Vegetarian staples – Middle East

We’re continuing our mini-series of recipes that are innately vegetarian, or in this case vegan.

Different cultures around the world have developed foods that don’t depend on meat for all kinds of reasons. This example from the middle east is festival food when made with meat, but the version without meat is an everyday food and it is very cheap to make. It’s mainly comprised of rice, lentils and red onions (which are available from local farm shops and the Little Eco Loft if you want to avoid plastic). It is also one of the tastiest dishes I have ever eaten! Spicy, warming and sweet, this recipe is supposed to serve 6, but there are never leftovers when served to 4. It takes a while to make, but is definitely worth the effort. This version was created by Aarti Sequeira.


Serves 4-6

  • 1 cup brown or green lentils (not puy lentils), sorted for debris and rinsed
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • ½ tsp cracked black peppercorns
  • 3 medium red onions
  • salt
  • ¾ cup basmati rice
  • ½ tsp ground cumin
  • ½ tsp ground cayenne pepper
  • 1″ cinnamon stick
  • 2 tbsp pine nuts (optional)
  • Squeeze of fresh lemon juice
  • Greek or coconut yogurt for serving (optional)
  1. Throw the lentils into a medium saucepan. Fill with enough cold water to cover the lentils by about an inch. Bring it to a boil over a medium-high heat, then turn down to a simmer and cook until the lentils are tender but not mushy, about 20 minutes. Drain and set aside
  2. Meanshile, as the lentils cook, grab a large skillet. Pop it over a medium-high heat and add the oil. Allow the oil to warm for a minute, then drop in the cumin seeds and cracked peppercorns and cook, shaking the pan once in a while until the cumin seeds darken a touch, about 1 minute.
  3. Add the onions, sprinkle with a dash of salt and cook until they turn dark caramel brown, stiffing often. this will take about 15 minutes. Splash the onions with a litte water if they stick to the bottom of the pan. You’ll know they’re done both by their deep chestnut color and by the slight crispiness developing on some of the onions. Using a slotted spoon or spatula, remove about half of the onions to a paper towel-lined plate; these are for garnish later.
  4. Sprinkle in the ground cumin, cayenne and then add the cinnamon stick. Saute about 1 minute.
  5. Add the rice and cook, stirring often (but gently so you don’t break the rice!) until some rice grains start to brown. Quickly add the cooked lentils, 3 cups of water and 1½ tsp of salt.
  6. Bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to low so that the pan is at a simmer. Cover and cook 30 minutes.
  7. After 30 minutes the water should be completely evoporated and the rice should be tender. If there’s still water in the bottom, cook for another few minutes with the lid off.
  8. Meanwhile toast the pine nuts, if using, in a skall skillet over medium-low heat, shaking often. They should toast in about 5 minutes.
  9. Taste the rice for seasoning. Serve with the reserved caramelised onions, toasted pine nuts if using, and a little squeeze of lemon juice. You can also serve this with some dollops of Greek or coconut yogurt.

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