Turkish lentil soup (Mercimek çorbası)

Easy to make and packed with flavour.
Turkish red lentil soup being eaten, seen from side
Photo: Bahar Kitapci
Turkish red lentil soup being eaten, seen from side
Turkish red lentil soup being eaten, seen from side
Photo: Bahar Kitapci
Vidar Bergum

Few dishes can compete with red lentil soup’s long traditions. There’s a reason it remains as popular as ever, millennia after it was first made: It is absolutely delicious, and simple to boot. Try this delicious and simple recipe for Turkish lentil soup.

Much of Middle Eastern food has long traditions – centuries, if not more. Lentil soup may, however, be in a league of its own.

A recipe from the bible

—Let me taste of that red pottage, for I am fainting, says Esau to Jacob in one of the fables of the Old testament.

Esau had been out on the fields all day. Seizing the opportunity, Jacob asked for his brother’s birthrights in return for a bowl of his lentils. Esau, starving, accepted.

I’ll admit, it’s not clear whether the bowl contained stew or soup (pottage was used to describe dishes where the texture was between the two). I won’t vouch for the authenticity of the story either.

But whichever way you look at it, it’s abundantly clear that cooked lentils eaten with a spoon have been around in the Middle East for a long, long time.

Lentil soup in Turkey: Mercimek çorbası

Millennia later, lentil soup remains a staple in much of the Middle East. And certainly in Turkey, where I live. Rare is the restaurant, small or big, which doesn’t offer a bowl of mercimek çorbasi – lentil soup – on its menu.

The Turkish version is usually a fairly brothy affair. It’s rarely eaten as a main dish on its own. Rather, it’s served as a little appetiser to warm you up before diving into the main course. Be it lunch or dinner. 

Turkish red lentil soup in transparent bowl seen from top

Conveniently, most restaurants and cafeterias happily sell you yarım, or half portion, of soup – whether the menu explicitly states so or not.

Soup also plays an important part during the fasting month of ramadan, where the nightfall iftar meal often starts with a bowl of soup. Preferably this most beloved of Turkish soups.

Lentil soup is easy to make and packed with flavour

As with any simple dish with such long traditions, there are a surprising number of ways to make Turkish lentil soup. The colour often gives away the cook’s preferred method.

It almost always starts, as so many dishes in Turkish cuisine do, with olive oil and an onion.

It’s also common to add tomato paste, and sometimes red pepper paste. This helps give the soup a very appetising orange-red hue.

Some soups are more yellow. In this case, potatoes and carrots have usually ben added instead of tomato paste.

The broth for Turkish lentil soup

The liquids used may also differ.

Chicken broth adds more flavour. This one is sometimes tricky for vegetarians. Many Turks will not think of chicken stock as a meat product, and will happily confirm the soup as vegetarian to anyone enquiring. So keep that in mind when visiting Turkish restaurants!

I tend to use water, for a lighter soup with a more pronounced lentil flavour. I find the flavour of lentils and the base of olive oil, onions and tomato paste plenty enough flavour. As a bonus, it’s also easier to make.

You can also use vegetable broth, if you prefer.

Which lentils to use?

In terms of lentils, for some reason, it’s most common to use red lentils for home cooks, whereas yellow lentils are more commonly used in restaurants. The flavour and look is very similar, though I find yellow lentils to have a taste slightly more reminiscent of yellow peas.

For this recipe, you can use either, though I personally usually go for red lentils.

Whizzing the soup to a homogenous texture with an immersion blender is very common in Turkey, but optional.

Regardless of your choice, Turkish lentil soup is one of the best healthy soup recipes you can make. Personally, I make it almost every week during winter months.

Try these variations too:

How to serve Turkish lentil soup

Which brings us to another important point. How to serve mercimek corbasi, or Turkish lentil soup.

In Turkey, it’s almost universally served with lemon wedges and crusty bread alongside. A good squeeze of lemon is virtually mandatory. This helps balance the rich flavour of the soup.

Bread of any type you like is also a great accompaniment. I prefer homemade sourdough bread to the white crusty loaves often served at Turkish restaurants.

Turks also like to add a spoonful of chili oil or chili butter. This super simple addition packs a bunch of flavour, immediately elevating the soup to something just a little more special.

A generous sprinkle of red pepper flakes, preferably Turkish pul biber (the same as Aleppo pepper), is another elegant way of elevating the dish with no extra effort. My mother’s favourite trick! Turkish red pepper flakes are milder and more aromatic than regular chili flakes. A perfect match for the gentle flavours of lentil soup, adding warmth rather than heat.

Personally, I like to add a sprinkle of freshly chopped parsley, for a herby touch.

All said and done, these versions all have more in common than what separates them. They’re all easy to make and absolutely delicious.

The recipe below is the way I make my red lentil soup. I sometimes add a teaspoon of an earthy spice, a small potato or reduce the amounts of liquid for a thicker soup. Feel free to alter it and make it your own.

This recipe for delicious Turkish lentil soup serves 4.

Leftovers?

Lentil soup keeps very well for days in the fridge in an airtight container. Just reheat it gently on the stove or in a microwave, adding more liquid and adjusting the seasoning (mainly salt) if necessary.

Turkish red lentil soup in transparent bowl seen from top

Turkish lentil soup

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 medium carrot, grated
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 35 g (2 Tbsp) good quality tomato paste
  • 15 g (1 Tbsp) Turkish red pepper paste (acı biber salçası) (or more tomato paste)
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 180 g (200 ml/⅘ cups) red lentils
  • 1.2 ltrs (5 cups) boiling water or light stock
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 lemon, cut into wedges, to serve
  • small handful freshly chopped flat leaf parsley, to serve (optional)

Chili butter/oil

  • 3 Tbsp butter or extra virgin oil (I use a mild one)
  • 1 tsp Aleppo pepper (pul biber)

Instructions

  1. Heat a large thick bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the oil, onion and carrot. Sauté, stirring regularly, until softened but not coloured, 8-10 minutes.
  2. Add the garlic, tomato paste, red pepper paste and sugar. Fry, stirring constantly, until aromas fill your kitchen and the tomato and pepper pastes have been cooked through and mixed well with the other ingredients, 1-2 minutes. Add the lentils and give it all a good stir.
  3. Add the water and season to taste with salt and pepper. The amount of water is for a fairly thin Turkish-style soup. Reduce the amount to 1 ltrs for a thicker version. Bring to a boil, pop on a lid and turn the heat down to low. Leave to simmer until the lentils are cooked through and starting to fall apart, around 15 minutes.
  4. Whizz with a stick blender (or regular blender, making sure not to overfill it). Leave off the heat for a few minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, melt the butter (or extra virgin olive oil) in a small pan or pot until melted and bubbling (or hot, in the case of the oil). Take off the heat and stir in the Aleppo pepper.
  6. Serve the soup warm with a spoonful of chili butter as well as a sprinkling of freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley, if you like. And don't forget a squeeze of lemon juice.

Notes

For the more yellow-looking version so often served in Turkey, substitute 1 small finely chopped potato for the tomato and pepper pastes.

Vidar Bergum

Vidar Bergum

Vidar Bergum is a cookbook author and writer based in Istanbul, Turkey. He has published three books about food and food culture from Turkey and the Middle East and runs a food blog as well as a weekly newsletter on food and culture from Turkey & the Middle East.
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16 Responses

  1. This recipe seems more like Ezo Gelin than Mercimek Corbasi. Or at least EzoGelin without the bulgar wheat.

  2. I’ve made this several times. Just made it again with a base of turkey bone broth made from the carcass of our Thanksgiving bird. Going to serve it for dinner tomorrow with grilled cheese sandwiches.

  3. I just got back from Turkiye and the food was amazing. I am going to try this recipe today. I have brown lentils, hopefully it will taste good.

    1. For this soup, use red or yellow lentils for best results. Brown lentils are a little different in texture and flavour, and won’t taste like the lentil soup you may have eaten in Turkey. Good luck!

  4. Greetings from Australia. Made this today for lunch and it was delicious. I’m out of aci biber salcasi so doubled the tomato paste as you suggested. Still delicious! This soup will go on high rotation at our house.

    1. Afraid I don’t have an Instapot, so I wouldn’t know, but I see no reasony why not. Good luck!

  5. Hi , I want to try making this lentil soup it’s my favorite , can we add fresh tomato instead of tomato paste ? Plz suggest

    1. You can. The flavour will be a little different, but still delicious. Good luck!

  6. This soup is delicious! So simple and flavorful, especially with the toppings. I’ll be making this again. Quick question about the Turkish pepper paste: do you know if it’s similar to Italian red chili pepper paste? The Italian one is readily available where I live (Midwestern US).
    Thank you!!

    1. Hi Jen,
      I’m not familiar with that particular type of red chili paste, but the Turkish one is just as much about umami as it is about spiciness. It should add a mild heat rather than a pungent one, if that makes sense (unless you use a lot, of course!). In this particular soup, you shouldn’t really notice the heat much. Keeping that in mind, feel free to substitute to taste – or just use only tomato paste. Good luck!
      Vidar

    2. biber salcasi, is a tasty red condiment made from sweet peppers, not chilli so your red chilli pepper paste is not suitable, also notice you add Aleppo chilli to the Chilli butter so if you don’t have Aleppo chilli you could add the Italian chilli paste to your liking to the chilli butter.
      Hope that helps 🙂

    3. Biber salçası in fact comes in two versions – sweet (tatlı biber salçası) and spicy (acı biber salçası).

  7. MERHABA
    My partner is from Istanbul and he is a fantastic cook, inspiring me to cook Turkish food.
    My favourite that he has cooked for me is ÇILBUR, shepherds salad , fresh bread , wonderful.
    He’s also great cook on bbq, flavours are amazing, nothing like boring English bbqs….

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Hey, there!

I’m Vidar. For the past few years, I’ve been exploring the foods of Turkey, the Middle East and beyond from my house in Balat, Istanbul. Let me show you around!

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