Writers Who Cook: Lentil Soup Empowerment with Chris L. Terry
In uncertain times, it can be comforting to honor the rituals that have nourished and grounded us over the years. And with so many people cooking at home these days, we thought we’d ask some of the writers in our communities to share favorite recipes and the stories behind them. We hope these recipes provide you with some inspiration, comfort, and company in your own home kitchen. If you’re a writer who cooks and would like to be featured in our series, please reach out to [email protected].
Today’s recipe comes from Chris Terry, author of Black Card.
When I was 18, I moved out of my parents’ apartment and into a crumbling Richmond house with seven roommates. I knew that the world was set up to fail most people, so I vowed to build one of my own that was too small to fail. The first step? Learning to feed myself.
I was a vegetarian with a $20-a-week grocery budget, which I blew on baked beans, grilled cheese fixings, and tater tots. I never felt full, but I knew that nourishment was out there. With my eyes and tongue, I went searching for technicolor flavors. Coming home at night, I snuck a few bites of cold spinach and cubed cheese a roommate left in a skillet. Spinach could be this hearty? On tour with my band, I fished a beans-and-rice wrapper out of a Knoxville flophouse’s kitchen trash, scanning the ingredients for a word to connect to the earthy bass note that wafted from the stove. I’d been thinking of it as “black bean flavor” for months. Cumin. I cataloged these tastes in my head.
Me and some friends drove to D.C. for a show. We parked near the venue and stumbled into a bright restaurant called Islamabad. A friend who knew the drill ordered for me, and I was handed a styrofoam plate with a mountain of seasoned rice. Molten yellow-brown lentils erupted from the top, circled by half-moons of bread.
My first bite—gulp, really—was salty, rich, smooth, and filling, and I yelled to the guy behind the counter, “What is this?”
“No, dal. Dal makhani.”
We went to the show, and I wasn’t hungry again that night—a rare thing for me. 21+ years later, I can’t tell you what band we saw, but I remember that meal, scooped from a silver tray that lay in what looked like a steamed-up aquarium.
One of my roommates was a sage 24-year-old vegan named Greg, who slept in the living room beside a six-foot-wide pile of greasy bike parts. The next day, he asked how the show was. I started raving about my dinner. He nodded slowly, nudged his maroon beanie back, and squeezed his forehead with his thumb and forefinger. “I can tell you how to make that.”
On my next trip to the discount supermarket, I skipped my usual white bread and plastic-wrapped cheese slices, tossing a floppy bag of lentils, a thumb of ginger, and a couple carrots and onions into my basket. Back on the peeling white tiles of my punkhouse kitchen, Greg talked me through his recipe as I used a dull knife to chop my vegetables and ginger, plus some soft garlic that he’d produced from a far corner of the fridge. I blew dust off the jar of curry powder that a former resident had left behind. Warm smells filled the room, making a home of the cold kitchen. A veggie-averse roommate burst in the back door and asked what the fuck I was cooking.
The rice stuck to the sides, leaving the pot looking like a geode. I spent the next day pulling ginger skin from between my teeth. My strangely dry dal wasn’t nearly as good as the buttery lava from Islamabad, but it was mine, and I made it again and again, getting better each time.
Just like a young punk makes the best of whatever the world throws at them, a good lentil recipe can make something beautiful from your kitchen’s flotsam. Consider the recipe below a base. Once the onions and garlic start sizzling, add some chopped veggies. I especially like zucchini, celery, cauliflower, and carrots. Or a can of diced tomatoes. Or all of the above. You can freak the seasonings, too. Add a teaspoon of celery seeds or an herb like thyme, dill, or oregano. Add ginger, and sub in garam masala and turmeric for the coriander. Double the recipe, and freeze half in a couple of cylindrical takeout containers. Throw in potato to thicken the broth. Serve it with rice, roast potatoes, lemons, or sliced hard-boiled eggs. Build your own world with it.
My old punkhouse is now a half-empty student condo building with a rooftop pool. The Islamabad address houses a boutique fitness center. Last I checked, Greg was in Chicago, but his recipe has been lost to the evictions and house meetings of time. Instead, this lentil recipe is inspired by Claudia Roden’s recipe for shorbet ads (Egyptian lentil soup) in The New Book of Middle Eastern Food. I got my copy at a black-owned independent bookstore. I suggest you do the same every time you buy a book.
1 large yellow onion, chopped
3 tbsps. olive oil
3 garlic cloves, diced
2 tsps. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
2 shakes crushed red pepper
1.5 cups red lentils
2 quarts water
Salt and pepper
1. Start heating the water in a tea kettle.
2. In a large pot, heat the olive oil over a medium flame. Add the onions and cook, covered, for 3-4 minutes (if you’re moving fast, use this time to dice your garlic).
3. Stir in the garlic until its smell bursts from the pot.
4. Pour in your lentils, using a spatula to scrape them from the bottom of the pot.
5. Do the same with your spices. Cook, covered, for 2 minutes.
6. If you want to stir in veggies or canned tomatoes, now is the time to do it. Add your extras, and give them a minute to heat up.
7. The kettle of water should be near boiling. Rest the spout on the rim of the pot, and slowly pour in the water to avoid splashing.
8. Lower heat, cover pot, and simmer for 20-30 minutes, until lentils are beginning to dissolve.
9. Add salt and black pepper to taste, and serve soup hot.
Chris L. Terry is author of the novel Black Card, about a mixed-race punk bassist with a black imaginary friend. NPR called Black Card “hilariously searing” and included it on their Best Books of 2019 list. Terry’s debut novel Zero Fade was on Best of 2013 lists by Slate and Kirkus Reviews. Since 2015, he has done a variety of work for PEN America, including being a PEN in the Community artist in residence, creative writing instructor, and Emerging Voices mentor.