Taste of the Middle East

Almost fourteen hundred years ago, Arabs discovered lemons in India and Persia and fell in love with their fragrance and flavor. The Persian limoo became the Arabic laimun, and every part of the lemon was used, from leaves and wood to flowers, fruit and skin. They shredded fragrant citrus twigs for toothbrushes and extracted essential oil from lemon rinds for soaps and perfumes.

For cooking, the lemons were preserved in brine, sweetened for syrups, candy and lemonade, or used as fresh juice to season meat, chicken or fish.

That passion for lemons remains today, in the classic flavors of Middle Eastern cuisine.

Lemons are an essential flavor of Middle Eastern cooking

Lemons are an essential flavor of Middle Eastern cooking

Claudia Roden, in The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, gives a recipe for a famous vegetarian Lebanese soup called Shorbet Adds bil Hamud, which she translates as “Lemony Spinach and Brown Lentil Soup.”

I’ve made it often as it’s simple, quick and healthy. Lentils and potatoes make it hearty, and barely cooked spinach plus lots of lemon juice give it color and spirit. I sometimes substitute chard or kale for the spinach (and often use less than a pound), cutting the greens and letting them cook briefly in the soup, rather in a separate pot as Roden instructs. Also, sometimes I add a little cumin.

Lemony Lentil Soup

  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 cup large brown or green lentils, washed
  • 2 medium potatoes, diced
  • 2 quarts water or chicken stock
  • 1 pound fresh spinach or frozen leaf spinach, defrosted
  • ¼ cup chopped cilantro
  • Salt and pepper
  • Juice of 1 ½ lemons, or more

In a large pan, sauté the onions until soft and golden. Add the garlic and stir until it begins to color. Add the lentils and potatoes, and the water or stock and simmer for 25 minutes, or until the lentils are tender.

If using fresh spinach, wash the leaves and put them in a pan with the lid on—and only the water that clings to them—over low heat until the leaves collapse into a soft mass. Cut the cooked fresh or defrosted frozen spinach into thin ribbons.

Add the spinach and cilantro to the soup and season with salt and pepper. Stir well and add water, if necessary, if you wish a lighter consistency.

Cook a few minutes more and add lemons to taste (it should be nice and tangy) before serving.

Variation: For an alternative flavoring, fry 4 or 5 crushed garlic cloves in 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil with 2 teaspoons ground coriander until the aroma rises. Stir this sauce, called takelya, into the soup just before serving.

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