I love fall. I love the crisp cool edge that creeps into the mornings. I love the changing colors of the leaves on my Japanese Maple. I love the songs of autumn. If you need a little fall “fix,” here is a great rendition of […]
If you have been reading this blog regularly, you know by now that I have yet to meet a soup that I don’t enjoy. This South Indian lentil and vegetable soup is no exception and always conjures up a wonderful travel memory for me.
I’ll tell you the story.
My husband and I were fortunate to travel widely. India–beautiful, exotic and often exasperating– was one of our favorite destinations.
On one of our trips there, one of our stops was in Madras (now Chennai). We arrived very late at night after a harrowing flight from Calcutta on Indian Airlines. Advertised as an easy two-hour trip, our trip had taken a soul-crushing 10 hours.
Once at our hotel, we wearily arranged to have a room service breakfast and fell into the bed exhausted.
When the breakfast cart was wheeled into our room the next morning, rather than eggs, toast and whatever, our cart carried a steaming tureen of spicy coconut-flecked lentil soup accompanied by pungent steamed rice cakes. There was also a small bowl of a coconut-cilantro-jalapeno chutney that could knock your socks off if this weren’t breakfast and your socks hadn’t been flung into some deep dark corner under the bed.
This was our lucky day! Room service had gotten our breakfast order mixed up,
Any moral dilemma we might have entertained about eating another guest’s breakfast quickly evaporated as the aroma of the lentil soup filled our room and our imaginations. It wasn’t our place to tell anyone. Right? Right.
As the room service waiter served our breakfast, he ladled the spicy soup over the steamed rice cakes and then offered the bowl of chutney as a condiment. Dixon and I exchanged conspiratorial glances. Clearly, we weren’t in Kansas anymore–not even Delhi. Foodie paradise. That’s where we were.
Later, we learned that our breakfast entree was called idli (the rice cakes) and sambar (the stew-like soup) and was a widely-loved breakfast in India’s steamy south. There were even restaurants, like The New Woodlands in Madras, that specialized in making the “lighter than a pavlova” rice cakes that accompany this tasty lentil soup.
Here is a stock photo from the Internet of what an idli looks like. White. Pillowy. Wonderful.
Later that week, we were driven farther south towards Tiruchirappalli and on to Cochin in what was then India’s version of the Model T car, the ambassador.
The ambassador car is a story in itself. In India’s controlled economy before the 1990s, the ambassador was pretty much the only car you saw on the road.
In production by Hindustan Motors from 1958 until 2014, the ambassador’s design was based on the British Morris Oxford car. The simplicity of the design appealed to India’s fledgling auto industry so much that they kept the car pretty much the same over the fifty-six years it was produced. The car you bought in 1958 looked pretty much the same as the car you bought in 2014.
Although it’s repair record was appalling, there were waiting lists to buy the car that stretched to as much as eight years. Inevitably, jokes abounded about the car: “The only thing that doesn’t make a sound in an Ambassador is the horn!”
The car understandably insinuated itself into popular Indian literature, too. For example, H.R.F. Keating, in his wonderful Inspector Ghote series, always has the rumpled Bombay detective tooling around in a beat up ambassador. I’ve always wondered which came first–Inspector Ghote or Peter Falk’s Colombo.
During the remainder of our stay in South India, we made a point of ordering any number of variations on that first revelatory bowl of idli and sambar. Some sambars were more spicy hot. Some had more vegetables. Some idlis had cashews and spices embedded in them like jewels. It was all good.
Once, when we asked our driver to stop and let us out to walk and take photographs of the rice paddy-strewn countryside, a group of workers in the rice fields engaged him in an animated conversation.There was a lot of pointing and gesturing and giggling. Obviously, they were talking about us. When I asked Krishna, our driver, about the conversation, he told me that the workers wanted to know what we ate for breakfast. Was it rice, they asked hopefully…rice with sambar? By then, we could honestly say (through our guide) that we did indeed have sambar and rice for breakfast and enjoyed it very much. Our answer brought smiles and nods of approval all around.
I’ve always remembered that day. On that bright Indian morning, on the edge of a rice paddy and seemingly in the middle of nowhere, the workers in that rice field had felt a need to find some small human connection with the foreign strangers in the ambassador. And then, there it was. We ate the same breakfast–a bowl of hot soup and a rice cake.
I can’t help but wonder whether, in the fractured and often violent world in which we increasingly find ourselves, we might benefit from a shift in focus away from the things that separate us to the things that we enjoy in common, however small.
I found this recipe many years ago in a magazine left behind on a table in an Artesia, California, Indian restaurant. The magazine is called India Currents.
Recipe: Broccoli-Cauliflower Sambar
1 1/2 C. cauliflower florets
1 1/2 C. broccoli florets
1-2 C. chopped Tomatoes
2-3 C. water
3 C. cooked pink lentils
1 T. fresh or frozen grated coconut (unsweetened and optional)
1 T. sambar powder
2 t. ground coriander
1/2-1 C. coconut milk
Herb-spice infused oil topping
1 1/2 T. mild oil
1/2 t. black mustard seeds
10 fresh kari leaves (optional)
1/4 C. chopped onion
1/8 t. turmeric
Put cauliflower florets, broccoli florets, chopped tomatoes, and lentils in a large soup pot. Add water, optional coconut, sambar powder and 1/8 t. pepper. Stir to mix and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 10-12 minutes. Stir in coconut milk. Cook until hot for 4-5 additional minutes and then turn heat off.
Put mild oil in a skillet. When the oil is hot, add black mustard seeds and cook until mustard seeds begin to pop. Be careful here, although the mustard seeds are small, they can burn if they pop out of the pan and land on your skin. Add the kari leaves (optional). Stir in the onion and turmeric. Cook until onion just begins to brown. This should take about four minutes. Remove pan from heat and add the oil mixture to your soup. Stir. Garnish with chopped cilantro and chopped tomatoes.
Cook’s Notes: Sambar powder and kari leaves are available in Indian markets. Indian markets also carry many idli mixes. Gits brand is a good one. There is a special idli steamer that Indians use to make the rice cakes but I’ve found that my egg poacher does just fine. If you live in Southern California, there are a few South Indian restaurants in Artesia’s Little India. You can get very good idli and sambar at Udipi Palace located at 18635 Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia.
I will post a recipe for coconut chutney soon.
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I’ve been making this soup for more than twenty years and it is still one of my favorites. Few things are more comforting than a steaming bowl of this lentil soup on a blustery cold day–like today, for example.
This is a pretty soup, too. Look at those beautiful chunks of carrot, celery, and tomato! What is even better is that lentils also are good for us. Rich in fiber and protein, lentils have the second highest ratio of protein to calories after soybeans.
There are many types and colors of lentils. This soup recipe introduced me to orange lentils and these delicate, fast-cooking lentils have become an important ingredient in my cooking ever since. Sometimes I just throw a handful of orange lentils into the soup pot with other vegetable soups. It gives the soups an extra boost of protein and flavor and thickens the broth.
Grown mostly in Turkey, India and Canada, lentils are the seed of a small shrub. Orange lentils, my personal favorite, have a mild flavor, don’t need to be soaked, cook up quickly (usually in an hour or less) and are increasingly available in mainstream supermarkets. If you live near an Indian community as I do with Little India in Artesia, you can buy large bags of beautiful orange lentils at a very reasonable price. On the other hand, many health food stores, like Huntington Beach’s Mother’s Market, carry organic orange lentils.
Don’t take my word for the greatness of lentils. People have been eating (and enjoying) lentils for a very long time. Food historian Harold McGee, in On Food and Cooking, writes that lentils are probably the world’s oldest cultivated legume with archeological digs finding evidence that the first lentils were consumed in Central Asia somewhere between 9,000 to 13,000 years ago. Throughout history, lentils have captured the attention of cooks. Lentils have been discovered in Egyptian tombs. They were glorified by Greek playwright Aristophanes who labeled them “the sweetest of delicacies,” and their unadorned consumption was mandated by the French Revolution’s Robespierre who characterized their consumption as an act of patriotism. (By the way, Robespierre got a whole lot of stuff wrong and lost his head in the process. Don’t let his churlish dictates cause you to pass up the opportunity to prepare lentils with a glorious abundance of spice and an array of complementary ingredients.)
I can’t credit the original source of this recipe. All I have is a hand-written recipe in my cooking notebook with an enthusiastic notation: “This is excellent!” I do remember that the original recipe did not contain tomatoes, but, over the years, I’ve become very fond of this soup with the addition of diced tomatoes.
Recipe: Egyptian Lentil Soup
4 T. butter or olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 stalks celery (with leafy tops), chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 t. whole cumin seeds
1 1/2 C. orange lentils
8 C. water or vegetable broth
1 15 oz. can of diced tomatoes (or equivalent of fresh tomatoes in season)
Salt and pepper to taste
Juice of 1/2 to 1 lemon
Melt butter in a soup pot (or heat olive oil). Saute onion, celery and carrot until the vegetables begin to soften. Add 1 t. whole cumin to the vegetables as they saute. Add lentils, water or stock and diced tomatoes. Simmer covered for one to one and a half hours. Season with lemon, salt and pepper. Serve and enjoy. Garnish with chopped parsley or chopped cilantro.
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Perhaps I should have named this blog Soup’s On. I have posted a lot of soup recipes in this blog’s infancy. I confess that I always have been fascinated with the chemistry of soup. When the recipe is right, the flavors meld in an amazing way.
In any event, it is getting colder. What could be better to soothe your psyche on a cold day than a steaming bowl of soup? Add spice to that soup and you are in heaven. Add a glass of red wine…
This is a tortilla soup that caught my fancy. The original recipe came from a wonderful site called The Curvy Carrot. Here is my adaptation of their recipe.
Recipe: Vegetable Tortilla Soup
2 C. grape tomatoes, sliced lengthwise
1 T. extra virgin olive oil
Pinch of Salt
Directions for Roasted Tomatoes
Slice tomatoes lengthwise an toss with olive oil and salt. Roast in a shallow pan at 350 degrees F. for 35-40 minutes.
1 generous T. extra-virgin olive oil
4 minced cloves of garlic
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 t. ground cumin
2 t. ground coriander
1 t. ground chipotle pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 can (14 ounce) crushed fire-roasted tomatoes
6 C. vegetable broth
Salt to your taste
Heat olive oil and saute garlic and onion until softened. Add ground cumin, ground coriander, ground chipotle pepper, and cayenne and stir. Add fire-roasted tomatoes. Stir again. Cook for 3 minutes. Remove from heat and add one cup broth. Using an immersion blender or regular blender, puree mixture until smooth. Add remaining five cups of broth and puree again. Return soup to medium heat and cook for 10-15 minutes. Mix in roasted tomatoes. Add salt to your taste.
Serve the soup garnished with a dollop of sour cream, sliced avocado, tortilla strips, and whatever else catches your fancy. I added chopped tomato, a slice of lime, chopped jalapeno, a few radish slices, and a few kernels of corn at the last moment. The soup was perfect to my taste and beautiful at the same time.
Here is the link to the original recipe on The Curvy Carrot site:
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