Sometimes a certain dish or ingredient or aroma can trigger a memory:
Food is powerful that way.
After Maggie and I made her south Louisiana red lentil soup, it set me thinking—people all over the world eat these delicious little discs, and in so many different ways.
I recalled how my daughter reported making, with great relish, a simple, spicy, and fortifying red lentil soup when she lived in Bahar Dar, Ethiopia.
In 2006, Madeleine spent four months in this lakeshore town doing her public health internship for the Amharic Development Association (ADA.) She found cooking at home to be a necessary, but daunting prospect.
Her ADA-provided house, located in the faranji (foreigners) neighborhood, appealed at first glance: a cream and periwinkle concrete bungalow in a yard of flowering bushes and a producing lime tree. Its charming garden and cheerful exterior belied its beyond-Spartan furnishings.
The kitchen was outfitted with a library desk, a hot plate, and nothing more. A bare faucet jutted out of the living room wall, around which, at her coaxing, the landlord clumsily hung a long, shallow sink. The refrigerator was absent, a promise never delivered.
“Everything about eating is hard,” she wrote me. “To eat chicken, you must buy a live chicken from the market, take it home, slaughter it and clean it. The onions that I bought on Saturday have already rotted. Tonight I had oatmeal.”
A daughter’s struggles with the very basics of living are the sorts of things that make a mother toss and turn at night —especially when there’s ends-of-the-earth distance involved. So I was ecstatic to learn that she’d found a nutritious dish easily made in such austere conditions. And it tasted good!
There’s precious little required: the lentils themselves, garlic, onions, dried spices, tomatoes, water. And that precious little was accessible to her. Even then, the lentils had to be painstakingly sorted— rocks the same size and color were in the mix. That accomplished, a satisfying meal was just thirty minutes away.
I got to experience “the kitchen” firsthand. As her internship was winding up, Bill and I made the long journey to visit her and this land of extremes. Before embarking on our family adventure south to Omo Valley, we spent a week in Bahar Dar and often cooked meals in her home.
A rough and wide dirt road leading to her ‘hood was lined with assorted vendor stands and shops selling everything from coffeebeans to phonecards, the air laced with dust, spice, smoke from wood-burning ovens. On our walk to her house, we would stop at a favored store to buy water and produce for dinner.
Everything was so small–golf ball sized onions and plum tomatoes, avocados that were mostly pit. Once home, I enjoyed selecting large ripe limes from the garden tree: a squeeze in the mesir wat —vegetarian lentil stew— added brightness.
There’s a real pleasure in living so immediately, using what little you have at hand to make a good meal for yourself.
I’m grateful that it’s a pleasure whose challenge I don’t have to face daily.
Ah, Spice, smoke, dust: some Bahar Dar memories conjured up in a spoonful of thick red lentil soup.
Cooking the spices–”blooming”– in the oil, followed by lightly toasting the lentils before adding liquid brings depth of flavor to the soup.
Northern Ethiopia Style Red Lentil Soup
2 T. Olive Oil
1 t. Turmeric
1 t. Coriander
½ t. Cumin
½ t. Salt
¼ t. Red Pepper Flakes
1 medium Onion, small dice
2 cloves Garlic, minced
1 cup Red Lentils, rinsed
2 cups Water or 1 cup Vegetable Broth, 1 cup water
2 cups diced Tomatoes and juice
1-2 Bay Leaf
Lime juice, plain yogurt
Heat a 2-3 qt. saucepan (using medium heat), and add the olive oil. Stir in spices and allow them to “bloom” in the oil. Add onions and garlic, and stir so that all the pieces are well coated with oil and spice. Sauté until translucent, 3-5 minutes. Stir in lentils and cook for another 5 minutes, allowing the lentils to gently toast. Add vegetable broth, water, diced tomatoes and juice. Stir well. Add Bay leaves. Cover and simmer for 25 minutes. Stir occasionally. The lentils will break down and thicken. Thin with additional water or broth.
Taste and adjust for seasonings.
Garnish with a dollop of plain yogurt, a few sprigs of fresh cilantro, and a squeeze of fresh lime, if desired.
Delicious also served over a bed of rice.
In Ethiopia, one would serve injera–the large spongey pancake made from fermented teff. Lacking said grain, I took Maggie’s recipe for Skillet Buttermilk Cornbread and made corn cakes!
Buttermilk Corn Cakes
1 cup Plain White Corn Meal
1/3 cup Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 t. Salt
¼ t. Pepper
1 T. Sugar
½ t. Baking Soda
1 ½ cups Buttermilk
4 T. Vegetable Oil
Measure all the dry ingredients and whisk together in a bowl. Make a well in the dry mix, break in the egg, pour in the buttermilk and vegetable oil. Stir together–so that the batter is well mixed, but do not overbeat. There may be lumps, and that’s okay. Heat a skillet; when it’s sizzly-hot, ladle in the batter.
Flip after about one minute (you’ll see the edges brown and bubbles coming up through the center)
Repeat until you have used all the batter. If it gets too thick, you can thin it with a little buttermilk.