How Arabs Survived on the Oldest Legume of the Middle East
By: Blanche Shaheen/Arab America Contributing Writer
While food prices are literally climbing by the day, there is one legume that has sustained the people of the Middle East for centuries, despite the war, famine, poverty, and forced expulsion. That legume is the lowly lentil.
Lentils have been a source of sustenance since the time of the pharaohs and are one of the oldest domesticated crops. Archaeologists have found lentils on the Euphrates River as far back as 8000 BC, which were popular among the Egyptians and Romans. In subsequent years, Arab populations worked magic with these legumes, transforming them into hearty main dishes like Mujadarra or creamy soups like Shorbat Adas or Adas Majroosh.
But why are lentils such a lifesaver during difficult times? They are inexpensive compared to other foods and tend to stay that way. At the time of this writing, you can purchase a bag of lentils in most supermarkets for $2.00. Considering the current inflation levels, this price point is less expensive than a bag of apples, rice, or even lettuce in many states.
Lentils are also durable and stored well in the pantry for a long time. The price of lentils remains low because this agricultural crop is able to flourish despite drought or other unfavorable weather conditions. Lentils, like other beans, are best stored in an airtight container in a cool place away from light. Oxygen and light will fade the color of the beans and increase the rancidity of the oils of the legume. While dried lentils should optimally be used within one year, many people have safely and successfully stored lentils for years.
As far as nutritional profile, lentils are higher in protein at 18 grams per serving, as well as high in fiber, iron, potassium, and folate. Brown lentils, which have an earthy flavor and hold their shape well in cooking, are the most common variety in the grocery store. Green lentils are similar but have a peppery edge. While red lentils have half the fiber of brown ones, they help thicken soups to create a creamy consistency without the need for dairy.
As far as lentil preparation, make sure the lentils are not cracked and check for any stones. Rinse the lentils as they do have a layer of dust that should be removed. You can soak the lentils before cooking as well for easier digestion. This Mediterranean Lentil Soup is versatile for summer as well as winter and is a great way to use up summer tomatoes as well as any other vegetables you have on hand. The addition of herbs like thyme and parsley add a fresh kick, and you can serve this soup with crusty bread as a light meal on hot summer nights.
To see the video technique of how to make this soup, click on the video below:
Mediterranean Lentil Soup
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 cup onions
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 stalk celery, finely chopped
- 1 cup chopped carrots
- 5 cups chicken broth (or vegetable broth)
- 1 cup dried lentils, rinsed, and checked for any stones
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 large potato, chopped
- 1 can of chopped tomatoes
- 3 cups spinach
- 1 tsp dried basil, or 5 leaves finely sliced fresh basil
- 1 sprig of fresh thyme, or 1 tsp dried thyme
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Chopped parsley for garnish
- Optional to make the soup thicker:
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp flour
Saute the onions in the olive oil until soft, then add the celery, garlic, and carrots. Continue to saute for about 3 more minutes. Add the chicken broth, lentils, bay leaves, salt, and pepper to taste, and bring to a boil then simmer for 20 minutes. Add the potato, the tomatoes, thyme, basil, and spinach. Boil for 20 minutes more. If you want to make the soup thicker, stir 1 tbsp olive oil with the 1 tbsp flour, stir into the soup, and simmer for 10 minutes more. Add the chopped parsley as a garnish before serving.
Blanche Shaheen is the author of the cookbook called “Feast In the Middle East, a Journey of Family and Cuisine” which you can order here: https://secure.mybookorders.com/mbo_index.php?isbn=9781545675113 She is also a journalist, and host of the popular cooking show called Feast in the Middle East. She specializes in Arab cuisine of the Levant and beyond. You can check out her cooking video tutorials at https://www.youtube.com/user/blanchetv Her recipes can also be found at: https://feastinthemiddleeast.wordpress.com/