Some of my earliest memories as a child take place on food tours of
Chicago. A given excursion might take me from buying mangoes and
ten-pound sacks of basmati rice on Devon to eating the city’s best
chicken koubideh in Andersonville and then finishing up the evening
with a quick swing by Taylor Street for Italian ice. And while
these tours weren’t formal—in fact, they were mandatory and led by two
bickering parents cruising in a Subaru station wagon—they are really the root of my interest in food and culture. And of course, why I now give food tours in Chicago.
One of my family’s major hotspots in Chicago was always Reza’s, a Persian restaurant in Andersonville, and not just because we were for some reason treated like royalty by the Indian maitre d’. While my family certainly craved Reza’s chicken koubideh and the aromatic dill rice, the first course of an herbaceous lentil soup is what made us go truly bananas. It was healthy and light, but also hearty and filling, with a tangy depth of flavor. Even to this day, my sister/roommate/hero/Game of Thrones-watching partner and I have mastered the mathematical acrobatics necessary to exactly meet the minimum delivery requirement for Reza’s to get this soup delivered when we aren’t feeling well.
My mom spent a good part of my childhood trying to perfectly recreate this soup at home with sumac, a dried, ground, sour berry used in Middle Eastern cooking. With this recipe, I’ve continued her good work with the discovery of black lime, another spice common in this region’s cuisine. Black limes are basically salted, boiled, and sun-dried limes, and they impart a hard-to-match sourness to balance other flavors in a dish. Now, yes, I realize you probably don’t have either of these spices on hand, but I strongly recommend seeking them out to add to your pantry, as you’ll likely find many uses for them, adding a brightness to otherwise flat dishes. I picked up a huge bag of black limes at a Persian grocery store in Chicago for under $3. You can also find them online from LA’s Spice Station. Just make sure to poke a couple holes in them before cooking to make sure the flavors fully infuse. Sumac is easier to find in stores, but it is also available online.
The other characteristic quality of this soup comes from bucketloads of dried herbs, added at the beginning of cooking. I’m the unofficial ninja master of my local grocery store’s bulk section, so I snatch up dried herbs for pennies, but you can also substitute handfuls of fresh herbs, finely chopped, if that’s more convenient. Just be sure to add them at the beginning of cooking as well to ensure the right final consistency.
Now that the weather is getting cooler, you can skip the delivery charge and warm up with this unique homemade soup. Because winter is coming.
1 onion, chopped
3 carrots, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
2 celery stalks, sliced 1/4-inch thick
1/3 cup red lentils, rinsed
1/3 cup beluga lentils, rinsed
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon paprika
1/4 cup dried parsley
1/4 cup dried dill
2 tablespoons dried mint
1 or 2 black limes, poked with a knife
1 tablespoon sumac
about 6 cups water
1 28-ounce can chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1. In a large pot, heat up oil and saute onion, carrots and celery until soft, about 8 minutes.
2. Add red lentils, beluga lentils, turmeric paprika, dried, parsley, dried dill, and dried mint, black limes and sumac. Stir to combine. Add enough water to cover and so that the lentils have something to absorb, about 6 cups.
3. Once the lentils are fully cooked, about 15 – 20 minutes, add the chopped tomatoes and salt. Let simmer an additional 10 minutes, then taste for freshness (add more herbs), tartness (add more sumac) and seasoning (add more salt).