I made lentil soup today. It’s a lazy Friday; Horst, our car, is in the shop, so we are trapped in our apartment and remote village for the day. Later it will be cool enough to go for a walk, but for now the day is spent doing laundry, surfing the web, and cooking. Cooking is not something I did a lot of when I was younger, and it’s fun for me to grow this skill while middle-aged.
A couple of weeks ago, we went to our friend’s house to have dinner and watch a movie (Birdman! It was engaging and worthy of all the hype, IMO). He likes to cook foods common from his home country of Pakistan, so our starter was an amazing lentil soup. When I asked for the recipe, he simply said it was lentils, cabbage, and masala powder. I think he was being a little modest in his description of ingredients, but his insistence on its simplicity encouraged me. Last week, a teacher from Trinidad dropped off some Caribbean lentil soup to our flat as a housewarming – when I asked for her recipe she insisted it was easy. So today, inspired by this insistence of ease, I made my own lentil soup using what we had in the kitchen. I guess you would call it Indian-American inspired – or clean out the fridge inspired.
Here’s what I did:
- Sautéed onions, garlic, ginger and fresh turmeric in coconut oil. I love the fact that they have fresh turmeric root here. It looks like ginger root on the outside, and when you cut it open it’s more orange when fresh, as opposed to the yellow powder I am used to buying. It still stains your fingertips the color of daffodils when you chop it up.
- Added chopped red cabbage. More sautéing.
- Added water, a chicken bouillon cube, two tomatoes and a cup of red lentils (Masoor Dahl).
- Added a heaping spoon of sambar powder. The ingredients are “coriander, chili, turmeric, gram dahl, toor dahl, fenugreek, asafetida (the description of this stuff sounds disgusting, but the spice mix sure is good), salt, and curry leaf.” The description on the box says “Sambar Powder is an ethnic spice mix known for its naturally preserved calorific and nutritional value of carefully selected and graded spices that enrich the true taste of traditional quality.” I love horrible, non-senseical translations. The word “calorific” sounds like a word Don King would use if he started hosting diet infomercials. All I know is sambar powder is spicy and delicious. I am going to bring boxes of the stuff back to the US.
- The soup was boiling and the lentils were softening and then Dave said we should add the rest of the celery in the fridge before it went bad, and because he likes crunch in his food. So I dumped it in late in the process. It stayed crunchy.
- Then, because I read about this idea in a few online recipes and figured it was a good idea, I served it with green onion and some lemon juice to add brightness. I liked this idea because a “cold” day here is a nighttime low of 63 F (it was in the 80s when I was cooking the soup); in a colder climate I may or may not follow through with this part.
It tasted pretty good, IMO, which is why I am actually posting a somewhat detailed account of what I made.
I am enjoying cooking more and more since I have been living abroad. When I was younger, I had a reputation of being a horrible cook and generally incompetent in the kitchen. I internalized it and this belief about not being able to put together a decent meal followed me through my early adulthood. I am not sure what made me decide to shake this piece of false identity, but slowly I began to try new dishes. I’m still not great, but adequate. And I am beginning to find peace in the process more and more; I finally appreciate why people say that cooking can be relaxing.
I feel I have more freedom to take chances in the kitchen while abroad, because ingredients are both new and more limited than in the US. There are things I have never seen before (such as fresh turmeric and sambar powder), and I like choosing at least one new thing every time I go to the store and trying it out. At the same time, store shelves aren’t nearly as packed as they are in the US, so picking and choosing new things is easier. I am also comfortable enough to be OK with making mistakes – nothing has turned out completely awful yet, but I have definitely made some less-than-inspiring dishes. We eat them anyway.
I also get to stare at this amazing view from the kitchen window. That helps when I am bawling my eyes out while chopping onions.
I hope my enjoyment of cooking and my comfortable attitude about trying the unknown and making mistakes continues no matter where I am.