Mujadara is a humble but extremely popular vegan middle eastern dish made with lentils, rice, and onions. Although the dish is simple, it's packed full of flavour and the onions are what make it magical! This authentic Arabic mujadara recipe has been tested to perfection!
What is Mujadara?
Mujadara is a dish that's popular across the middle east, but especially in the Levant (countries like Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan). Although the dish's roots can be traced back to Iraq, as it featured in one of the first ever cookbooks compiled by Al-Baghdadi in Iraq, it is actually not commonly consumed there in present day.
I got to know mujadara more intimately through Lebanese friends and Levantine restaurants here in Canada. And I fell in love! Rice dishes are my favourite, and this one is full of umami yet it's very simple to make. In fact, vegetarian rice dishes are common in the middle east, like this delicious Iraqi carrot rice, or this fava bean and dill rice.
Mujadara in Arabic means "pockmarked" because of the lentils studding the rice. It's known to be a humble "peasant" dish because of the cheap pantry ingredients used to make it. It's pronounced "m'jadra" and actually cooked in a few different variations!
What makes mujadara magical is the delicious caramelized onions! And the use of either green or brown lentils. Careful not to use red split lentils like the ones for lentil soup, because those will be too mushy!
Mujadara is also very similar to Egyptian Koshari, but it has less components. Whilst Levantine Mujadara stops at just lentils, rice and onions, Koshari adds more components in the form of pasta, chickpeas and a tomato sauce. Both extremely delicious!
Mujadara Variations across the Levant
As I am told by my Lebanese friend, there are regions of the Levant (and specifically in Lebanon) where this rice and lentils dish is actually referred to as Mdardara, whereas another dish which features mushed up lentils with rice is termed Mujadara.
But I hope my Lebanese best friend forgives me for titling this dish as "Mujadara" because that's the name that's been popularized across many Levantine restaurants in the west! There are actually three different variations of this dish:
- This mujadara (or mdardara) dish, made with long-grain or short-grain rice and lentils
- Mdardara (or mujadara), made with cooked and mashed lentils, mixed with rice, resembling more of a "pudding" consistency
- Mujadara hamra (which means "red" mujadara) which is made with onions that are even more deeply caramelized until they are reddish, as well as with bulgur instead of rice
All of them have onions in common, as well as the use of green or brown lentils. Mujadara is also a dish that is delicately spiced, just with salt, pepper and cumin. The seasoning is subtle for a reason, to allow the onion and lentil flavours to shine.
Ingredients You'll Need to Make Mujadara
This is a dish that you make when you don't have much fresh produce and need a quick pantry ingredient dinner. And also if you are really really craving it, which will happen often!
Here are the ingredients you need:
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil: high quality olive oil is important in this dish because of the few ingredients!
- Long-grain Basmati Rice: I recommend long-grain as it will hold up better and result in a fluffy texture. This recipe is not tested for short grain or brown rice, as they will need a different cooking time.
- Brown or Green Lentils: either variety will work. Make sure your lentils are not too old, since they will take longer than usual to cook. Avoid using black lentils or red split lentils for this dish.
- Yellow Onions: with onions, the more the merrier. Just chop away, as much as your hands will let you. But I find 6 medium ones to be a sweet spot.
- Chicken Stock or Stock Cube: This adds even more flavour, so I recommend stock instead of water. But feel free to just use water if you don't have any on hand.
- Cumin: Aside from salt and pepper, cumin is the only spice! It's the traditional way of making this dish.
How to Make this Recipe, Step By Step
I tested this recipe many times to ensure I can give you the easiest method, but also the most fool-proof method. This dish can often be finicky, since we are cooking a grain and a legume in the same pot, each of them having a different cooking time.
But never fear! Follow these instructions and you will come out hugging your bowl of mujadara!
TIP: The most efficient way to cook mujadara is to start the caramelized onions first for the topping, and then cook the lentils and rice simultaneously while keeping an eye on the onions and stirring them often.
Caramelizing the Onions
First things first, start on the onions that will be used for the topping. These onions can be either caramelized on low-medium heat resulting in sweet sticky onions, or fried on medium-high heat resulting in sweet crispy onions.
Slice 3-4 onions into thin even sized (as best as you can) wings. You can use a mandolin for this step if you don't love slicing onions.
Heat half a cup of the olive oil in a skillet (I prefer stainless steel) for a few minutes on medium-low heat. Drop the onions in and stir them around.
If you like soft, sticky and caramelized onions (like this recipe suggests), drop a lid on the onions for the first 10 minutes. This will help to wilt them faster and reduce the total cooking time.
After about 10 minutes, remove the lid and continue to stir them around every 3-4 minutes, up to about 30 minutes total cook time or until they turn a deep golden colour. Don't stop stirring or the onions will stick to the pot!
Remove them from the oil using a spider or strainer and allow them to drain on some paper towels. Do not discard the oil leftover from the onions!
TIP: If you prefer crispy fried onions as opposed to softer caramelized onions, follow the same process but do not cover the onions, and keep the heat on medium-high, stirring more frequently until they crisp up.
Cooking the Lentils and Rice in One Pot
While the onions are caramelizing, start on the lentils and rice which will cook in one pot.
Dice one of the onions finely and soften them for 4-5 minutes in olive oil, in a non-stick pot suitable for rice. This step can be optional, but I highly recommend it because it intensifies the onion flavour in the rice.
Once the onions soften and turn translucent (no need to brown them), add the brown lentils, the chicken stock and the water. Do not add any salt! Bring the pot to a rolling boil, then cover and cook the lentils for 10 minutes.
TIP: Adding salt while cooking the lentils will make them tough and increase their cooking time. It may result in "hard" lentils, so always add the salt after the lentils have cooked.
Meanwhile, wash the rice really well until the water runs clear, and drain it. Do not soak your rice!
After 10 minutes, test the lentils to ensure they are nearly cooked. Add in the rice, the salt, pepper, and the cumin. Stir once to combine.
Wait 2-3 minutes for the water to come to a boil again, cover and cook for 20 minutes on medium-low heat.
After 20 minutes, remove the lid and fluff the lentils and rice with a fork very gently. Allow it to stand for another 10 minutes, covered. Before serving, pour over any leftover olive oil you have from frying the onions to really amp up the flavour!
Serve the mujadara topped with the caramelized onions.
What to Serve with Mujadara
It is also almost always served with a bowl of plain yogurt to scoop on top (you have to try it!). Or you can serve it with Jajik, a cucumber yogurt salad which will work perfectly.
Mujadara is typically served as a lunch or dinner for casual weekday meals. But I've seen it served as a side rice dish at many restaurants as well, alongside a protein.
How to Store and Re-heat Leftovers
If you have leftover mujadara, simply place it in an air-tight container and store it in the fridge for up to 5-6 days. It won't go bad since there isn't any meat in the dish.
When you're ready to enjoy it the next day, I recommend placing it in a non-stick skillet, spraying it with just a few tablespoons of water, covering it and heating on low heat for 10-15 minutes. This will help the rice to steam and soften again. It will be good as new!
I do not recommend freezing mujadara, since rice-based dishes tend to absorb too much moisture when frozen and will likely be mushy when re-heated.
Here's my response to some very common questions about Mujadara:
What types of lentils can be used? Always use brown or green lentils, and never use red split lentils. Make sure the lentils are not very old (its easy for us to store lentils forever since they are shelf safe). The older the lentils, the longer their cooking time will be.
Is Mujaddara healthy? Absolutely! Lentils are packed full of nutrients, and this dish makes a light and healthy vegan meal.
Can you use brown rice? You can definitely use brown rice, but the cooking time will be longer. You can start by cooking the brown rice first before the lentils for at least 20-30 minutes. Then add the lentils and cook for another 10-15 minutes. If you're using brown basmati rice, the water ration should also be adjusted to 2 cups of water per 1 cup of rice. You also need to account for water for the lentils.
My Tips for Making Perfect Mujdara
Make sure you follow these tips to ensure you get fool-proof mujdara from the first try!
- Use high quality extra virgin olive oil for optimal flavour (and don't be shy with the amount)
- Use measuring cups and follow the rice, lentils, and water measurements in this recipe to a T! It's easy to mess this one up if you are not precise, since rice and lentils have different cooking times.
- Use lots of onions! And I mean lots! If you want to add more than this recipe calls for, go for it!
- Be patient when caramelizing the onions. The process takes at least 30 minutes.
- Pour over any leftover oil from frying the onions on top of the cooked lentils and rice for extra flavour.
Vegetarian Rice Recipes You Will Love
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One Pot Mujadara (Middle Eastern Lentils and Rice)
For the Lentils and Rice
- 1 onion finely chopped
- 4 tablespoons olive oil extra virgin
- 2 teaspoons ground cumin
- 2.25 teaspoons salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 8 cups water or broth vegetable or chicken
- 1 bouillon cube vegetable or chicken
- 2 cups brown or green lentils
- 2 cups long-grain basmati rice
For the Caramelized Onions
- 4 onions
- ½ cup olive oil extra virgin
- 1 teaspoon salt
For the Caramelized Onions
- Slice the onions thinly using a sharp knife or a mandolin
- Add the olive oil to a large sauté pan on medium heat
- Add the onions and the salt, stir and cover to allow the onions to wilt for 10 minutes (if you want caramelized onions, not crispy onions. see notes)
- Remove cover and stir every 1-2 minutes until deeply golden. The process should take roughly 30 minutes from start to finish.
- Remove the onions using a slotted spoon and set aside on paper towels. Do not discard the remaining olive oil in the pan.
For the Rice and Lentils
- While the onions are caramelizing in a pan, start on the lentils.
- In a medium sized non-stick pot, heat up the olive oil over medium heat. Add the chopped onions and cook until softened, roughly 4-5 minutes
- Add in the lentils along with the bouillon cube and all the water or broth. Bring the pot to a rolling boil.
- Cover and allow the lentils to simmer until softened and almost cooked, for 10 minutes
- Meanwhile, wash and rinse the rice several times, ensuring you drain it completely
- After 10 minutes, add the rice to the pot, along with the salt, pepper, and cumin. Bring the pot to a rolling boil.
- Reduce the heat to low, cover with a tight fitting lid and cook for 20 minutes. Place a paper towel underneath the lid to help ensure the rice cooks well (optional)
- After 20 minutes, turn the heat off and gently fluff the rice. Cover and let stand for 10 minutes.
- Serve the mujadara by plating it on a platter and adding the caramelized onions on top. Serve with salad and yogurt.
- Use brown or green lentils for this recipe, not red split lentils
- If you want crispy onions instead of soft caramelized onions, follow the same process but use medium-high heat and stir more frequently until crispy and golden
- Use only long-grain basmati rice for this recipe