How to make lentil soup: The perfect dish to warm your soul
Lentil soup is a dish you can find in most countries around the world, from Scotland to China. But few places hold it in such high regard as in the Middle East, where it's known as shorbat adas.
The history of the lentil goes back to the dawn of civilisation and, as a result, the region takes pride in being home to so many varieties of this humble dish.
Middle Eastern lentil soup is made by boiling split red (or yellow) lentils until softened and tender. They're usually cooked with a combination of different vegetables or meat and are spiced accordingly to the taste of each country. Decades of trade with East Africa influenced Gulf flavours by adding spices like cloves and whole dried limes into their cuisine, whereas Iraq and the Levant (Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon) take inspiration from the Indian subcontinent, using spices such as turmeric and cumin.
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It’s mostly served during Ramadan as an appetiser and to prepare the stomach for a large meal after a day of fasting, but it’s also a favourite in winter due to its warming, nourishing flavours and satisfying texture. The soup is also a favourite among Christian communities in the region, many of whom fast and adhere to a vegan diet for many days throughout the year.
Recipes will vary from one household to the next, but the concept of it is very simple. First a stew is made using an assortment of fresh vegetables and lentils. When the lentils are soft and tender they are blended into the broth with the vegetables until a smooth and creamy soup forms. Fried vermicelli or fried bread croutons are then added to the soup to give some textural contrast.
Makes: 4-6 main meal size servings or 6-8 appetiser servings
Preparation and cooking time: 1 hour
- 1.25L vegetable stock (you can also use chicken, meat or water. Or a good-quality stock cube)
- 250g (1/2 lb) red split lentils
- 150g (5 1/4 oz) carrots (about 1 large or 2 medium)
- 1 brown onion
- 1 tomato
- 4-6 garlic cloves
- 1/2 cup short wheat vermicelli
- 3 tbsp white vinegar
- 1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
- 1/2 tsp ground black pepper
- 1/4 tsp chilli powder (cayenne or leave it out if you don’t like it too spicy)
- Peel and slice your carrots into large chunks about 1 cm or 1/2 an inch thick
- Peel your onion, remove the root and top and slice into quarters
- Wash your tomato and slice into quarters, the skin will be removed later on once boiled as it’s a lot easier
- Peel your garlic cloves, mince 2 of them and set aside, the rest should be crushed slightly with your hand until they have just broken open
- Add your chopped vegetables, the lentils and crushed garlic to a large stock pot
- Add your stock or water to the pot as well as 1 teaspoon of cumin, turn the heat up to high and bring the pot to a boil
- When the pot boils, retrieve the tomato quarters and peel their skin, then add them back to the pot
- Turn the heat down to low and allow the soup to simmer for 45 minutes. When done simmering, the carrots should be cooked through and the lentils should be swollen and mushy
Blend and season
- Using a hand or stand blender (be careful when blending hot liquids), blend the soup and all the vegetable pieces into a uniformly smooth mixture. Once blended it will have a creamy texture. Remove the soup from the heat and set aside
- In a small pot add 1/2 a tbsp of olive oil on medium high heat and add the 2 minced garlic cloves
- Fry the garlic for about 30 seconds then add the remaining cumin
- Fry the garlic and cumin for another 15 seconds then add the vinegar
- Mix and fry for 15 more seconds and pour the garlic mixture into the lentil soup
- Add salt, pepper and chilli powder then mix the soup well. Taste your soup and check for seasoning. You may need to add another 1/2 tsp of salt if your stock is low in sodium, or add more chilli powder if you'd like it spicier
- In a pot add the remaining olive oil and the vermicelli and fry on medium high heat until it turns a golden colour. Stir constantly as it can burn easily
- Add the fried vermicelli to the soup as well as 1 cup of water to thin the soup out. Bring the pot to a boil once more and allow the vermicelli to cook for 10 minutes
- When the time is up, your soup is ready. The vermicelli will have absorbed some water from the soup, so add more water to thin it out. It should be able to coat the back of a spoon without running, similar to the consistency of cooking cream (or if you prefer to have your soup a little thinner just add a touch more water)
- Serve in a bowl and garnish with coriander, thin slices of chilli and nigella seeds
- Tip: If you'd like to go a step further, you can make some fried bread croutons, which will add a nice textural crunch to the soup. Just slice some pitta or Lebanese bread into small pieces, then deep fry for 30-60 seconds until golden brown, remove them from the oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. They're perfect for adding to soups or salads
You can watch the full step-by-step video here:
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This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.
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