Among the inexplicable amalgam of sights, smells, and sounds that are modern Cairo is the extraordinarily simple taste of a workingman’s lunch called kushary (also kishiry and kashiry). Kushary is sold in countless hole-in-the-wall cook shops scattered throughout the medieval warrens crowded with Cairo’s fourteen million people. Itinerant kushary cooks also sell this rice, lentil, and macaroni dish from colorful hand-painted donkey-pulled carts throughout the working-class neighborhoods of the city.
The food writer John Thorne has argued that kushary is a recent introduction from India, attributing its arrival in Cairo to the British imperial presence, possibly during World War II. Claudia Roden, a renowned food writer, is an Egyptian Jew who reports that she does not remember kushary before she left Cairo in 1952. That kushary is originally an Indian dish seems sure enough, but its introduction to Egypt appears much earlier than World War II. The first written mention of kushary is found in the diaries of the famed Muslim traveler of the fourteenth century, Ibn Battuta. In the mid-nineteenth century the famous British traveler and translator of Thousand and One Nights, Richard Burton, identifies kushary in the Suez. Given kushary’s relationship to mujaddara, a dish with roots in the tenth century, its history may be older and more Arab than admitted.
My own history with kushary was a bit convoluted. I was determined to have some kushary in Cairo, but was often warned away from street food by those in the know, and not unwisely. Still, I had a strong craving for a bowl of this hearty-looking dish that I saw Cairenes eating with such gusto and which was described by the distinguished professor of botany Charles B. Heiser, Jr. as a nearly perfect food for protein enrichment. Finally throwing caution to the wind, I sauntered into a cook shop that would not have met Western hygienic standards, but seemed clean enough to me relative to the countless other filthy places in Cairo. In any case, the food preparation area was clean.
The cook and his helper, standing behind a counter, were quite delighted to see me, a Westerner, walking into their shop on the Suq al-Turfriyya half way down from the Shari’ Ramses, near the national telecommunications building, far off the beaten tourist path. The name of their place was in Arabic, Kushary Majdiya and Sons.
Kushary is assembled by spooning into a bowl broken pieces of cooked spaghetti and tubetti that are kept warm in a large pan, a cross between a wok and a tub. In another large pan a mixture of cooked rice and lentils is warmed separately and then tossed on top of the pasta, about three parts rice to one part lentils, flavored by being sautéed first in samna (clarified butter). In a third, smaller bowl are very brown, slightly crispy, and thinly sliced onions, also cooked in samna.
I ordered a bowl (which comes in two sizes) for 50 piasters, about 15 U.S. cents. First the cook’s helper tosses the macaroni into the bowl with a large serving ladle, on top goes the rice and lentils with a little hot liquidy tomato sauce, dim’a musabika, and then the onions on top of that.
We sat down at a rickety table to eat with a spoon and considered the two condiments on the table. One was a pitcher of chili pepper-based tomato sauce and the other was a bowl of powdered wheat bran. The cook and his helper, as well as the ubiquitous hangers on that seem to populate virtually every Cairene public place looked on, hoping we would like the kushary. They were very friendly and I could tell they never got tourists wandering in, so they were excited about us and hoped we liked the food.
The kushary was absolutely delicious--a very basic staple street food that really hits the spot. We told the cook in Arabic that the food was “very good” and they said goodbye to us as if we were lifelong friends.