24 February 2012

Gypsy Kitchens: Mercimek Çorbasi

The first time we had Turkish lentil soup, we didn’t know what it was. It certainly didn’t resemble any kind of lentil soup we were used to. Spicy, smooth and vegetal, this was something familiar that also tasted emphatically like Turkey.
Mercimek çorbasi is served at the beginning of most Turkish meals (it seems), and comes in a variety of different forms. The notable components are red lentils, cumin, red pepper flakes and dried mint. Here’s a recipe that’s really easy, but takes a little while – chicken stock isn’t easy to find in this part of the world, so we did this the old fashioned way.

Much easier to find: spices. At the spice bazaar, one can find all sorts of strange tastes and powders. The air inside – a heady mix of scents – seems to have absorbed some essence of centuries of caravans. It’s actually flavored, it’s so dense and exotic.
Mercimek çorbasi begins with cumin and pepper, the two princes of the bazaar. We added them to the pot first – dry spice in the bottom of a dry pot. Heated for a few minutes, they get fragrant, their richness emerges. Use as much as you feel comfortable with. The amount will depend on how hot your pepper is, of course, and how much spice you like in a soup. We’d say a base amount should be four or five tablespoons. It should be said that these red pepper flakes aren’t chili powder.
After you can really smell the cumin and pepper, add an unhealthy pour of olive oil and some bony scraps of raw chicken (it’s surprising how hard it is to find stock parts in the US, and how easy it is to find them overseas). Cook for a few minutes on high heat, adding a chopped onion, a few cloves of crushed garlic and about two carrots, finely cubed.
When the onion has softened up and the chicken's begun to brown, incorporate about three tablespoons of dried mint, then pour in enough water to semi-fill the pot. As it’s coming to a boil, chop parsley and stem thyme, adding them as you go. Boil the water, reduce to a simmer and then leave it for a few hours or all day. We also put in fresh mint, though this isn’t quite as traditional.

About an hour before you’re ready to eat, remove the boiled chicken bits and check your water level (add more if you don’t have enough). Peel and chop two tomatoes and throw them into the stock along with a squeeze of tomato paste (we’re hesitant to suggest an amount because tomato pastes vary so much – salt levels are especially important, so it’s best to taste the paste yourself and then decide how much to use). Salt to taste.
If you’ve added additional water, bring the stock to a boil again, then add both a cup of lentils and three-quarters of a cup of bulgur for every estimated gallon of liquid you have. Simmer slowly for about forty five minutes, stirring occasionally. When the lentils are really tender, turn the heat off and let the soup sit for a few minutes before serving. Usually, this soup is served blended – but we didn’t have a blender.

This is a delicious soup for cool weather, and is even better with a dollop of thick yogurt mixed with mint. Not surprisingly, most of these ingredients are also part of our last recipe, for imam biyaldi – we can personally attest that the two dishes go well together.
Making mercimek çorbasi with store-bought stock is about the easiest thing you could do. Just don’t add the chicken and cut down the amount of garlic and onion. The whole process should take only about an hour.
One more note – you should only use red lentils for this recipe – and make sure to pick through them for stones and rinse them well before cooking.
Here’s the recipe!

Mercimek çorbasi
- 4 tablespoons Turkish red pepper flakes, easily replaced by almost any red pepper flakes
- 2 tablespoons cumin (not curry)
- 3 tablespoons dried mint
- 2 tablespoons fresh thyme
- Half-handful fresh parsley, chopped
- About 10 leaves fresh mint, chopped
- 2 carrots, cubed
- 1 onion, chopped
- 4 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
- 1 or 1 ½ pounds bony chicken, raw
- 1 ½ cups red lentils (maybe more, if there’s a lot of stock)
- 1 cup bulgur
- Olive oil
- Tomato paste, salt and water

- In a soup pot, heat the cumin and pepper until fragrant, then add oil and chicken. Cook for a minute on high heat, then add onion, garlic and carrot. When the chicken has begun to brown and the onions are soft, add dried mint and fill pot with water.
- Bring water to a boil. As it’s heating, stem and chop the other fresh herbs and add them to the pot. When the water boils, reduce to a good simmer. Cook uncovered for anywhere between two and ten hours.
- Remove the chicken and discard. Try to gauge how much stock you will need for the soup and add water accordingly. Add tomato paste and tomato, taste and add salt. Bring to a boil.
- Rinse and pick through the lentils, then add them to the boiling stock. Add bulgur. Reduce to a hard simmer and cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
- Blend if you want.

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