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  • Food in the 'Hood

    The Lentil: “Poor Man’s Meat”

    The chopped onions were sizzling in olive oil and were ready to be added to the pot of lentils simmering on the stove. I measured out a cup of rice, which I mixed in with the lentils. I seasoned the blend with a couple of tablespoons of black pepper. While waiting for the dish to finish, I cut up onion wedges, which I fried until they browned. I took them out and put them aside.

    In a sauce pan, I began heating Italian whole tomatoes, which I dosed with red pepper. After about 20 minutes, when the rice was cooked and the lentils were still nutty and tender, I took the pot off the flames and ladled out helpings for my wife, Peggy, and myself. I crowned each plate with several spoonfuls of tomato sauce and garnished them with the fried onions.

    I was experimenting, trying to make a variation on koshary, the famed Egyptian street food, which was traditionally vended from hand-painted donkey carts.

    “You have hot dog stand, we have koshary,” an Egyptian cab driver once told me. Unlike mine, the Egyptians fortify their dish with macaroni. The hawkers, who used to concentrate in poor neighborhoods, now also station themselves in booths in commercial districts. They arrange the lentil specialty on china dishes, which, when finished, are “dumped into a bucket of hot water,” Abdullah Hashid, Egyptian-American owner of Astor Mediterranean, the Adams-Morgan eatery, observed.

    During the recent protests at Cairo’s Tarir Square, demonstrators lined up for helpings of koshary prepared in communal kitchens. The origins of the staple remain murky. It began as an Indian meal of rice and lentils called kitchari, some speculate, which English colonials introduced to Egypt in the late 19th century. The Egyptians borrowed the idea and adapted it to their tastes.

    Lentils, often dubbed the “poor man’s meat,” are a simple food that, with a little effort, can be made into a zesty meal. But where did these seeds come from? To appreciate them, one has to journey back thousands of years to a time when pioneering, Neolithic agriculturists tended one of the world’s earliest cultivated plants. The one-foot-tall shrub with violet-striped white flowers is native to the Near East. Planted in the winter, the lentil grows pods with one or two seeds (the commonly eaten part of the plant), which are harvested in the spring and early summer. They thrive in a semi-arid Mediterranean climate and can spring up in rugged, inhospitable soil. The lentil also replenishes the soil with needed nitrogen.

    They were probably first gathered wild, botanists say, in what is now Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. The remains of lentils have been found in the ruins of early farming villages that archaeologists trace to 7000 B.C. Early farmers likely seized on lentils to complement the wheat and barley they were growing. They passed over pods that easily burst and husbanded firmer plants. An agricultural revolution was definitely occurring in the Fertile Crescent. Without realizing it, the villagers had found a combination of foods —- grains and lentils —- that provided complete protein. In cultures short of meat, lentils, peas, and beans were indispensable.

    The lentil, which arrived in Egypt around 4000 B.C., has long been a touchstone of its civilization. Lentils have been uncovered in tombs and in the underground stores of the pyramids. Lentils were presented as offerings to the gods and as gifts to feed the dead. To many observers, Egypt and lentils were synonymous. The “lentils of the Nile . . . cheaper than spelt, dearer than beans,” the Roman poet Martial wrote. “You men of Alexandria have been brought up on lentil food and your entire city is full of lentil dishes,” the Greek writer Athenaeus noted. Bread made from lentils and barley was a basic foodstuff.

    Extolled in the Koran, the legume was also vital to Egypt’s Christian community. Along with ful (the fava bean repast) and other meals made from beans and peas, lentil dishes were heavily consumed by the Copts and other Christian sects during fasting times. A simple dinner of boiled lentils and bread often sufficed.

    In addition, lentils produced material rewards. Egypt became the largest trader of the commodity in the ancient world. One ship left the banks of the Nile with its hold filled with 2,800,000 pounds of lentils destined for Italy, the Roman writer Pliny reports.

    The Semitic neighbors of the Egyptians were also fond of the lentil. To the Hebrew tiller, the seeds were the ultimate nourishment. In the Biblical tale, lentils were a godsend to the famished Esau. He was so desperately hungry that he offered his brother Jacob his inheritance in exchange for “red pottage,” a lentil porridge: “And Jacob said, sell me this day thy birthright. And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me?” (Genesis 25: 29-34)

    The lentil porridge of the Bible is the ancestor of mujadarrah, the Arabic dish known affectionately in the Middle East as the “favorite of Esau.” It is typically a plate of grains (rice or bulgur) mixed with lentils and seasoned with cumin, allspice, and other flavorings. Although food scholar Charles Perry points out that the original medieval creation was not made this way, mujadarrah today comes topped with caramelized onions. Its evocative Arabic name summons up a vivid image — a dish of grains “pockmarked” with legumes.

    Egyptian-raised food writer Claudia Roden remembers her aunt regularly offering guests a plate of specially made megadarra (a version of the lentil dish), pleading, “Excuse the food of the poor!” Her friends ritualistically responded, “Keep your food of kings and give us megadarra everyday.”

    In ancient Greece the common legume had a lowly reputation. “When you cook lentil soup, don’t add perfume,” Jocasta says in the play Phoenician Women. When a Greek acquired wealth and status, he was expected to give up legumes for more refined fare. “Now that he is rich he will no longer eat lentils; formerly when he was poor, he ate what he could get,” Aristophanes wrote.

    Although lentils were plebeian fare, Roman aristocrats esteemed them nonetheless. Guests at funeral banquets were served plates of lentils and salt. To achieve a moderate temper, a lentil diet was necessary, the writer Pliny insisted. Even its preparation required an accomplished hand. “A wise man acts always with reason, and prepares his own lentils himself,” Zeno, Rome’s Eastern emperor, declared. To the early Roman Republicans, the basic pulses symbolized the plain, frugal virtues they wanted to be associated with. The leading Roman families took their names from the common legumes: Lentulus (lentil), Fabius (fava), Piso (pea), Cicero (chickpea).

    The lentil’s Roman name, lens, migrated from Latin into English by a curious route. Apparently one sharp-eyed observer named the optical instrument after this legume because of their similar shape. Edmund Haley (the comet investigator), food historian Ken Albala points out, was the first writer to use the new term in 1693.

    The image of the lentil as unsavory food only fit for the poor was hard to shed. During the Middle Ages, the fearsome bean, it was believed, could bring on nightmares and inflame the stomach. As recently as the late 19th century, cookery writer Ella Kellogg (who married into the cereal family) could pronounce it as “of little value except for soups, purées, toasts and other dishes as require the ejection of the skin. Lentils have a stronger flavor than any other of the other legumes, and their taste is not so generally liked until one has become accustomed to it.”

    Modern culinary experts, food historian Waverly Root observes, have been making a vigorous effort to “rehabilitate” the lentil. Robert Courtine, the food editor of the French newspaper Le Monde was one such missionary. The lentil “merits the consideration of the gourmet,” he wrote. “It is called vulgar. It brings with it a whiff of the boarding school and the barracks, not to say the prison. . . . Nevertheless the true gourmet revels in it . . . at every moment of the meal from lentil soup to lentil salad.”

    The ennobling of the lentil continues. “The lentil moves uptown,” a headline from the January 26, 2005 Los Angeles Times’ food section announced. Featured in the piece were recipes for lentil and duck salad with hazelnut dressing and sole with beluga lentils and rosemary cream.

    Recently, Koshary Street, a new restaurant, has opened in London. The dining room features the Egyptian dish from a recipe conceived by Middle Eastern food writer, Anisa Helou. Soon smart diners everywhere will be able to tuck into a spicy plate of lentils and pasta.

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    Locating Lentils

    Astor Mediterranean (1829 Col. Rd.; 202-745-7495). This Adams Morgan serves up lentil salad and has been known to offer kohsary as a lunch-time special.

    Black Lion Market (3500 14th St., #A; 202-797-0044). The Ethiopian-owned grocery and convenience store sells a variety of lentils, which are a mainstay of tha country’s cuisine, where the Orthodox faithful rely on lentil and other legume-based dishes during fasting times.

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    Joel Denker, a Peace Corp volunteer in Africa many years ago, is the author of Capital Flavors: Exploring Washington's Ethnic Restaurants (1988, Seven Locks Press), which evolved from his series in this newspaper two decades ago, known then as "The Ethnic Bazaar." He is also the author of The World on a Plate: A Tour Through the History of America's Ethnic Cuisine (paperback, 2007 / University of Nebraska Press), in which part of one chapter was drawn from articles that originally had appeared in this space. In addition, he has written about ethnic food for the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Enquirer, Washingtonian, as well as continuing his monthly food column with The InTowner.

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