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May 8, 2013

Mujaddara (moo-ZHA-dara). A Middle Eastern staple, (prepared in homes all over Israel and the Mid East), it consists of rice and lentils, and is served with a heaping pile of caramelized onions on top.  Also called megadarra (Egyptian-Jewish) or mudardara (Syrian-Jewish) and spelled many different ways. Sometimes the onions are crispy, sometimes they are so tender, they’re melt-in-your-mouth luscious.  In either case, mujaddara’s earthy, delicious, and fortifying.  No wonder it always makes me think of Israel.

brown rice and green lentils

I love Israel. I’ve been there only three times in my life – not often enough. And that wasn’t for any lack of desire on my part.

I grew up in the Bronx in the 70’s. In those days, Jewish middle-class kids did (and still do) things like spend summers at Jewish sleepaway camp, go to Israel with youth groups, and study for a semester in Israel or spend extended periods of time there.

Every time Jewish kids met each other, there was the inevitable game of Jewish Geography. For me, it was a dreaded game. My life had a totally different trajectory. One that was not only vastly different from my peers but one that I wished with all my heart would just go away.

It’s a well-known fact that adolescence is a tough time.   A time when we don’t always understand what our bodies are doing.  In my case, my kidneys decided to drop their function to the point where I needed to begin thrice-weekly dialysis treatments. Decades later, when telling this tale to a social worker, she responded with “Well, adolescence is tough for everyone.”  Yeah, right.

I would have given anything to play Jewish Geography along with the rest of them. Your brother went to Hebrew U?  So did my sister’s boyfriend! Your camp counselor was Rachel Lang? I had her too! You spent the summer of ’77 touring the country?  I was there that summer!  Man, how I wanted to have been part of that conversation. Instead, I just went underground.

But what were all those activities about? Was dropping names the end goal of it all? Maybe it was to build character, an identity, a Jewish identity, in particular.  And while many in my peer group were doing just that, I was building my own character in a very unique way. During those years, I learned how to fight.  Not just to survive, but to adapt and keep adapting, and ultimately prevail. And that’s what, in my mind, the true Israeli spirit is all about. To fight when you need to fight.  To keep moving forward in the face of fear. And above all, to hold on to the wonder and love of life.

I didn’t know it then, but I was like a young Israeli soldier –growing up  fast.

Ten years ago, on my second trip to Israel, I did my dialysis treatments through the night at Rambam Hospital in Haifa.  They had never utilized a nocturnal therapy, but in true Israeli form, they said that if that was the therapy that worked for me, they would make it happen.  And so, I would arrive every night at the hospital at 10 pm, with my little duffel bag, and stay overnight to do my dialysis treatment. The following morning, around 7:30 am, I would hail a cab to take me back up the hill to Carmel, where I was staying with my beloved cousins. Inevitably, the cab drivers would ask what I was doing there.  Clearly, I didn’t work there. And it was too early in the morning to be visiting. I, being thrilled at the fact that I had successfully negotiated a method of therapy that kept me well and free to enjoy my days in Israel, was only too eager to explain that I was there to do my kidney dialysis treatment.  To my great surprise, every cabbie knew what dialysis was.  “Ah,  dee-a-leeza” (Hebrew for dialysis), each one said with a glance in the rear-view mirror at me.  “We do what we need to in life, eh?”  You better believe it.

So here’s to mujaddara—the stuff of life.

In The Culinary Institute of America’s Techniques of Healthy Cooking, caramelization is defined as “a cooking technique that can be used to enhance natural sugars. When heat is applied to sugar, a chemical reaction causes the sugar to darken,  giving the food a deep, rich and complex flavor.” Which translates to: Yum.

sliced onions

golden brown onionsYou could stop at this stage of golden brown, but keep the onions going to get this….

caramelized onions

 for …

brown rice

brown rice

green lentils over rice

green lentils over rice

lentils mixed into rice


adapted from Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food


1 c. (250 g.) lentils green or brown
2 ½ c.  (600 ml.) liquid (combo broth and water)
2 sprigs fresh thyme (or a sprinkle of dried thyme)
1 c. (240 g.) brown rice
2 c. (480 ml.) liquid (combo broth and water)
2 T. (30 ml.) olive oil (for frying onions plus a bit more to add to cooking rice)
2 large onions, sliced in half circles
pinch of sugar, optional
salt & pepper


Cook onion for 1 ½ hours covered for part of the time. Stir every 15-20 minutes. Add a pinch of sugar, if you like. Season with salt and pepper.

I love sauteed onions. Caramelized onions are over–the-top insanely good. Anyone who does this will tell you. Traditionally, they can cook on low for hours, while you’re doing something else. I was too antsy to eat them with the rice and lentils so I didn’t wait. You can cook them until they’re a golden brown or turn a deep shade of brown and just about caramelized.

Rinse and sort through lentils. I use 1/2 vegetable or chicken broth and 1/2 water as the the cooking medium for both lentils and rice. Cook lentils with fresh thyme added to the cooking liquid for 30-40 minutes or until liquid is mostly absorbed. remove from heat, remove thyme branches (if using) and keep covered.

Cook rice according to package directions. Add 1 t. oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. I use brown rice so it takes about 40 minutes for the liquid to absorb. Again, I use a 1/2 broth to 1/2 water ratio for the cooking liquid (1 c. rice to 2 c. liquid). Keep the cover on askew while the rice is cooking on a low simmer. When done, remove from heat, cover for 5 more minutes and fluff with fork.

Combine lentils with rice and half the onions. Adjust salt and pepper, if needed. Serve with remaining onions on top.

Serving suggestions: with vegetables or with yogurt or as a side dish. Enjoy hot (my favorite) or at room temperature.

Some seasonings that work well with mujaddara: cumin (no surprise there!), coriander or mint.

Serves 4-6.



From → Sides

  1. Laurel permalink

    Dear Judy, Thank you so much for sharing some of your story with us in this post. My Jewish story is so different because I grew up in Tucson in the 60’s, and it was only my father who was Jewish. When I went off the deep end as a teenager-and I went way off the deep end-my grandmother offered to send me to Israel, but I didn’t have the same kind of context for it that you describe-or really any context at all. We (my siblings and I) weren’t not Jewish (last name Siegel), but we weren’t quite considered Jewish either. Anyway, I didn’t go and have never been. I’m really glad that with the changing times people don’t seem to be as wedded to the idea that your mother needs to be Jewish in order to be considered Jewish, and that I’ve had the opportunity to become Bat Mitzvah and embrace a Jewish identity. I haven’t wanted to convert because I feel so strongly in my heart, somehow, that I’ve always been Jewish.

    Okay, thinking of you with love,

    • That’s beautiful- funny thing how you just need one heart to start opening and others follow…Thank you Laurel- love, Judy

  2. Judith Weinberger permalink

    I love Claudia Roden’s book. Thanks for using a recipe from it. I always have rice, lentils and onions on hand!

  3. Hannah, Israel permalink

    Dear Judy,
    I’m happy your kidneys haven’t held you back from visiting Israel at least later on in life.
    I’m a nocturnal sort of person – could keep you company on one of your nocturnal Di-a-li-za sessions next time you visit!
    Chag Sameach,
    Oh, and Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food is one of my mother’s favorite cook books.

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