One thing you should know about living in Berlin is that there is no good Indian food here. None. There are plenty of Indian restaurants, but for some reason they all serve a variation on the same strangely insipid, gloppy mixtures that hold barely any resemblance to the Indian food I ate in Boston and New York over the years. The menus present no hint that India is a huge country, with myriad regions and cuisines (wherefore art thou, masala dosas of my heart?). And forget about anything spicy. Just forget it right now.
Oh, it's sad, alright. Whenever I go to London to visit my friend Betsy, we order takeaway from the Indian joint down the street from her and it is so good, so hot and complex and delicious, that I very willingly forgo all other meals in the city just to have that Indian food again and again. And then I return to Berlin and I hear about some new Indian place that has opened up and I get my hopes up, against my better judgment, and I go and once again am presented with mango chicken or some such train wreck and I feel deeply dejected all over again.
Luckily, a lot of Indian food isn't so hard to make at home. (Though I leave dosas and iddlies to the experts in New York.) Thanks to my father's obsession with Indian cooking, I even have a nice little collection of Indian cookbooks, full of wonderful things to eat. And anyway, it's not like I'm getting out of the house much these days. Hugo's nap schedule takes precedence over all.
I found this recipe for black lentil soup the other day when I staring at a jar of beluga lentils in my pantry and wondering how I'd use them up without a nice piece of salmon lying around to pair them with. Here you parboil the lentils with ginger and cardamom. Then you make a soup base with onions, garlic, butter and a quartet of spices, plus some canned tomatoes and stock, before adding the lentils back to the pot to simmer into a soup. It's very easy and was easily left halfway through when Hugo starting melting down, before being picked up later after he'd gone to bed. (This is often how I cook these days, in fits and starts. Just today I started a fruitcake recipe and literally abandoned it with one bowl already full of ingredients like chopped apples and puréed figs to go outside and run errands with the cranky child. Now that he's asleep, I was able to finish the job and the fruitcake's perfuming the house from the oven. It sounds irritating, but has its own satisfactions, this stop-and-go cooking.)
I added more lentils than the original recipe called for and used less butter and next time I make it, I'd probably purée half the soup, because it looks a little messy otherwise, but these are very faint criticisms. The soup is wonderfully fragrant and spicy and tastes just the way it's "supposed" to, at least to my Indian-starved palate. When you stir in the final bit of butter at the end to melt, it separates and pools at the edges of the soup. It's very nice indeed.
Rajat Parr's Black Lentil Soup
Makes 6 servings
1.5 cups black (Beluga) lentils
3 cardamom pods
One 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced, plus 2 tablespoons minced ginger
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large onion, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon garam masala
2 quarts vegetable stock
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes
Salt to taste
1. In a pot, cover the lentils, cardamom and sliced ginger with 1 inch of water. Bring to a boil and cook over moderately high heat until the lentils start to soften, about 10 minutes. Drain the lentils and transfer to a bowl; discard the cardamom and ginger.
2. Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in the pot. Add the onion, garlic and minced ginger and and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, 8 minutes. Reduce the heat to low. Add the spices and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 4 minutes.
3. Add the stock, tomatoes and lentils to the pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Simmer over moderate heat until the lentils are softened and the soup has thickened, about 1 hour. Stir in the remaining tablespoon of butter and season with salt. Ladle into bowls and serve.