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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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Rosa April 30, 2012 at 3:10 am

What a wonderful soup! So original and scrumptious sounding. A great combination of flavors.




Krista April 30, 2012 at 3:28 am

I’m SO happy you posted this recipe. :-) I have a massive amount of sorrel in my garden and have been wracking my brain for things to do with it. A girl can only use so much sorrel pesto. :-)


Sarah April 30, 2012 at 3:35 am

Thanks Krista, I used wood sorrel, otherwise known as clovers but I’m sure regular sorrel would work to. Turns out the Sri Lankan soup linked to in this post was made with tamarind paste to add tang to the soup.


Eha April 30, 2012 at 4:05 am

What a fabulous recipe although I WILL have to use tamarind as no sorrel in sight :) ! Could not sleep: turned out to be fortuitous, as am now filing two wonderful new soup recipes – the other just in is pear, celeriac and blue cheese :) ! Oh, and, vividly remember my first few business trips to Japan and China in my 20s: the tiny raw gold/metallic green fish eaten whole + the slippery very bright pink pickled lotus buds used to get me!!


Alison April 30, 2012 at 5:50 am

Sounds delicious! And (except corriander and wood sorrel) a good store cupboard soup too


Faye April 30, 2012 at 11:44 pm

What a great article! I love your approach to meeting people and trying their foods.
Wonderful sentence with your husband’s grandmother’s quote.
You describe your market experiences so beautifully. We can easily relate to them. Every time I prepare fava beans in a way that you can cook the pods, I remember the Palestinian woman at the market who showed me how. There are so many nice memories like this.
I was lucky in Taiwan to be on a culinary tour, and so we knew what to expect and didn’t have anything quite as crazy as your husband did. Jellyfish is OK and I’m curious to try stinky tofu but could do without those other items.
Your soup sounds great. All the Sri Lankan food I’ve had so far (not often ) has been delicious. Where did you get wood sorrel? If you bought it, what was it called in Hebrew?


Sarah May 1, 2012 at 12:20 pm

Thanks so much Faye, The wood sorrel looks like clovers and is called חמציץ from the word sour . It grows in my front yard in winter. I’ve never tasted stinky tofu yet, would be interested to try. When you cook fava in the pod, I guess you have to choose very young ones.


Faye May 4, 2012 at 4:09 pm

Thanks, Sarah. I thought חמציץ was the word for regular sorrel.

True, you need young fava beans but they seem to be the usual ones being sold right now around here. Most of the fava beans I find are slim enough to eat the pod but you can’t cook them whole. You have to string them on both sides like sugar snap peas and cut the pod in pieces (about 1 inch), and with each one you cut, you pull with your knife to see if more string comes off. I guess only gardeners can find them young enough to eat the whole thing.


Lael Hazan @educatedpalate May 4, 2012 at 8:30 am

Love the post and the “Houston we have a tentacle”. We feel very much as you do, that exposing children to all sorts of flavors gives them entree into other cultures and insight. Of course, my youngest (8 year old), has just decided to go back to being a nonadventurous eater, and questions “do I like that?” to almost anything. In our house, one must try everything but one doesn’t need to finish. I’m not sure what would have happened to the stinky tofu. Of course, after the 8 year old tastes the item she usually likes it, so…. perhaps it would have been eaten.


Sarah May 4, 2012 at 11:52 pm

Lael, We do the same thing. I never accept “I don’t like it” before they even taste it. This makes for much easier traveling since they are much more open to new foods and are not limited to a few core items. The weird thing is that my youngest hates plain rice and wont eat it unless its in Osh Plov!


Yael May 4, 2012 at 9:52 am

I know it took me a while but I really liked this post. When we lived in Singapore we were exposed to a huge variety of cuisines and ventured many new foods. Some great restaurants we really miss till today. We love to cook at home adventurous things from time to time but nothing like stinky tofu or that black mess we ate in Rhodes :)


Eha May 4, 2012 at 10:59 pm

Reading Lael Hazan’s story about giving her children free rein to try and like foods foreign. May I tell a story: my husband and I were not going to force our two daughters to eat anything, but ate extremely well in front of them whilst they had ‘plain’ food ‘other kids got’! Oh, the complaints soon came and they very much ‘joined’ our diet. Came their first trip to Fiji: lot of parents of children from the same school holidaying. Decided one night on kids at one table, parents [to have some peace] at the other! Soon had a junior Fijian waiter at my side [I suppose the girls were about 6 and 8] almost crying: ‘Marama [lady], is that your daughter – she just ordered snails for first course and frog legs for main – Marama!!!’ Oh she said to give her some salad, otherwise you would be cranky! Marama, what shall I do?’ :D ! I said I did not much care for the combo, but OK! Well, their whole blessed table followed suit, and felt very grown up – none of them dropped off the branch, dared the next time around, are mostly ‘foodies’ now and we are still laughing!! :D !


Sarah May 4, 2012 at 11:53 pm

Eha, Haha, good for them! Sometimes our kids surprise us in great ways.


Jagagol.A February 6, 2013 at 9:19 pm

Good blog post. I certainly appreciate this site. Continue the good work!


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