Cheap Eats:
  (Egyptian Lentils)

The humble, little lentil has a very long history. It was probably the first legume to be cultivated, dating back to around 7,000 BC, about the same time wheat and barley got their starts. It originated in the Near East, but became important all over the Old World. Some degree of its importance is indicated by the fact that a prominent Roman family was named for the lentil — Lentulus (though they’re not quite as well known today as the family named for chickpeas — Cicero).

In the 17th century, when scientists began to experiment with doubly convex bits of glass, they decided these focusing elements looked like lentils; Latin for lentil is lens. The plural in Latin is lentis, so you could rightly guess that someone thought lenticular clouds look like lentils, too. Though our lenses come directly from Latin, our word "lentil," like so much of our language, came by way of France, where lentilles have been consumed since not long after the time of Alexander the Great. And since lenses still look like lentils, lentilles is also the French word for contact lenses.

There are a variety of lentil types available, usually identified by color. Green and brown lentils take longer to cook, but hold their shapes better. Red lentils cook quickly, but turn to mush if cooked a long time. Red lentils have a more delicate flavor; green or brown are "meatier" tasting, and work better if you’re using them as a substitute for ground beef. All varieties are extremely low in fat and high in fiber, cheap, filling, and tasty.

The recipe below is from Egypt, where they’ve been eating lentils for almost as long as the legume has been cultivated. In fact, most of this dish’s ingredients have been available in Egypt for millennia. Cinnamon, cumin and olive oil are spoken of in the Old Testament, and the book of Numbers records this lamentation of the wandering Israelites: "We remember the fish we ate in Egypt, also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic." Aside from noting the antiquity of a few ingredients, the verse suggests some of the things you could serve with this dish — cucumber salad on the side, melon for dessert.


6 ounces (1 cup) brown lentils

1 tsp. salt

2 Tbs. olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 Tbs. ground cumin

½ tsp. ground cinnamon

1 cup long-grain white rice

¼ tsp. freshly ground black pepper (or to taste)

4 plum tomatoes (or 2 regular tomatoes), chopped

¼ cup chopped celery leaves

½ cup plain yogurt (optional)

Soak the lentils in water to cover for 1 hour. Drain, place in a saucepan, cover with water by 1 inch, and bring to a boil. Add ½ tsp. salt, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes, until just about tender.

In a large saucepan, or skillet with a lid, heat olive oil and sauté the chopped onion and garlic until it begins to color. Add the cumin and cinnamon, and stir together. Add the uncooked rice and stir to coat with oil and spices. Add 2 cups water and lentils with their cooking liquid, plus remaining ½ tsp. salt and the ground pepper, and stir well. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, stir in tomatoes and celery leaves, cover and cook 20 to 25 minutes, or until the liquid is (mostly) absorbed. (Don’t worry if there’s a little liquid in the pan — better to have it juicy than dry.)

Beat the yogurt lightly with a fork or whisk, to make it smooth. Serve yogurt in a bowl, as a topping to be spooned over the koshry.

Serves 4‑6.

Important cooking secret:

The type of rice used in a recipe can be very important. Fragrant basmati rice is perfect with most Indian food, and short-grained arborio rice has a creamy quality that makes it essential for some Italian dishes. However, in just about all other cases, when you see the words "white rice," and even more especially "long-grain white rice," then you should know that this really means "Uncle Ben’s." This is true of all recipes, not just mine. Anyone who really knows rice appreciates the difference. When I was young, and my father was still with the airlines, we had several executives of Japan Airlines, including their president, for dinner one night. I can still remember sitting at the dining room table as these distinguished, Japanese businessmen dug into my mom’s beef Stroganoff, which was served over rice. Smiles spread across their faces, and the president said with a satisfied and approving nod, "Ahhhh. Uncle Ben’s."

Actually, Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice is not as inauthentic as you might imagine. The process we now call "converting" got its start about 2,000 years ago in Pakistan and India. It’s better for you, too, since B vitamins and bran are preserved in the process.

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