Food, culture and a bowl of soup

by Sarah on April 30, 2012

coconut lentil soup

Adopting a new cuisine can be as daunting as learning a new language. It may not pose problems on the cerebral level but certainly on a psychological one.  I’d dismissed this as an exaggeration, relevant for picky eaters only, until a visit to China. When I popped in jellyfish in my mouth thinking it was noodles, my body went into cautionary mode (Houston, we’ve got a tentacle). Perhaps this reaction is a primordial defense mechanism to inhibit ingesting non -foods.  As it were, an undercurrent of tension accompanied each meal as I became hyper aware of every morsel I ate. Although I knew intellectually that there was nothing to worry about, stripped of the ability to recognize food by sight or smell I felt marooned. The realization that I wasn’t such an open minded eater was a rather annoying discovery. Behaving like a pampered five year old, poking and sniffing at my food was not the image I wanted to project.

Children exposed to a multicultural environment, whether food or language, will be more likely to embrace differences as adults. While I agree that home cooking should be comforting, with recipes handed down from grandma, there should be room for culinary exploration. As my husband’s grandmother, who spoke five languages used to say “every language is a friend”, and this is applicable to food traditions as well.  Even a basic knowledge of certain vegetables and fruits is enough to receive a nod of approval and create unusual connections.

coconut and lentil soup

Coconut and lentil soup with sorrel

When I passed a tree in my neighborhood and asked the owner, whom I never met before, if it was a jujube she responded with a broad smile, “how did you know?” and invited me back in autumn for seedlings. Strangers have come up to me at the market to comment on the contents of my stroller. “You cook mloukhia?” a younger women asked me at Ramle Souk when she noticed a leafy green popular mainly among the Arabs, Bedouins and Egyptian Jews. When I said I was learning, she immediately shared her favorite recipe and sent me to buy a mezzaluna (a curved knife) to more efficiently shop the leaves.

However, this occurred within the framework of my comfort zone, one that I slowly expanded while living in Israel. Put me in downtown Taiwan, I might not adjust so well. My husband who went on frequent business trips to that side of the world was once invited to a traditional Taiwanese banquet. As the guest of honor he realized he couldn’t just push his food aside and ask for a burger. That would be disrespectful, insulting even. With good humor he finished the stinky tofu, the crickets (or maybe it was grasshoppers) stuffed with French fries and a bee larvae delicacy. At the end of the meal the host told him with great enthusiasm, “You’re the first white man we’ve met who ate all the stinky tofu!”  There really isn’t a better way to break a cultural barrier.

There are some home cooks who never make the same things twice, others who don’t deviate from the weekly menu. I’m somewhere in the middle, returning to family favorites but making frequent jaunts into exotic lands.

coconut milk and lentil soup

Thanks Dara of Cookin' Canuck for photography tips!

Coconut and lentil soup

In the Levant lentil soup is often made with a copious amount of cilantro or flat-leafed parsley and flavored with lemon juice and garlic. This time I wanted something different. A quick peek in my cupboard and an internet search led me to an Indian inspired recipe on the Traveler’s Lunchbox. While I am proficient in Middle Eastern cooking, culinary India is a completely new area for me. I won’t be able to vouch for the authenticity of this recipe or even where it originated. In fact when I did more research I discovered that coconut and lentils is a very Sri Lankan dish as well (see One Tribe Gourmet’s beautiful version).

Two cups of brown lentils, rinsed

1 large onion, chopped

2 cloves of garlic, finely minced

1 can (250 ml) of coconut milk (or alternatively homemade coconut milk)

1  bunch of coriander, chopped

1 small bunch of wood sorrel (optional but adds a nice tang to the soup), chopped

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon cumin

1 flat teaspoon garam masala (can be found in spice stores around Israel)

Water or vegetable stock (I don’t usually measure how much I put in but about 6-8 cups)

Salt and pepper

Vegetable oil (I used olive oil as usual)

In a medium sized pot add the lentils and cover with water or stock (about six cups). Bring to a boil with the lid on.  Reduce heat and simmer until the lentils are soft, adding water if necessary. In a large pot heat the oil and sauté the onions until they become golden. Add the garlic and stir until they release their aroma but do not burn (don’t walk away). Add the softened lentils in their liquid, coconut milk and continue to cook for another 35 minutes. Add more water if necessary. I enjoy the soup thick, almost like a stew and adjusted accordingly. Add the herbs and spices and stir until incorporated. Cook for another 20 minutes.The soup tends to thicken in the refrigerator. Just add a bit more water to bring it back to soup like consistency.  Garnish with green onions and if you like spicy, like me, minced chili peppers. Goes well with plain white rice and chapatti bread.


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