“When I prepare my dishes, I feel like I am preparing this for me and my family. That’s what I do,” Samah Helmi declares, as I taste her Koshary, the dish inspiring the name of her and her husband Sam’s new restaurant on South Elm Street in Greensboro.
I see what she means. This is the third time my dish is warmed up since entering ‘Koshary.’ I’m finally sitting down after photographing the restaurant’s exquisite interior. The ceiling tapestries, the walls painted like a sky with scattered clouds, the wall art, the artifacts or replicas decorating the restaurant caused me to sufficiently lose track of time. No matter, Sam and Samah’s adamant hospitality includes serving warm dishes.
Samah has adapted her Koshary to a delicacy, rather than a street dish. This is just another chapter in the evolution of the food. It’s a fusion of ingredients influenced by the many cultures involved in Egypt’s history. Koshary refers to the Hindu word kishiri (a dish with rice and lentils). It eventually became Egypt’s signature street food.
Rice, lentils, elbow pasta, vermicelli noodles, chickpeas, tomato sauce, and caramelized onions, make up most Koshary, although there is an entire spectrum of variations. Meat is very expensive in Egypt, so the lentils and chickpeas help the commoner get a proper amount of protein. I don’t even care that meat’s absent when I see the dish.
I’ve never seen anything quite like it. That’s not true, I’ve seen a lot of stuff like it, just not together. Caramelized onions topping tomato sauce topping the medley of ingredients. It’s what the inventor orf trail mix would have made if only supplied with starches and legumes and some divine knowledge of spices. It’s the macro-nutritional version of teamwork. It’s beautiful.
Lemon garlic vinaigrette and hot tomato sauce are never far from Koshary. Samah’s sauces are amazing.
“You will find these in every single Koshary restaurant. Different people will have variations of the sauce, but they go together like Tom and Jerry.”
Home-style is Samah’s style. “I remember when we were kids, all of our family would gather every Friday at our house to eat our food. I got the taste from Mom and Dad.”
Sam brags on his spouse. “She does everything from scratch in here. She’s been cooking since she was 13.”
“Ten, actually,” she rebuts.
Samah and Sam fit the profile of a healthy couple in a business partnership. They correct each other. Poke fun at each other. Samah takes care of the art of cooking. Sam takes care of the art of business. There’s an ease about their presence, but it’s obvious they take great care into their restaurant. They’ve been married 18 years and you can probably guess what they ate to celebrate their engagement.
“I wanted to eat at a fine dining restaurant to impress her,” Sam explains. “She said she craved Koshary. So, I was like okay, somebody’s trying to take you to a fine dining restaurant and you basically want to go to a Burger King or something! It was excellent koshary from a restaurant that did not have a dining room. So we just ate it in the car.”
Six years ago, Sam and Samah returned to the same koshary restaurant in Cairo after a relative’s wedding. If they were expecting to eat in a car again, they were in for a surprise.
“They had expanded,” Sam says. “The whole first floor is full and it’s 3 o’clock in the morning, it’s completely packed to the door. They told us to try the second or third floor. We couldn’t find seating until the fourth floor. We gathered some chairs and made a table out of busy tables’ leftover chairs.”
It’s always a pleasant surprise to see a special restaurant grow, but Samah has something different in mind for her customers in Greensboro.
“I don’t want to do business only. I would like to present that Egyptian home cooking to the public. Not everybody wants to do that or likes to do that because they would rather make more money faster. I would rather present this to people and let them taste the real thing. In the long run, they will come back.”