Enjoyed all through the Middle East, my abiding memories of enjoying this simple soup of red lentils come from the 6 weeks I spent backpacking through Turkey with my younger sister the best part of two decades ago. There, every meal began with a bowl of çorba (soup), almost always of this type, accompanied by crusty bread.
So as a 22 year-old, this soup entered my culinary lexicon where’s it’s stayed ever since, although I often forget how good it is, then remember again when my Iraqi mother-in-law visits and cooks ups endless pots of shorba, again, most often made with red lentils.
The beauty of a simple soup like this is unless you’re actually Mother Hubbard, you shouldn’t need to hit the shops to source ingredients. As long as you have a jar of red lentils at the back of the pantry (or is it just me? I inherited from both my parents a serious hoarding tendency when it comes to pantry items: you can count on me in a civil emergency), you’re pretty much sorted. You can add loads of veges, diced super fine – whatever’s in season or in your fridge, should you wish to – or you can keep it fairly sparse, as this version is. Either way, you need to be generous with the garlic and spices, and a squeeze of lemon at the end is non-negotiable.
Red lentil soup
1 1/2 cups dried red lentils (soaked for half an hour then rinsed clean)
1 onion, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/2 Tbsp baharat (see note)
1 tsp sea salt
1 bunch kale, stems removed, finely chopped
1 litre chicken or vege stock
1 litre water
1 400g tin tomatoes
Juice 1/2 lemon
To serve: natural yoghurt, lemon wedges, flat-leaf parsley
In a large heavy-bottomed pot, saute the onion in a little olive oil until softened, then add garlic and cook another minute. Add the baharat and cook another minute or so, stirring into the onions and garlic, then stir through the kale.
Add the stock and water and bring to a light boil.
Add the lentils, and cook at a light boil for twenty minutes till lentils have softened. Scoop off any scum that accumulates on the surface and discard.
Add the tomatoes and stir to combine. Cook for another 10 to 15 minutes to reduce the liquid slightly. Taste and add salt and pepper, and more baharat, as required. Add lemon juice and stir through.
Serve piping hot, garnished with yoghurt, lemon wedges and parsley with a little extra cracked pepper and a sprinkle of good salt.
Baharat is the Arabic name for an all-purpose spice blend used throughout the Middle East. ‘Bahar’ means pepper so baharat always includes black pepper, but the other spices are up to the cook, but baharat commonly includes cumin, cinnamon and coriander seed. Like all spice blends, it’s best when made fresh by crushing whole spices to a powder, but I tend to make enough for a few meals in one go and store in a jar.
3 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp allspice berries
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp coriander seeds
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp sweet paprika
Grind to a coarse powder in spice grinder – or, as I do, in my coffee grinder (just takes a few rounds of washing to get the aroma out!)