what had really caught my eye were the multitudes of people, present in the same place and enjoying their food in the same way I was enjoying mine. I figured that kushari is not only a symbol of multiculturalism, but also a mascot that unifies people from all walks of life. In the end, it is a people’s dish. No matter the class you embody or the position you hold in your community, you will always gather with other people from other classes to enjoy the same dish in the same place—where the divisions of society are destroyed, and a bond is created.


How astounding is that?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

EYAD AOUN • EGYPT

Living in a foreign country with mixed cultures for the first 15 years of his life, Eyad was able to develop a vocation for crossing bridges between cultures. He pictures himself as an intellectual person who utilizes his knowledge for the greater good. He always emerges in opportunities that enrich his knowledge and experience. Whenever he is free, he reads all kinds of books, especially novels that mimic historical revolutionary events. Currently lives in Egypt.

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