Pink Lentil Soup Fit for a Father-in-law

pink lentils (on the orange side of pink)

pink lentils (on the orange side of pink)

I started cooking Middle Eastern food about eight or nine years ago, around the same time I realized that I would be spending the rest of my life with an Israeli guy. Along with the Israeli husband, came a hard-to-please Israeli father-in-law with a voracious appetite for the Sephardic food he grew up eating. Nothing, it seemed, had enough spice for him. At restaurants, he was constantly requesting hot sauce, and when that failed, hotter sauce. When he visited us, he would bring hot peppers from his garden and spices from the Middle Eastern stores in New York—not-so-subtle hints that my cooking wasn’t quite up to Sephardic standards.

Almost a decade later, with the help of Claudia Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food, I’ve become such a Middle Eastern food snob that I, too, have a hard time eating it at restaurants. Roden is a brilliant cook and an amazing teacher. Her cookbooks read like anthropologies and histories. She gives variations on each recipe, explaining how in Egypt they might add sumac instead of lemon or in Turkey they use cinnamon instead of cumin, empowering her devotees with enough confidence to experiment in the kitchen.

Her recipe for spiced creamy lentil soup (shorbet adds in Arabic) has become a standby in my house. It’s simple, spicy (but not hot!), and soothing. And, since it uses ingredients I almost always have on hand, I can whip up a batch when I have an empty fridge and don’t feel like going to the store.

Such was the case last week, when I served a hot bowl of this soup to my father-in-law, who arrived exhausted and hungry from a delayed New York flight. His eyes lit up with the first bite. “You know, you’re really starting to learn how to cook,” he said, which is as much a compliment anyone has ever gotten from him. Three days later, when we dropped him back off at the airport for his flight home, he gave me a hug and we said our goodbyes.  The soup, he said, was the highlight of his trip.

Recipe (from Claudia Roden’s New Book of Middle Eastern Food, with slight variations)

  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 TB olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 1½ teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1½ teaspoon ground coriander
  • pinch of ground chili pepper
  • 1¾ cups pink lentils (rinsed until the water runs clear)
  • Bunch of celery leaves or parsley leaves, chopped
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 2 or 3 bullion cubes, crushed (I prefer Telma brand, but any will do)
  • salt and pepper
  • juice of 1 lemon

To garnish:

  • 1 onion, sliced and cooked in olive oil until caramelized
  • Toasted wedges of pita bread
  • Lemon wedges

Heat up the olive oil in a pot. Add the onion, soften, then add garlic, cumin, coriander, and chili pepper, and stir. As the aroma arises, add the carrots and celery or parsley leaves.  Let those soften. (As tempting as it is, do not add salt at this point, as salt will prevent the lentils from softening.) Add the lentils and 2 quarts water and simmer for at least 45 minutes, until the lentils have disintegrated and the soup is creamy in texture. Crumble the chicken bullion in, add salt and pepper to taste, and garnish with caramelized onions, toasted pita bread, and lemon juice.



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