Israeli Crispy Lentil Pilaf w/ Bahārāt and Fennel Pollen

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During our stay in Israel I fell in love with a variety of new-to-me foods, one thing that really captivated me was the gentle use of spices and the embraced presence of vegetarian cuisine. Although I literally went out of my way to avoid a lot of “vegetarian” food, it was inevitable that I came in contact with it … eventually. Kashrut (kosher) or Jewish dietary laws, dictate that meat and dairy are not ever in contact, in addition to simply not mixing meat and dairy a lot of things I am very accustomed to *ahem pork* are not readily available in most of the areas we were in.

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I merely heard the word “vegetarian” and I started swearing under my breath … I was pretty adamant about avoiding it at first because meat and potatoes are the core of what I grew up with. Hummus and falafel are about the last thing I ever thought I would end up eating let alone LOVING. And Lentils? The only time I ever saw a lentil as a kid was in German Lentil soup … with ham and bacon. Although I have broadened my horizons over the years, vegetarian cooking is not a cuisine I would say I ever fully embraced. As our trip went on, we all started to warm up to the idea of trying what the locals ate. We had our fair share of pizza, french fries and burgers, but here and there we got a true taste of the real food, that real Israeli’s eat. – Eating the Israeli way means accepting some vegetarian food. 

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When Jacob had cooked stew, Esau came in from the field and he was famished; and Esau said to Jacob, “Please let me have a swallow of that red stuff there, for I am famished”… But Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “Behold, I am about to die; so of what use then is the birthright to me?” And Jacob said, “First swear to me”; so he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew; and he ate and drank, and rose and went on his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.  – Genesis 25:29-34 (Source: The History Kitchen)

There truly is an eccentric blend of American, European, Jewish, Arab, Mediterranean and even Traditional Biblical cuisines throughout Israel. There are restaurants that serve only authentic biblical ingredients right next door to burger bar, bistro’s, waffle joints, and pizza places. Wicked old hummus, shawarma and falafel joints are back to back with kosher McDonald’s, vegan shops, juice bars and hipster-chic brasseries. If I lived somewhere “new,” I would be pretty bent if I couldn’t get pizza and french fries to scratch my cravings, so it makes sense. If we are discussing traditional, authentic homestyle Middle Eastern cooking? The side street’s and small joints were where I learned the most about real, Israeli-Middle Eastern cuisine. The aroma’s of Akko and old city Jerusalem still play through my mind. I now find myself day dreaming about the simplest Israeli foods that were humble but made with a loving hand. The smell of cumin and chickpeas no longer grosses me out, it invites really warm memories of our really wonderful time, with very kind people in Israel. The best news is that most of the foods I fell in love with are really affordable to prepare with even the highest quality ingredients.

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One dish we had multiple times in Israel is a rice and lentil dish that I learned from research is called “Mejadra.” Mejadra (spelled a variety of ways: Mujeddra, mejadra, mujaddara etc.) is an Arab, Iraqi, Sephardic, Indian … ethnic dish that we had in the heart of Jerusalem at an eatery called Rachmo (just outside of the Mahane Yehuda Market) as well as in the outskirts of Jerusalem at Tzion Hagadol. It seems to be a dish with many faces, there are delicious looking varieties all over the web (here and there, and here and there) that are eye catching, and all slightly different. Naturally the dish varies from region to region, house to house. It’s always lentils and sweet and crispy fried onions, (sometimes caramelized onions) typically there is cumin, sometimes there is saffron or turmeric with the rice but the obvious variation is the use of bulgur wheat instead of rice.

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The use of bulgur it would seem is the original way to prepare this dish, seeing that this type of recipe predates the arrival of rice in Palestine.  Over the years however, rice became the natural, affordable way to stretch meals seeing that it is cheaper. In the late 1940’s to the late 1950’s, food rationing really changed, and almost molded the new Israeli diet. Although Middle Eastern food has always been extremely vegetarian, the food rationing is part of what made vegetarian foods so widely accepted. Without the availability of rice (which had become a mainstay) and meat, dishes with local eggplant, wheat, beans and tahina became the necessary core of the Israeli diet.  For instance European Jews that ate primarily hearty meat stews and dumplings, had to transition to fish and vegetable dishes. Bulgur and wheat might be more traditional for this dish, but once rice became available again, most people quickly went back to using it.

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An “Opened Up Table” of Mezze at Tzion Hagadol in Talpiot Jerusalem (Their version of lentil pilaf is in the middle. )

Many recipes I have found for Mujeddra are a little more refined than the homestyle dishes we had. The types we had were a very humble mixture of gently spiced boiled lentils tossed with white rice. They were somewhat reminiscent of old school dirty rice with some cinnamon and maybe some cumin. This version is an almost replica of what we had but it has also been revised to suit my own desire for uniqueness. It’s a lot more composed than the varieties we had but I prepared it first off of memory and tweaked the flavors further as I went. (and then I found out what it was called… don’t knock my process!) For a true replica of what we ate in Jerusalem I would halve the baharat and omit the fennel or fennel pollen.

“When served alongside yogurt with cucumber or just plain greek yogurt, the sweetly spiced rice and lentils strewn with soft fried onion is as comforting as it gets in Jerusalem. It is best served warm but is also fine at room temperature. ” – Yotam Ottolenghi & Sami Tamimi , Jerusalem A CookBook

Crispy Lentil Pilaf with Baharat and Fennel Pollen
Middle Eastern / Israeli Mujeddra (Mejadra, Mujadarra etc.)
Vegan, Vegetarian, Gluten-Free

Serves 4-6

  • 1 cup Lentils, Brown (Or Green but not the sunny colored varieties)
  • 3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup red onion, roughly chopped into small pieces
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 4 teaspoons Baharat Seasoning (see note) 
  • Celtic Sea Saltand Pepper To taste
  • Just A sprinkle: Cumin and Fennel Pollen or finely ground fennel seed 
  1. Bring water to a boil in a 2 quart stock pot.
  2. Place lentils into the pot and boil 15 minutes, or until they are very barely tender. (you do not want them to be mushy)
  3. While your lentils are boiling, fry onions in a skillet in olive oil over medium heat until crispy and golden. About half way, (after 2-ish minutes) add your baharat, garlic salt and pepper. Reduce the heat as needed to prevent burning and over cooking. Frying the spices brings out the flavor and reduces the sandy texture/taste. (You can toss the onions with arrowroot or tapioca starch to make them super crispy. Some recipes also call for a teaspoon or two of sugar to help them sweeten up more. )
  4. Set the onions aside until the lentils are cooked.
  5. Once the lentils are cooked drain them thoroughly. Place the onion mixture back onto medium-low heat and fry the lentils together with the onion/baharat mixture. Gently toast the lentil and onion mixture until crispy and dry.

-Serve tossed with fluffy steamed aromatic white rice, roughly equal portions of the lentil/onion mixture to rice. A yogurt sauce with cucumber and herbs can be prepared if desired. (Chopped pistachios and sultanas might add a nice crunch and sweetness but this is not traditional)

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Fennel Pollen –  I especially love the use of fennel pollen, it’s a “chef’s secret ingredient.” Although fennel pollen can be quite expensive, it is typically used in very small quantities. (As it is pollen it can cause allergic reactions for some people.)  A pinch of finely ground fennel seed can be substituted. There’s an earthy, meaty greatness about fennel that brings this dish to life.

Bahārāt – Baharat is Arab for “spices.” It is a very earthy spice blend that usually consists of cinnamon, clove, coriander and a variety of other spices. I hoarded a good deal back with me from Israel but since it uses very common ingredients a spice blend can be made at home. This recipe or this recipe sound about right. It’s primarily “pie” type seasonings. A little pinch of coriander, nutmeg, pepper and cinnamon can easily take it’s place in a pinch.

ISRAEL“I first tasted this simple dish of lentils, large kernels of bulgur and crisply saute’d onions at the home of Fathima Zeidan Salah in Salama, a Bedouin village in the Galilee. Fathima’s version of mujeddra, using bulgur instead of the rice used most often today, is clearly a very old village dish, predating the arrival of rice in Palestine. Mujeddra, like many other dishes I encountered in rural Arab villages of the north, is a seasonal, traditionally eaten after the first rain comes in the fall and throughout the winter, when people rely on stored provisions.” – Joan Nathan, The Foods Of Israel Today 

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