While living abroad for the past year, I have had the pleasure of exploring a multitude of new sensory experiences, and most of the time in my blog posts, I try to convey an approximation of what I have experienced through visual and auditory imagery: I want my blog reader to see what I have seen and hear what I have heard. However, one of the sensory experiences that I haven’t spent much time recounting is my gustatory adventures, or the world of taste that has opened up to me here in Doha.
I have always said that there are two things that I love to do when traveling: one, taking pictures, and two, trying new foods. (Additionally, as I write this, I realize: three, writing or reporting my travels to a receptive audience.) So, I have spent considerable time this past year exploring the mélange of cuisines that are available in Doha; I just haven’t written about these colorful bites in a very focused manner, until now.
First though, let me establish my dining pedigree, for those who don’t know me well. I grew up eating Vietnamese and Midwestern American food. My mother, a first-generation immigrant, cooked her version of the foods that she knew and loved. I ate pho, eggrolls, and spring rolls before the majority of Americans discovered the interplay of tastes of Vietnamese fare—fresh bean sprouts, mint, and cilantro added to a fragrant soup broth; the crisp snap of an eggroll skin; or the cool layers of cucumber, shrimp, pork, and noodles wrapped in moist rice paper. In addition, I ate the foods of the indigenous who lived and immigrants who settled in my region of the US. Until leaving the US, I always had venison in my freezer and wild rice in my pantry, staples of the native people. Growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, I was introduced to hearty pasties that the Finnish people would take with them down into the mines and the homemade pastas that the Italians would cook in their family-run restaurants.
In sum, I guess I have exotic tastes, but I also enjoy simple comfort foods.
Maybe that’s why, when I first arrived in Doha, I fell in love with biryani—an Indo-Arabic dish of aromatic rice with a simple meat, usually mutton, fish, or chicken. It was my comfort food when I was first acclimatizing to the Gulf; after a long day teaching during my first semester, I would reward myself with biryani take away, eating my meal alone in my air-conditioned hotel room. While traveling to Oman, I explored the variations of biryani in the country. Seafood is more plentiful in Oman, so I was able to try lobster biryani. Also, Omanis like their foods a little spicier, so biryani in their country comes with a puree of tomato and chili that you can pour over your rice.
Recently, my comfort food has been shawarma. I love the spit-grilled shaved meat, pickled vegetables, French fries, and sauce wrapped in a thin Arabic bread. Shawarma is available everywhere in Doha. After shopping at Ikea, I can treat myself to cheap meal, and in between my business English classes, there’s a shawarma stand for a quick lunch in the business college.
I have had more elegant and exotic meals here in Doha, but my day-to-day meals, when I eat out, are mostly comfort foods. Which brings me to the subject of my post: koshari.
For those not familiar with the dish, koshari is an Egyptian meal of rice, vermicelli, macaroni noodles, lentils, chickpeas, and fried onions topped with a tomato sauce and garlic vinegar. It’s quite popular in Doha, like biryani and shawarma. You can buy koshari at the food court in the mall; it’s available at the deli in the grocery stores; and I have even seen roadside koshari stands as I drive around Doha. Yet, of all the dishes that I have tried while living abroad, it is the one that has underwhelmed me the most.
After trying koshari for the first time at the mall food court, I told a Turkish colleague about my ho-hum experience. She was quizzical about reaction.
“Why don’t you like koshari?” she asked.
“I don’t know. It feels like something I would have made when I was in college and broke.”
Sure enough, she then recounted how when she was studying at university in the US, an Egyptian student made her koshari, and she loved it.
After listening to her warm memories of koshari, I decided to give it another chance and ordered it for take away when I was shopping for groceries. After I got home and put my groceries away, I sat on my couch and ate my koshari.
I felt like I was on a second date with someone I shared zero chemistry with. I just sat there and politely finished my meal.
Later, I told a vegetarian colleague about my second date. “Why don’t you like koshari? It’s just carbs?”
“Yeah, but that doesn’t make it interesting. It just fills you up.”
More recently, I mentioned to a Moroccan acquaintance my disinterest with koshari. To my surprise, he was similarly unimpressed with the dish.
“Why don’t you just put ice cream at the bottom of the bowl?” He cattily added. ”Then you can have your dessert waiting for you.”
We snickered about his joke. However, I felt I was becoming Jerry in the anti-dentite episode of Seinfeld. it starts with a few jokes, and before I know it, I’m harboring a prejudice of the Egyptian comfort food. Not wanting to be anti-kosharite, I thought I would do something constructive and adapt the meal to suit my tastes.
Before I attempted to build a better koshari, I had to establish some ground rules for myself. First, I had to work with the main ingredients. Second, I couldn’t add any expensive or outlandish ingredients to the dish. Koshari is a poor person’s comfort food and wasn’t meant to be garnished with shaved truffles or edible gold flake.
Part of the reason that koshari baffles me is because it seems to have the ingredients of two separate dishes married into one. My Vietnamese relatives would all frown if they saw me topping rice with macaroni. They would probably gossip about me in Vietnamese and not allow me in the kitchen at future family gatherings due to my odd tastes. So, for my koshari, I would divorce the carb marriage and make a separate macaroni dish and distinct rice dish. Each party would take some of the ingredients in the settlement.
For my koshari-informed macaroni dish, I liked the idea of using the macaroni with the lentils because both taste good cold, and lentils are easy enough for me to cook, as are macaroni noodles. However, I felt that the pairing was missing something. I wanted to use the chickpeas in some manner, but I didn’t want a pile of food items, so I used one of the tricks that I learned in the US and added leftover hummus to the macaroni. This was a nice way of using the chickpea ingredient and not taking the focus away from macaroni and lentils. Now that I had the carb and beans, I topped the dish with some cucumber cut into tiny cubes with a little bit of red onion mixed in; this was partially informed by my Vietnamese tastes because of the culture’s preference to add fresh herbs and vegetables to most dishes. Finally, I went full Vietnamese and added a dollop of chili garlic sauce for a little more flavor. In my mind, this half of the koshari divorce went on to marry a Vietnamese partner.
For my koshari-informed rice dish, I loved the combination of rice and vermicelli noodles, and this would be my warm comfort food. I started by prepping the rice in my rice cooker and toasting the noodles on the stove with a little olive oil. Then when the noodles were browned, I added water and let them soften. When the noodles became al dente, I threw them into the rice cooker with the boiling rice. Next, I wanted to use the koshari tomato ingredient in some manner with the rice, so I borrowed another simple comfort food that I learned from my Chinese students: tomatoes and eggs. Tomatoes and eggs is really easy to make. Basically, you cook up some eggs until they are firm but still wet. Then you remove them from the pan and cook down a panful of sliced tomatoes. As the tomatoes are cooking, add a little soy sauce, a little balsamic vinegar, a little sugar, and a little more water. Finally, when the tomatoes are soft and runny, you add the cooked eggs and then top the combination to your rice. Again, in my mind, this half of the koshari divorce went on to marry a Chinese partner.
From the original koshari carb union, I was able to extract two dishes that were more to my liking. And, in the spirit of the progenitor, they were both comfort dishes that a poor person good easily prep cook in a short amount of time. I am able to cook both dishes in 20-30 minutes, no problem.
Part of me wonders how my Egyptian friends and colleagues would receive my version of their national dish. Maybe I’ll have to open a roadside stand of Conan’s co-shari and see if I can carve a place for myself in the array of Doha comfort foods. Regardless, I did my best to come to terms with a food dish that I wasn’t passionate about.
In order to incorporate new food dishes into our culinary repertoire, sometimes we have to adapt meals to suit our established palate.