Egyptians love bread which is why sandwiches of all kinds make up many popular breakfast and lunch foods. While many of these sandwiches have their origins outside Egypt, such as hamburgers, fajitas or Syrian shwarma, there are a few homegrown exceptions, such as hawawshi. Invented in 1971 by a butcher named Ahmed al-Hawawsh who had a stall in central Cairo’s Tawfiqiyya Market, the sandwich was a cheap, hot meal that proved so irresistible that it has spread across the entire country and become a national dish.
The traditional recipe calls for mixing fatty raw ground beef with raw onions, peppers, tomatoes and a mix of herbs and spices. These are then stuffed into a pita bread and either baked in an oven or fried in oil on the stovetop until the bread is crispy and the meat and vegetables inside are done. In Alexandria, the meat is stuffed inside dough instead of bread.
A few years ago, a chef on an Egyptian cooking program came up with a new version of hawawshi called “fasting hawawshi.” About 10% of Egypt’s population are Coptic Christians and they maintain a vegan diet most of the year, hence the name. Her version combined TVP with eggplant and potatoes and departed quite a bit from the traditional recipe.
Even if you aren’t eating a vegan diet, brown lentils are a healthy protein rich substitute for ground beef in recipes, because it has a meaty texture and color. My recipe below sticks close to the traditional version of hawawshi, simply swapping out the ground beef for lentils and adding a splash of soy sauce to give it an umami taste. If you aren’t a strict vegetarian/vegan, this tastes great made with a rich beef broth, but vegetable broth can be used as well.
And if you can’t do without meat, you can use a pound of ground beef instead of the cooked lentils, skip the step of sautéing the vegetables and leave out the soy sauce and you will have traditional hawawshi.
Lentil Pita Pockets are best served with a simple yogurt sauce that you can drizzle on each delectable bite.