Lentil soup is good, so good in fact that Esau renounced his birthright to his brother Jacob just for a bowl of these marvelous reds.
What was he thinking?
True, Esau was famished after a day of hunting but to relinquish his title of first born is a bit excessive for this humble legume. I have never shared the Biblical brother’s enthusiasm for red lentils as they have always been “eh”, bland and mushy. My first attempt was an Indian specialty called kitchri, a filling and wholesome dish of rice and red lentils which the Iraqis introduced to Israel*. It makes an interesting side dish, especially topped with caramelized onions and flavored with garlic and garam masala but definitely not something to sell birthrights over. Then I tried using it in what will forever be known within my family as the most disgusting thing I have ever made, it was legendary (If I describe it, my readers will flee and never return).
It is amazing that lentils exist as a domesticated crop in the first place considering that seed germination is exceedingly low in the wild progenitor and the plant so small it can be easily overlooked. Although it grows wild in the Levant in order to recognize it “you have to crawl on your hands and knees” with your face 3 cm from the ground as Gideon Ladizinsky, my professor of genetics once told us. According to a research group in Bari,Italy, the cultivation occurred before domestication which would make lentils one of the most tedious foods to harvest, perhaps in par with picking individual crocus stigmas for saffron. So the red porridge of the biblical times was in fact a very complicated affair to prepare with hours spent on all fours trying to collect the minuscule lentils, just like searching for dropped contact lenses. Scientists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem thought it would be a great idea to send out unsuspecting research students to see how many wild lentils they could gather. The surprising verdict? “Wild lentils are unlikely to have been a staple resource for hunter-gatherers prior to plant domestication.” 1 In truth, by the time Jacob and Esau were born, the lens species were probably already domesticated and luckily did not scatter on the ground but were gathered and threshed.
While lentils and legumes in general lagged behind grain’s large harvests, their high nutritional profile justified the work that went into growing them. Lentils are rich in proteins, low in fats and important in vegetarian diets.
To give the lentil the respect it deserves, I decided to try just one more recipe- red lentil soup and I am glad I did.
There are many varieties which have developed from the ancient Mesopotamian gruel. The Iraqi Kurds prepare it together with rice and vegetables such as carrots, celery and zucchini with a hefty dose of garlic. In Tunisia and Morocco they add tomatoes. The Arabs of the Galilee spice it generously with cumin and caramelized onions. Turkish Kurds add dried red peppers, wheat berries, mint and green peppers and those from Aleppo Syria like theirs with coriander seeds as well as cumin. There is even an Indian version that is heavily spiced as in Sabera’s recipe.
Red Lentil Soup, my style (מרק עדשים)
Red lentils lose their beautiful color during cooking which is compensated by the addition of carrots and tomato paste. The garnish was inspired by the tradition of adding bubbling spiced oil to some dishes in Egypt, such as in mloukhia.
2 cups red lentils
3-4 carrots, chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 onions, chopped
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup of chopped parsley
For the garnish
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon ground coriander
6 tablespoons of olive oil
Fry the onions until caramelized. Add the lentils, carrots and tomato paste and cover with about 6 cups of water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until the lentils and vegetables are soft. Add more water if the soup is too thick. If the soup is watery, reduce with the cover off. Add the spices.
Fry the spices and garlic in the olive oil until bubbles form around the garlic. Remove from heat. Sieve the olive oil mix and add a drizzle onto each bowl. Add parsley if desired and a squeeze of lemon juice. I also added a tablespoon of bulgur which I cooked separately.
*In the 1950’s many Iraqi families moved to Bombay to escape the turmoil of their country and then only later to Israel
1 Wild lentil and chickpea harvest in Israel: bearing on the origins of Near Eastern farming
Shahal Abbo, Inbar Zezak, Efrat Schwartz, Simcha Lev-Yadun, Zohar Kerem and Avi Gopher
The Cooking of the Eastern mediterranean, by Paula Wolfert
Kurdish Cooking, Varda Shilo