Spicy ptitim (Israeli couscous)

In the maze of gray buildings, carpentry shops, Escher-like stairways and metal scaffolding behind my office, you’ll find a little luncheon restaurant tucked away. Well, actually, you probably won’t find it. You have to know exactly where it is, and even then, you still might wind up searching for it.

But let’s say you find it. It’s a modest place — Mediterranean Restaurant is its name. There, a kindly couple dishes up beautifully prepared homestyle meals. Step up to the counter, where a tempting assortment of foods gaze back at you — stuffed peppers, mafroum, meatballs of different shapes and sizes, kubbeh dumplings, mixed vegetables, roasted potatoes, and pasta. Yes, pasta. Among that wealth of handmade food is a simple pasta, yes, the kind that comes in a bag, cooked according to the package instructions and tossed with spices.

Given these options, who would order the pasta?

Well, that’s what I thought for years. Then one day, I don’t remember why, I ordered the pasta.

Suddenly, I understood what it was doing there. It was addictive, and I was hooked.

What makes a lunch counter pasta good enough to compete with a dozen handmade foods, all of which demand more care and preparation? In short, the spices. Tossed with a ruddy mix of Mediterranean spices — the restaurant doesn’t get its name for nothing — this is a prime example of simple pleasures.

Now, I’m back at work but I’m working from home, so I haven’t been at the office in quite a while. But either way, if I want to eat an embarrassingly large quantity of spicy pasta, best to do it in my own home, right?

So this is my best guess as to what goes into that dish. In place of the pasta, I use ptitim — also known as Israeli couscous, or Ben-Gurion’s rice — an Israeli creation that basically is, well, pasta. Little roasted nibs of pasta shaped like rice, or balls, or stars, or what-have-you. My favorite is the rice shape. It has a fun texture.

Thus, in the comfort of my own home, I’m free to skip over impressive stuffed vegetables and elegant dumplings and gorge myself on simple, spicy pasta/ptitim. No one will know.

For one 500-gram bag of ptitim:

  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 4 cups water

In a pot, fry the onion in the oil on a medium flame. Add the ptitim, stir and let brown lightly. Add the spices and the water, cover, and bring to a boil. Let simmer until the water is fully absorbed, let sit for a minute or two with the flame off, and fluff before eating.

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