Mad about mejadra

When this simple dish is done right, the results make for a filling, inexpensive and delicious meal.

Mejadra (photo credit: Amy Spiro)
(photo credit: Amy Spiro)
‘Poor man’s food” isn’t generally a selling point for cuisine these days (except for matza, but that is just once a year), yet mejadra remains a staple on the menu of almost every classic Israeli eatery. The dish, a combination of rice, lentils and spices topped with a mound of crispy onions, comes from the Arabic word for smallpox, due to the way the lentils appear to “pockmark” the plate of rice.
Among mejadra’s selling points are the fact that it’s vegetarian, it’s a (relatively) inexpensive meal, it’s filling, and it’s healthier than, say, a plate of fried kubbe or felafel.
In June, The New York Times called mejadra “the essence of comfort food, a humble dish made from pantry staples.” And while most restaurants include it on their menu as a side dish, the Times reporter agreed with me that “a pot full of mujadara is satisfying enough to be a whole meal.”
Mejadra is even rumored to be the dish in the biblical story of Esau selling his birthright to Jacob for “pottage of lentils,” according to the JPS translation.
Now, I can’t say I’d be willing to give up my due inheritance for a bowl of mejadra, but I am a fan of the dish – especially when it’s done right. But to my dismay, many of the establishments I visited on my tasting journey fell short. The most egregious crimes I witnessed were committed to the onion component of the dish, with several restaurants having the gall to omit them entirely! Even those that did include them often stumbled, serving onions that were chewy or greasy.
The mejadra offerings were all around the same price at the places I visited on my sampling tour, about NIS 20, which is a pretty reasonable price tag for a hearty meal.
All the establishments tested are kosher.Ima: A-
Ima was certainly the fanciest establishment I visited in my mejadra journey, and it showed (though thankfully not in the price). The dish was beautifully served, the rice and lentils formed into a half sphere and topped with a sprinkling of extra-crispy onions. The salt level in the dish was ideal, though the seasoning could have been more exciting, and the rice and lentils were each cooked to the perfect tenderness.
NIS 18 55 Shmuel Baruch (Agrippas) Street and inside the shuk Azura: B+
Once you weave your way through the dozens of men playing shesh besh (backgammon) in the courtyard of the Iraqi shuk, you will have arrived at Azura, where they serve up what the restaurant calls the ultimate in “slow food.”
The mejadra offering did not disappoint, with perfect seasoning and a generous topping of onions. The rice had a slightly stodgy texture but not in any unpleasant way, in fact adding to the hominess of the dish. The onions were a touch more chewy than they were crispy, but their caramelized flavor added a nice touch.
NIS 20
4 Ha’eshkol Street (up the narrow stairway)
Sima: B
In an interesting twist, the onions topping the mejadra at Sima were coated in a batter before being fried. While the idea has merit, the execution wasn’t perfect, as they weren’t particularly crispy. However, the rice had a nice, complex spice mixture with a good salt level, and it and the lentils were cooked well.
NIS 22 82 Agrippas Street Rachmo: B
Rachmo, an eatery that has existed since the 1950s, committed an almost unpardonable mejadra sin: no onions! Once I managed to recover from the disappointment, the dish had a nice salt level and a balanced spice profile. The rice and the lentils were both cooked until tender, but the onions were sorely missed.
NIS 15 5 Ha’eshkol Street and 25 Yoel Salomon Street
Pinati: B
Pinati, which happily embraces its contradictions of being a traditional homey restaurant and a nationwide chain, has also abandoned tradition by serving its mejadra sans onions. The dish, which is served up from an enormous pot sitting on the counter, has a well-balanced seasoning and salt level, with mostly perfectly cooked rice and lentils, but just a few slightly crunchy bits here and there, likely more from being overdone than underdone.
NIS 22 Eight locations in Jerusalem
Ta’ami: C+
This old-time eatery that has been around since 1954 does a lot of things right, but unfortunately mejadra is not one of them. The lentils had a mealy texture, and the seasoning was fairly bland. The onions topping the dish had a nice flavor but were not crispy at all. But do try the humous!
NIS 18 3 Shamai Street
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