There are some places on the planet that are havens for vegetarians, and Turkey – in spite of its sizzling kebabs, stews and shaved meats – is one of those places. Fresh vegetables, yoghurts, cheeses, pulses and grains form the basis of many great Turkish dishes, and perhaps one of the best known of these is Turkish lentil soup.
I ate lentil soup all over Turkey – the good and the bad – and had a particularly memorable one in Goreme, in the Cappadocia region. But perhaps the best version I have ever had was at the Restaurant Su, a Turkish restaurant in Montreal, during a recent trip. Pale, creamy and fragrant, it was generously drizzled with paprika-infused butter and served with a juicy wedge of lemon, and I revelled in the delicious simplicity of a soup that transported me to a street-side bistro in Istanbul.
There are actually a number of different lentil soups in Turkey, and I had been making a version with tomato, bulgur and mint for a few years. But there was something light and delicate about the flavours of this simpler version – known as mercimek çorbasi – that I wanted to re-create. You can find a million recipes on the internet, and some strike me as rather bland, while others seem a bit to0 complex for what it should be. This recipe follows a pretty standard method, although I have added a few flavours that are common to most Turkish soups.
A couple of pointers on the ingredients. The soup is only as good as the ingredients you use. Sadly – for the strict vegetarians out there – I actually find the flavour more authentic when made with chicken stock over vegetable, but vegetable stock will suffice. (I use Pacific foods organic chicken stock in mine). Also, the mint must be dried in this one – do not use fresh mint leaves. Dried mint imparts a flavour that is very different from fresh mint. Finally, use a good quality paprika. I use Turkish paprika, but if you don’t have access to this, use a good quality Hungarian paprika. Whatever you do, do not use margarine or vegetable oil. Butter is essential for the drizzle at the end, and I find that butter used to fry the onions leaves a very delicious taste. But if you don’t want to use butter, substitute only olive oil. This soup goes so well with a crusty olive bread or a chunk of baguette to sop up the last drops in the bottom of your bowl. Enjoy it with feta cheese, fresh tomatoes and olives on the side for a full Turkish-style lunch.
Ingredients (serves 4-6)
Olive oil or butter
1 onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 medium potato, chopped (most recipes use more for that classic pale colour and creamy texture after blending, but I am trying to keep the carbs lower in mine)
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 cup red lentils, washed and picked over
1 litre chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 tbsp dried mint
For topping: 2 tbsp butter, 1 tsp paprika, 1 tsp dried mint, sumac (optional)
Heat butter (preferably) or olive oil in a large pot and then add onion and garlic and fry gently for 2 minutes. Add the cumin seeds, carrot and potato and continue to fry for another minute or two. Add the tomato paste and stir until it is coating the vegetables. Pour in the stock with the lentils and bring to a boil. When potato, lentils and carrots are soft, after about 20 minutes at a light boil, allow the soup to cool slightly and then puree it in batches using a blender. Return the soup to the pot and add mint and the juice of 1/4 – 1/2 lemon (start with less, and then taste and add until you are satisfied with the results). Just before serving, melt the butter for the topping and add the paprika and mint, swirling it around for a few seconds until blended. If it’s too thick to drizzle, add more butter or olive oil. Pour the soup into bowls and then drizzle with about a teaspoon of the butter-paprika mixture. Optionally, you can add some dried sumac or aleppo pepper on top, as well. Serve with a chunk of lemon and be transported to the Mediterranean!