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Of Pulses and Pottage

We’ve all had moments when we felt hungry and exhausted enough to give up everything for a hot meal, but very few of us have actually gone ahead and done it. That’s exactly what happens, though, midway through the Book of Genesis: Esau, having returned from an unsuccessful hunting trip, sells his birthright to his brother Jacob for a bit of bread and pottage. (Pottage refers to a thick soup, or porridge.) The phrase “mess of pottage” has entered into general usage, but what’s less well known is that this particular pottage was made from lentils — more specifically, red lentils, for the story has Esau indicate the redness of the desired soup not once but twice. (Ever after, Esau was known by the name Edom, from the Hebrew word adom, meaning red.) It is possible that lentils figure in the story as a way of connoting the poorness of the food for which Esau gave away his rightful inheritance — lentils have never been one of the more glamorous of ingredients, even back then — but the redness of these particular lentils is surely meaningful as well. As has been acutely observed by Jewish-food historian Oded Schwartz, “The choice of the color is symbolic of blood, for the story tells of an epic fight of primogeniture.”

Aside from the story of Esau and Jacob, lentils are mentioned a handful of additional times in the Bible, and many more in the Talmud, which gives some sense of the importance that they must have had in the diet of the ancient Israelites. Meat, after all, was scarce there, and as a result protein had to be obtained through other sources; pulses such as lentils are high in protein, as well as other important nutrients including iron and potassium. (Lentils, like peas and peanuts, are legumes, in that they are seeds found in pods; when they are dried, they are known as pulses.) Ground into flour, lentils could be made into bread; in Ezekiel 4:9, for instance, lentils are included in a list of grains and pulses (“You must take wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet and spelt”) for the prophet’s penitential bread. More often, however, they were cooked in a pot with water and turned into porridges of the sort that Jacob gave to Esau, likely flavored with onions and garlic and two of the region’s main spices, coriander and cumin. These are dishes that, in one form or another, are still made today in the Middle East. Among the most popular of the lentil porridges is megadarra (also known as mujadarra), an earthy stew of lentils, rice, onions and garlic; in her “New Book of Middle Eastern Food” (Knopf), Claudia Roden notes that in parts of the Middle East, megadarra is referred to as “Esau’s favorite.”

Esau surely would have liked it (what’s not to like?), but I don’t think it would have been his favorite — megadarra is typically made with brown lentils, not red. Closer in color and perhaps also in taste is another porridge, this one called kitchree, a favorite of the Baghdadi Jews of Calcutta. (Elsewhere in India, it is known as kedgeree.) Like megadarra, kitchree is made from lentils, rice, onions and garlic, though it’s a bit more zesty in taste, as it also contains cumin and turmeric. As also was true of megadarra among Middle Eastern Jews, the Jews of Calcutta traditionally ate kitchree on Thursday nights, as part of a lighter dairy meal (yogurt is a favorite topping) served in preparation for the more elaborate Sabbath dinner the following night.

Lentils are more central to the cooking of India than anywhere else in the world, as is evidenced by the fact that dozens of varieties of lentil are grown there, and they come in a broad range of sizes and shades. In most of the world, though, two types predominate: brown and red. Brown lentils are the most common of all, used in soups, stews and purees; they break down readily when cooked and, like other lentils, have an earthy, slightly peppery, vaguely meaty flavor. Red lentils are smaller than brown, and as a result fall apart a bit more quickly when cooked; this makes them especially good in soups, the purpose for which they are used most often — as, for instance, in the red lentil soup known as shorba ads. In Arabic, shorba ads means simply “lentil soup,” which gives some idea of how popular this particular lentil soup is throughout the Middle East. And rightly so — it’s thick and hearty, lentil-earthy, with an added brightness of flavor that comes from fresh lemon juice and ground coriander, which ever since Esau’s time has been known to be a great spice for lentils. Shorba ads is also very easy to make (unlike other pulses, lentils do not require pre-soaking, and cook in hardly any time at all), inexpensive and exceedingly nutritious. It may not be enough to sell your birthright for, but it’s awfully good nonetheless.

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This dish can be made as a stew or, as in this version, as a soup. Rina Marcus of Austin, Texas, learned it from her mother, Julia Picciotto, who immigrated to New York from Aleppo, Syria, in 1921. Says Rina, “I think of this soup as Syrian comfort food. It’s warming and filling and you won’t be able to eat much else afterwards.” In the traditional preparation, the noodles come out very mushy; if you prefer that style, cook the noodles for 45 to 60 minutes, until they’re the way you like them.

Rishta bi Ads (Syrian Brown Lentil and Noodle Soup)

3/4 cup brown lentils

1 tbsp. olive oil

7 cups water

1 1/2 tsp. salt, or to taste

Freshly ground pepper to taste

4 ounces fettuccine or other medium-width noodles, broken in half

1. Place the lentils in a soup pot with the olive oil and water. Cover and bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer until the lentils are nearly tender, about 20 minutes.
2. Add the salt, pepper, and noodles and cook until the lentils and noodles are fully tender. Serve hot.

Serves 4 to 6.

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Soup is shorba in Arabic; most of the time, though, lentil soup is referred to simply as ads, the word for lentils. I make this soup all winter long.

Shorba Ads (Sour Red Lentil Soup)

1 cup red lentils

5 1/2 cups water

1/3 cup flour

Juice of 2 lemons

1 1/2 tsp. salt, or to taste

1 tbsp. olive oil

1 garlic clove, chopped

1 tsp. ground coriander

Ground cumin and cayenne pepper for sprinkling (optional)

1. Place the lentils and 3 cups of the water in a soup pot and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
2. In a medium bowl, mix the flour with a half-cup water to make a smooth paste. Gradually add the remaining 2 cups water, stirring constantly, then add the mixture to the lentils. Add the lemon juice and salt and cook over high heat until the soup comes to a boil. Lower the heat to very low and simmer, partially covered, for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon to scrape the bottom of the pot.
3. Heat the oil in a small skillet over low heat. Add the garlic and cook until golden, about 1 minute, then add the coriander and cook for another minute. Add to the soup, mix thoroughly, and then simmer for another 5 minutes. Taste and adjust for seasoning. Serve hot. If desired, individual bowls of soup can be sprinkled with ground cumin and cayenne pepper.

Serves 4.

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Among the Jews of Calcutta, this simple, very flavorful dish was traditionally served as part of the Thursday-night dairy meal. Most of the community descended from Iraqi Jews (indeed, they are often known as the “Baghdadi Jews of Calcutta”), and eventually kitchree made its way from India back to Iraq, where it also became a Thursday-night favorite.

Kitchree (Red Lentils with Rice)

2 tbsp. vegetable oil

3 garlic cloves, chopped

1 tbsp. tomato paste

1 tbsp. ground cumin

1/4 tbsp. turmeric

1 cup basmati or other long-grain rice, washed well

1/2 cup red lentils

1 tsp. salt, or to taste

Freshly ground pepper to taste

3 cups water

2 to 3 tbsp. butter, in pieces (optional)

Plain yogurt for topping

1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook just until golden. Add the tomato paste, cumin, and turmeric and cook for another minute.
2. Add the rice, lentils, salt, pepper and water. If desired, dot the top with the butter. Cover and bring to a boil, then lower heat and gently simmer, covered, about 30 minutes, until the rice and lentils are very soft. Serve hot. Top each serving with a dollop of yogurt.

Serves 4.

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