Along the old Silk Road, the word ‘soup’ has various very similar names – from çorba in Turkey to shurba in Western Asia to shorbat in Iraq. One of my favourite Middle-Eastern style soups is one of the simplest – a quick-to-cook number made with red lentils, spices and perhaps some greens, and generously spiced. My Iraqi mother-in-law makes a very quick version, similar to this but greener with extra spinach, and I have fond memories of the salty, lemony red lentil çorba that was the ubiquitous starter to meals during my backpacking adventures through Turkey years ago.
I had a made a few litres of chicken stock in my handy pressure cooker with free-range chicken frames I bought from Nosh the other day (I hardly ever see these, and when I do I snap them up for stock!), and decided a soup such as this would be a good way to use some of the stock the next night. There was a lot of meat on them frames, so I picked all the good stuff off and used it in this soup, too, but it’s just as nice meat-free and made with a vegetable stock. If you don’t have homemade chicken stock, try to use unsalted stock as it’s much nicer to be able to balance the taste by adding salt yourself. Red lentils are very quick to cook and don’t need any soaking.
In a large pot, saute 1 finely chopped onion and 5 cloves finely chopped garlic in olive oil until softened. Add spices – you can choose, but I like to make a baharat (spice mix) by grinding together a double quantity of black pepper to single quantities of cinnamon, cumin, allspice, paprika, ground coriander, nutmeg. Stir spices into the onion and garlic till fragrant then pour in 1 litre chicken stock and another 500ml water. Bring to the boil, tip in two cups of red lentils and stir. Let gently boil until the red lentils have softened, then add 1 tin crushed tomatoes, 2 Tbsp tomato paste and stir. Here you can add some leafy greens – I tend to use either perpetual spinach from my garden, sliced finely, or frozen free-flow spinach can go straight in, too. Here’s also where I added my cooked, shredded chicken. Let it all cook until the lentils and spinach are soft and cooked through. Add salt and more baharat to taste, and 2 Tbsp or more freshly squeezed lemon juice.
Serve with a wedge of lemon, thick yoghurt and bread on the side. It’s also lovely garnished with flat-leaf parsley or coriander.