Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Slow-cooked Lentils: The heart wants what it wants

The other night, I was talking to a Lebanese-Australian guy at a bar (as one does). And as I do when confronted with an Arabic-speaker, I turned the conversation to language. He mentioned that the Arabic word for 'heart' is qalb, and it got me thinking.

While Arabic and Persian aren't from the same language family, Persian picked up a lot of Arabic words at the time of Arab Conquest. Basic, fundamental things in the language are pure Persian, but there's plenty that was built on top of that foundation, much later, that comes from Arabic.

So, I was surprised: qalb is the Persian word for 'heart', too. You'd think that the word for this most essential body part would predate, well, pretty much everything. But it's a little complicated: In Persian, when you talk about the blood-pumping physical organ in the middle of your chest, you use qalb. But when you talk about the thing that pangs when you have a crush, the part of you that pulls when a friend is hurting, the word is del, and del refers to the stomach.

Anatomically speaking, del is a Persian word for stomach. There are others, but when you have a stomachache, it's your del that hurts.  But when it comes to what English-speakers know as matters of the heart, in Persian, they sit squarely in the del, the stomach. When you're forlorn and missing someone, you're deltang  your del feels tight, not your qalb. When you sympathize with someone's misfortune, you're delsooz — your del burns for them. When you're overflowing with emotions and need to vent, your del is por, or full. And when someone talks you through your sadness and makes you feel better, they are your deldar — they have your del.  And of course, that hottie walking down the street? That's a delbar, one who takes your del.

It's weird at first to think of the belchy, acid-filled stomach as the seat of our most exalted feelings, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense.  In a culture where food is a tool of healing, a justifiable labor, the fruit of creativity, the foundation of the family home, and the deepest expression of love, of course the stomach is where emotion lives. When you peel away external influences, the unadulterated core of Persian emotion is this perfect heart-stomach hybrid.*

In Persian, when you don't just off-hand want something, but really, really want it, you say that your del wants it. The last couple months have been an whirling blur of jetlag, illness, a birthday, holidays (times two), wrap parties, hangovers, and so much amazing travel.  After all this indulgence, all my del wants is the simplest preparation of lentils.  The Persian word for lentil is adas (also from Arabic, it turns out), and adorably, lentil soup is adasi. There are plenty of adasi recipes with various vegetables and spices, but simply simmering humble brown lentils forever with nothing but salt and pepper imparts a suprisingly complex flavor. It's typically served in shallow bowls sprinkled with ground golpar or oregano to help with digestion, and most commonly for breakfast. I love adding a knob of butter to the center of my bowl and watching it melt into liquid gold.

Pure nourishing comfort — exactly what my heart, and my stomach, want.

* We know that del is truly Persian, because we see it in its Indo-European cousins, such as Hindi, which has the word dil, which of course, we know from the 1998 movie Dil Se ("At Heart"), which gave us this most amazing Bollywood moment ever.

Adasi | Persian Slow-cooked Lentils
Makes 8 servings

The actual cook time is a bit fudgy in this recipe: depending on how long you soak the lentils and the type of lentils you use, it can vary from about 45 minutes to two hours. If you use a pressure cooker, you can get them done in about 20 minutes. What you're looking for is a creamy, almost spreadable texture, with very little loose liquid and soft but not completely broken down lentils.

2 cups green or brown lentils
1 teaspoons salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, plus more to taste
1 teaspoon ground turmeric (optional)
1 teaspoon ground cumin (optional)

dried oregano
ground golpar or oregano

Add lentils, 5 cups water, and salt to a large bowl and stir to combine.  Soak lentils for at least two hours, up to overnight.

Move lentils, with their water, to a large pot. Add pepper and turmeric, if using, and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a lively simmer, cover and cook, stirring approximately every 15 minutes, until lentils reach desired consistency. Adjust seasoning to taste.

Serve steamy hot with a sprinkle of oregano or ground golpar and a big knob of butter.