Turkish red lentil soup being eaten, seen from side
Photo: Bahar Kitapci

Vidar Bergum is a food writer and cookbook author based in Istanbul, Turkey.

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.

—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.

Photo: Bahar Kitapci

Huge meze spread seen from above
Photo: Bahar Kitapci
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Omnipresent soup

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 lentil soup on its menu.

The Turkish version is usually a fairly thin 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 mercimek çorbası, the much beloved and omnipresent lentil soup.

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.

Some are yellow, indicating potatoes and carrots may have been added, but not tomato. Others are a more orangey-red, suggesting tomato paste and, perhaps, red pepper paste have been involved.

The liquids used may also differ.

Chicken stock adds more flavour, but if it is too strong, may overpower the gentle flavour of the red lentils. This 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.

I tend to use water, for a lighter soup with a more pronounced lentil flavour. As a bonus, it’s also easier to make.

Perfect for a weeknight supper.

Try these variations too:

Chunky lentil & vegetable soup - recipe / A kitchen in Istanbul

How to serve Turkish lentil soup

Which brings us to another important point. How to serve Turkish lentil soup.

A squeeze of lemon is virtually mandatory, so wherever there’s red lentil soup, there’ll be wedges of lemon in close proximity.

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.

In Egypt, croutons and caramelised onions are often added. 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.

In the end, that’s what really counts, isn’t it?

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. Serves 4.

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.

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Vidar Bergum on the front porch of his home, drinking tea, with a street cat eating something on the street in front of him

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One Response

  1. 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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I’ve published two books on Turkish and Middle Eastern food, available in Norwegian and German.

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