In the first of a series exploring traditional Ramadan foods, we find out why brown lentil soup is an iftar essential.
Few things say Ramadan as much as a hearty, comforting bowl of lentil soup. Variations of this quintessential fast-breaker have been enjoyed around the world at iftar time since time immemorial, but nowhere is it as ubiquitous as it is in the Middle East. After all, the origins of lentils can be traced back to this region, even if the Indian subcontinent probably lays claim to be the biggest consumers of lentils, or dal.
Not only is the humble legume one of the most nutritious ingredients around, importantly for Ramadan, it is quick and easy to cook. Many may be used to seeing a creamier, yellow-tinged version of the dish, but brown lentil soup is heartier and much more textured!
Brown lentil soup
According to Dubai-based Palestinian food blogger and culinary artisan Dima Sharif, “The choice of lentil soup back in the day was due to the fact that lentils are among the most widely available pulses everywhere and they lend themselves well to soups in terms of texture, flavor and also being a filling option.”
Typically enhanced with aromatic spices and herbs such as cumin and coriander, it also makes for a delicious, hearty dish. Packed with essential nutrients such as protein, complex carbohydrates, fiber, essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals, lentils are good for aiding digestive and heart health as well as helping to stabilize blood sugar levels – an essential consideration for iftar dishes.
“After a long day fasting, one has to pace the stomach and start with a light meal that nourishes and rehydrates, and takes away the edge of hunger after which people can go to pray before they have the full meal,” she adds. “Habit in this region had it that this light start would usually be a soup following the dates, which are the sunnah break of the fast.”
So embedded into the Ramadan culture is this lentil soup that it was the only thing that helped Sharif overcome her feelings of homesickness during her first Ramadan away from family.
“Lentil soup was the only remedy, making me feel comforted,” she recalls. “I insisted on having it every single day and wouldn’t even try any other soup because at the time when the Athan was called and iftar would begin, I would get so homesick. I’d never experienced that moment without the family being together before, and I didn’t know how emotional the experience was for me… how essential that little gathering on the Iftar table was to me, until I had to do it alone for the first time.
“To date, even if I make another soup, I will always have lentil soup on my menu!”
While there are hundreds of lentil varieties out there, red lentils are the most popularly used for the Ramadan soups. However, here Sharif shares one of her signature recipes for brown lentil soup, or shorbat addas.
• 1 Cup Brown Lentils, washed and drained
• 1 medium onion, chopped finely
• 4 cloves garlic, crushed
• 8 cups chicken broth (or bone broth)
• 1 tsp cumin seeds
• 4 cardamom pods
• 3 cloves
• 4 black peppercorns
• 1 bay leaf
• 2 small cinnamon sticks
• Salt & pepper to taste
• 1 bunch, finely chopped coriander
• A dash of extra virgin olive oil
• Toasted pine nuts, for garnish
1. Heat the oil and add the crushed garlic and chopped onions. Cook until translucent but not browned. Add the washed lentils and stir to mix. Season with salt and black pepper. Pour the broth over and stir, scraping the bottom of pot to deglaze. Add the spices and stir again. Bring to a gentle boil, seal with the lid and cook for 30-40 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, in a small skillet, heat 2 tsp of olive oil in a small frying pan and stir-fry the coriander with 1 clove of finely chopped garlic, only until the coriander is wilted. Add the mixture to the soup and stir well.
3. Serve hot garnished with toasted pine nuts and a wedge of lime, with bread on the side.
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