Asian Comfort Food
By Tim Hazell
Elizabeth, a friend from PEN, suggested that I write a column about nature-based remedies for common colds, during a conversation we had at this year’s Writer’s Conference. The week of February 9, during which the conference took place, coincided with icy gusts of northern wind and plunging temperatures. “La gripa” was making the rounds. I liked the idea and thought of comfort food and hearty vegetarian stews made with legumes as being a good alternative to homeopathic prescriptions (not my area of expertise). Legumes have been part of our diet since Neolithic times and include peas, beans, peanuts, and lentils. Lentil cultivation in the Middle East began as early as 13,000 years ago. They vary in color from yellow to red-orange to green, brown, and black, and size, and are sold in many forms, with or without the skins, whole or split.
Lentils are virtually fat-free. One cup has half the daily recommended amount of fiber, ensuring a healthy weight and heart. The high-fiber and low-fat content of lentils also makes them good candidates for reducing certain cancers. Their high proteins and complex carbohydrates provide substantial energy for sports and active lifestyles.
Lentil recipes are staples throughout south Asia, Africa, and the Arab countries. They provide the base for inexpensive soups in Europe, Mexico, and South America. In Ethiopia, yellow lentils are used to make a gentle stew, one of the first solid foods Ethiopian babies receive.
On the Indian Subcontinent lentil curry is part of the everyday diet, eaten with both rice and roti breads. Dahl, India’s traditional dish of lentils, has countless variations and is every rich man’s and poor man’s delight. This version is an absolute standout from my wife Louise’s comfort food repertoire!
3 tbsp. oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tbsp. chopped fresh ginger root
2 tbsp. curry powder
1 tbsp. cumin seeds
1 tsp. cayenne pepper to taste
4 cups water or chicken broth
1 can 400ml coconut milk
Salt to taste
Juice of one lime
1-1/2 cups lentils
2 or 3 handfuls of chopped spinach or kale (optional)
2 tbsp. oil
1/2 cup chopped onion
4—5 cloves garlic, sliced
1/2 cup chopped fresh coriander leaves
Heat 3 tbsp. oil in an large saucepan and add the sliced onions. Cook to wilt, then add the garlic, ginger, curry powder, cumin seeds, and cayenne. Cook gently, stirring often, for about 2 minutes. Add the broth, coconut milk, salt to taste, and lime juice. Add lentils and bring to the boil. Lower heat and simmer about 50 minutes or until lentils are very tender, stirring occasionally. If using spinach, add now. Heat remaining 2 tbsp. oil in another saucepan. Add the chopped onion and garlic. Cook, stirring until the onions and garlic have browned. Add this mixture, called a “tadka,” including the oil, to the lentils. Sprinkle with chopped coriander leaves and serve hot.