literary food blog, for readers with good taste.

The Yacoubian Building & Koshary in Garlic-Tomato Sauce

The Yacoubian Building & Koshary in Garlic-Tomato Sauce

On January 25, 2011, the world watched as tens of thousands of Egyptians gathered to protest and demand the overthrow of a dictatorial ruler who had been in power for nearly 30 years. They came from a variety of religious and socioeconomic backgrounds, united by a common desire to seek retribution for a growing list of grievances against a brutal and oppressive regime. The Yacoubian Building, the bestselling novel by Alaa Al Aswany, foreshadows the inevitable onset of this modern revolution.

Once the pinnacle of prestige, the Yacoubian Building has since fallen into disrepair, with poor migrants from the countryside staking their claim over the rooftop and maintaining former storerooms as living quarters. It is a fall that mirrors the overall demise of Egyptian society and, despite its fictional nature, offers a probing look at the factors that gave rise to the recent Egyptian Revolution and the Arab Spring.

Set in contemporary Cairo, The Yacoubian Building is an exploration of the human condition in an increasingly corrupt society through the lens of those who live and work in the titular building. Al Aswany introduces us to a diverse cast of characters, from the elderly Zaki Bey el Dessouki, an embodiment of the Egyptian old guard and a wealthy man with an appetite for women who maintains an office at the address on Suleiman Basha Street, to Taha el Shazli, a dedicated young student who aspires to raise his rank through admission into the Police Academy, and his love interest, Busayna el Sayed, a young woman forced into employ to support her large family. There are others too, rich and poor, decent and immoral, all carefully constructed to offer us a look at the realities of a world fraught with despair.

Al Aswany takes on difficult themes in his bestselling novel and he does so with skill and grace. This is a book that raises a whole host of questions and does little to provide answers, but the deft portrayal of life, love and longing in a nation on the brink is enough to sustain even a reader who likes her endings tidy and her conclusions neat. The Yacoubian Building is a tale that is as much about loss of innocence and coming of age in a world marred by corruption and poverty as it is about the forces that fuel the fires of revolution. Despite the diversity of its characters, their stories combine to reveal a society devoid of hope and full of disappointment and one facing a growing spate of political and economic issues.

Just as the individual stories in The Yacoubian Building combine to offer unique insights into life in contemporary Egypt, so too do the assorted ingredients of the following dish, an Egyptian favorite known as koshary, come together in a way that preserves each distinct flavor while contributing to something greater.



  • 1/2 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 tablespoon garlic (chopped)
  • 1 can tomato sauce (16 oz.)
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup vinegar
  • 1 large onion (thinly sliced)
  • 6 oz dried brown lentils
  • 8 oz elbow macaroni (or any other compact pasta shape)
  • 2 cups long-grain rice (such as basmati)
  • 3 cups water
  • 2 sticks cinnamon
  • 3 cardamom pods
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole cumin
  • 4 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt (to taste)
  • Pepper (to taste)

For the tomato-garlic sauce

Pour olive oil into a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Add the tomato sauce. Simmer until slightly thickened, about 10 minutes.

Add water and vinegar, and turn heat to high.

When the mixture starts to boil, immediately turn off heat. Transfer to a medium bowl, add salt to taste, and set aside.

For the koshary

Pour one tablespoon of olive oil into a heavy skillet over medium-high heat. When shimmering, add onion and stir well. Once coated in the oil, reduce heat to low and cook until heavily caramelized, about 45 minutes to an hour. Stir often.

Meanwhile, fill a medium-sized pot with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the lentils, and then reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer until cooked, but still al dente, about 15 minutes. Drain lentils and set aside to cool.

Refill pot with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add pasta and cook according to package directions. When al dente, drain pasta, and transfer to a medium-sized bowl. Add one tablespoon of oil, and toss well.

Pour two tablespoons of olive oil into a large pot over medium heat. Add the cinnamon sticks and stir until fragrant. Add the cumin and rice. Stir well, and cook until the spices are aromatic, and about half of the rice is opaque. Then pour in the water. Bring it to a boil, stir well, then cover the pot. Cook on low heat for 15 minutes, or until rice is fluffy. Fluff with a fork, and season with salt to taste.

Place another skillet over medium-high heat. Pour in a half tablespoon of oil. When shimmering, add the pasta. Let it cook undisturbed for about a minute, or until it is crusty on the bottom. Toss well, and cook until it is toasty and slightly chewy. Transfer pasta to a bowl.

Add another half tablespoon of oil to the pan. When shimmering, add the lentils and cook them until they are slightly toasted, about one minute. Transfer them to another bowl.

Scoop out some rice onto a plate. Top with a scoop of pasta, lentils, tomato sauce, and some of the caramelized onions. Serve hot.

Source: I bought this book on my e-reader.

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