Ellis Island Recipe Mjaddarah

I have lost count of how many times I’ve seen the Statue of Liberty in Movies and on the TV. I expected her to be a bit of a let down in real life, but I boarded the ferry out to Liberty Island anyway.  Sailing past her I took some pretty pictures; it wasn’t until I was stood in front of her, staring up at this enormous figure that I actually got it.

Statue of Liberty


The Statue of Liberty is absolutely mesmerizing, even my cynical soul was impressed with the little audio tour we were given to walk around with, listening to all the useless but fascinating pieces of information about how and why she was built.

Back on the ferry and out to Ellis Island, I started to get a picture of just how difficult it was for people looking to move Countries even then. It’s easy to concentrate on the facts and figures about Ellis Island.  But what so many of us seem to forget (even now in 2015) is that Immigration is all about people, literally.

More than 22 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island and into America, that number is astonishing, it’s too big, you can’t imagine 22 million individual people, but each one of them had a name, each one was scared and/or excited to be leaving their homes and trying to start a new life in a new land.

Immigrant Portraits Ellis IslandEllis Island Immigration Museum

While I was there I picked up a copy of The Ellis Island Immigrant Cookbook by Tom Bernardin and I am so glad that I did.  I found the Island to be overwhelming, just too many emotions, too much history; to enable me to properly process my thoughts.

This book is great, at my own pace I can read all about the history of immigration into Ellis Island, the good and the bad, plus look at pictures of what it was really like. Most importantly though it is jam-packed with stories from the people who were there, cleverly put together using recipes.

Hundreds of recipes from 33 Countries and the stories, these incredible tales of families crossing oceans. Like this Syrian one:

From Julia Flier of Los Angeles, California:

My mother came to America [from Syria] as a child bride.  The marriage was arranged by her family and she had never met her future husband.  She was fifteen years old at the time.  After two years of marriage, she realised that she was not in love with him and got a divorce.  She then fell in love and married my father.  In those days divorce was unheard of in our immigrant community.

They settled in New Castle, Pennsylvania.  During the  first World War my father worked in the shipyards in San Francisco, then we relocated back to New Castle, where my parents stayed the rest of their lives.  My mother made three trips back to Syria to visit her family.

I remember the Depression as a child.  Most of the men in the neighbourhood worked in the steel mills.  My mother often made this lentil dish during the last days of my father’s pay period. One had to make do with whatever was on hand in the house.  There was always plenty of rice, lentils and onions in the cupboard.  It was an excellent dish, very hearty, satisfying and delicious.  We had it with yoghurt.  And there was always fresh homemade Syrian bread.

Another interesting thing that I remember is that most of the women in our neighbourhood had the name of Mary.  Since they could neither speak nor read English they were given the name of Mary.  My mother’s Arabic name was Khadra. My father’s name was Habeeb Hanna.  Hanna is John in the Bible.  So my father became Philip Johns. I have no idea where the Philip came from. Of course, they had Arabic names which they used with their friends.

Mjaddarah Ingredients



I cooked the dish exactly as Julia’s mother did, using the recipe in the book.  It was so quick and easy to put together.  On serving I added a little paprika and some fresh coriander for taste (I hope that’s OK, Khadra) and lots of plain natural yoghurt.  I would absolutely make this again, but with a few more veggies next time.

Mjaddarah (Lentils and Rice)
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 2
I used green lentils for this dish. Serve with plain, natural yoghurt.
  • 1 Cup Lentils
  • ⅓ Cup Rice
  • 2 large Onions
  • 4 Cups Water
  • ¼ Cup Corn Oil (or olive oil)
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  1. Combine lentils, water, salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat for 7 to 10 minutes or until lentils are half-cooked. Add rice. Cook covered until water is absorbed and rice is tender (about 20 minutes).
  2. At the same time, quarter and slice peeled onions. Fry in oil until dark brown. When lentils and rice are half-cooked, pour the oil and onions over the Mjaddarah. Mix well. Finish cooking.
And this why I love the World, the fact that someone like me; born in the UK, now living in Belgium, makes a dish from Syria, that was eaten in the USA one hundred years ago.  I personally believe that we should all be able to go wherever we want in the world, without jumping through hoops, but what do I know!!



My first night in America my aunt fed us.  oh, yes, she fed us!  My uncle bought a pizza pie and we looked at that and my mother said, ‘What is that?’ They said, ‘Now this is pizza pie’ It was dreadful looking stuff.  It was awful.  We didn’t eat that.  Well, we were disappointed. When my uncle’s back was turned, we threw it out. To eat tomatoes in a pie? That was dreadful, but we did grow to love it.

KATHLEEN MAGENNIS LAMBERTI Born 1898. Emigrated from Ireland in 1921 at age 22. Interviewed at 95.

The Ellis Island Immigrant Cookbook is available on Amazon and if you can, I’d suggest you get yourself a copy, it’s a fascinating book.


  • Fascinating article, thanks, and I now must seek out that book to read. I love the sound of this lentil dish – I make something similar but the onion frying happens at the start. I’m definitely going to try it the other way round now and add the fried onions at the end.

  • Paul says:

    What a nice post. Are there Irish recipes in the book? Did Kathleen have a pizza pie recipe to go with her section?

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