The Transcendental Lentil – Love Your Lentils

“The great peasant staple spans the globe.”


“Love” a lentil dish daily for your chance to win a trip to beautiful Prince Edward Island to meet with celebrity Chef Michael Smith during Food Day Canada! LOVE YOUR LENTILS


First published in EAT 2011

Last year, at a popular restaurant in Rotterdam, we ate a terrine of pig head—tongue, snout, ears, cheeks—which was much better than it sounds. But, as important, it arrived atop a bed of tiny black lentils.


“From France?” my wife asked, adding that the lentils were better even than the celebrated Puy. “No,” replied the chef. “They’re beluga lentils, like the caviar, and they come from Canada.”


Indeed. From Watson, Saskatchewan’s Willow Creek Organic Grain Co. Because of their size, firmness and glossy skin, they resemble beluga caviar. Their flavour is earthy and delicate. And they’re sold in Victoria at Fairway Markets for the bargain price of $5.99 per 800-gram bag. They’re also available at Choux Choux Charcuterie


The humble lentil has always surprised us. It’s more than the miracle bean du jour. In Provence, green lentils are de rigueur with roast duck. Cutting-edge chefs are dishing up the legume in all its colours—green, red, black, yellow—to diners who barely know lentils from lintels. Oh, that I should be lucky enough to come across foie gras with smoked lentils again.


The lentil is, of course, a grenade of healthy properties: it fairly bursts with protein, carbohydrates, phosphorus, iron and vitamin B. People who eat for health have long understood this: if we eat lentils to stay healthy, healthiness keeps us fit to eat more lentils.


The granddaddy of legumes, it has been cultivated for an estimated 13,000 years. It may have originated in northern Iraq, where carbon dating goes back to 6750 B.C. India claims it as its own but can’t prove it. History’s ancients—Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks—gobbled it up. Archaeologists found a lentil puree in a 4,000-year-old tomb at Thebes, a little something for the afterlife.


Hippocrates recommended lentils served with slices of boiled dog for liver ailments. At the same time, he shunned them as “rough, creating gluey blood which stops up the liver, creates melancholia, fourth-day shivers and heavy dreams, and dulls the vision and the strength of the brain.” Oh, dear.


Americans have traditionally run from lentils, probably because of their reputation for putting the gas in gastronomy and prompting inadvertent displays of levitation.


Historically, a number of writers, starting with the Roman Catholic Saint Jerome, had detected in this flatulence certain erotic properties. This explains Herodotus’s observation that Egyptian priests sworn to celibacy were forbidden even to look at beans.


India remains the world’s most avid consumer of lentils. In the desert country of Rajasthan, I’ve eaten with dirt-poor villagers who, with a handful of lentils, rice and spices, turned out a lunch to shame anything eaten by the highest-born pukka sahib.


In Mother India’s kitchen, the lentil struts its stuff in a vast range of dishes from rasam, the clear Indian soup, to the famous dhals, those richly spiced stews that accompany almost every meal.


In Canadian cities, Indian markets display heaping bins of lentils. Masoor dhal or peeled red lentils, known as Egyptian lentils in the Middle East, turn yellow during cooking and are the base for most everyday dhals. Chinese or brown lentils turn to mush on the stove. Green Puy lentils grown in France hold their shape and boast a distinct peppery flavour. A star in our kitchen is the sensationally rich dhal makhani made from black lentils and indecent amounts of butter and cream.


The great peasant staple spans the globe. Italians regard it as good-luck fare and serve it with pork sausages and pig trotters—pork and beans with gusto—at New Year’s in Rome. A thick lentil stew seasoned with coriander, garlic and onion ranks as a gastronomic high in the mountains of Yemen. Moroccans turn out a lentil salad spiked with coriander, garlic, oregano and cumin.


Closer to home, Oregon may have its truffle festival, but Pullman, Washington, hosts the National Lentil Festival in late summer. Lentil chili is served free, and events include a lentil cook-off and a lentil pancake breakfast.


In these glum winter months, which come without a single holiday, what do we have to look forward to? Why, Valentine’s Day, a once-lusty pagan festival dressed down in Christian threads. My wife and I will celebrate with duck, a juicy, crispy-skinned confit de canard. And with it, the prized belugas. My wife may turn out a ragout flavoured with garlic and salt pork or lentils braised in wine. I’ll be looking for love either way.


– By Jeremy Ferguson


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