Curried lentil soup, rich with the heady scent of toasted cardamom, coriander and fenugreek, moves from the humble to the extraordinary. I don’t often cook curries, not that I dislike them: far from it, I love curry; it’s just that I find more easy inspiration in culinary herbs from the kitchen garden (many of which have medicinal uses) and for get the exotic spices that perfume dishes like this curried lentil soup. It’s an uplifting perfume but sexy and earthy, too, ginger and shallots cook in grass-fed ghee or clarified butter, an ingredient essential in classical Indian cuisine, that offers the dual value of being one of the most nutrient-dense fats to any home cook. It’s brimming with vitamin A, vitamin K2 and conjugated linoleic acid. You can make ghee at home or, if you’re like me, you’d just purchase it online from an artisanal producer (see sources).
Making a good lentil soup is a slow process, as any good soup should be and it first begins with soaking the pulses for ten to twelve hours in warm water into which whey, yogurt or another acid has been added. This traditional process that our great-great-grandmothers knew well is all but forgotten today. A shame, really, for soaking legumes first for this curried lentil soup or for other dishes requiring their use effects three primary goals: 1) it increases the digestibility of legumes by neutralizing enzyme inhibitors that make digesting the proteins found in legumes difficult; 2) it liberates the plentiful minerals bound up in legumes by degrading the antinutrient phytic acid, and 3) soaked legumes typically cook more quickly and more thoroughly than those that have not been soaked. Thus in one traditional practice, you’ve effectively increased the nutrients available to your body from legumes like lentils, peas and beans. It’s a simple tradition, as it should be, but powerful and beautiful too.
Curried lentil soup would be nothing but for its spices. Where a good stock is essential in preparing other soups (like miso soup with clams), the combination of ethereal spices is essential in this dish – which is, of course, not to say that a good stock plays no role in the success or failure of curried lentil soup (it does, and I recommend a fresh chicken broth or an Asian-inspired chicken foot stock for this soup), but, more aptly, it’s the toasted cardamom, cumin, fenugreek and coriander that truly elevate this humble pot of pureed lentils and split peas into something deservedly special.
As you toast the spices in a hot skillet, they begin to release their fragrance, but it’s upon crushing them that they blossom with perfume, erupting in clouds of fragrance: the maple-like scent of fenugreek, the sharp and green odor of cardamom all subdued by the earthiness of cumin and coriander. And as those clouds of perfume waft from your mortar, you can’t but help to become more involved in your cooking. No longer are you simply making a meal to feed your family; rather, you’re moved by the fragrance, by the celebration of flavor.
- 1½ cups yellow split peas
- ½ cup red lentils
- 2 tsp yogurt, kefir, whey, lemon juice or vinegar
- 1 tsp coriander seed
- 1 tsp cumin seed
- 1 tsp fenugreek seed
- 6 cardamom pods
- 2 tbsp ghee/clarified butter
- 2 shallots, (peeled and sliced thin)
- ½ inch knob ginger, (peeled and finely minced)
- 1 tsp curry powder
- ¼ tsp powdered cayenne pepper
- 2 quarts homemade chicken stock
- 1 tsp fish sauce
- 1 cup raisins
- 2 cups full-fat coconut milk
- yogurt, cilantro and fresh lime, (to serve)
- Pour yellow split peas and red lentils into a mixing bowl with two tablespoons yogurt, kefir, whey, lemon juice or vinegar and cover with hot water by two inches. Allow the lentils and split peas to soak for ten to twelve hours, then drain them and rinse them thoroughly.
- Heat a cast-iron skillet over a moderately high flame until hot, then toss in coriander, cumin, fenugreek and cardamom seeds, stirring constantly until well-toasted, about two minutes. Remove the toasted spices from the skillet and crush by hand with a mortar and pestle or grind in a spice grinder. Melt ghee in a heavy-bottomed stock pot over a moderate flame, then toss in shallots and ginger, frying until fragrant – about three to four minutes. Stir in toasted spices, curry powder and cayenne pepper, and continue cooking for another minute or two.
- Pour soaked, rinsed and drained lentils and split peas into the pot with chicken stock and fish sauce. Reduce the heat and simmer the soup until the lentils and split peas are cooked through, about forty-five minutes.
- Puree the soup with an immersion blender or run it through a foodmill, then stir in coconut milk and raisins and continue simmering about ten minutes.
- Serve with yogurt, cilantro and fresh lime.