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Long legacy of lentils in cooking

Prairie Palate: A favourite food of ancient Greece finds new flavours in Canada

Lentil cookies

There’s an old adage in Greece about not adding “myrrh to the lentil soup” because myrrh is too fancy for a humble bowl of lentils. A culinary overkill.

Ancient Greeks preferred more simple flavourings such as vinegar and sumac (which grew wild) or olive oil and salt. They boiled the lentils until they were soft and thick for a soup called phakes (or fakes), a dish the Romans called puls, from which we get the botanical word pulse to describe legumes such as lentils, chickpeas and peas.

The Romans believed lentils were restorative and good for your health. Their famous physician, Hippocrates, prescribed a lentil diet as a tonic for liver fatigue and, amazingly, modern science has backed this up.

The oldest archeological evidence of lentils for dinner was found on the coast of Greece at a place known as the Franchthi Cave, circa 13,000 years ago.

These were wild lentils. The cave was home to a group of hunter-gatherers but over time they moved out of the cave into a small village by the Mediterranean Sea and took up farming. By 6500 BC they were growing wheat, barley and lentils — the same domesticated grains that have been farmed in the Middle East for 10,000 years.

Eventually, due to global warming, the sea level rose until it covered their village and fields, which were discovered by archeologists exploring the cave in the 1960s.

With the spread of farming westward from the Middle East, those three grains — wheat, barley and lentils — spread together. Lentils were late coming to Western Canada — more than a century after wheat and barley.

What was once the breadbasket of the world is now the lentil basket of the world. No nation produces more lentils, of more varieties, than Canada. However, as Canadian lentil production was rising, Greek farmers were growing fewer lentils, preferring instead to plant other crops that qualify for agricultural subsidies from the European Union. According to an online source, farmers in Greece grew 12,700 tonnes of lentils in 1961 and just 2,000 tonnes in 2011. Now they buy lentils from Canada.

Maybe I was eating Canadian lentils the other day when I ordered a bowl of lentil soup in a restaurant in Athens. It was rich and fragrant, seasoned with tomato, carrots and parsley. Simple and delicious, the perfect restorative after a long day of travel and airport food. As much a part of Greek history as the Acropolis.

Despite its ancient pedigree, new varieties of lentils are still being developed. The small black lentil is a Canadian invention, according to Bert Vandenberg, a plant scientist at the Crop Development Centre at the University of Saskatchewan. He says it was bred at the research farm at Indian Head, Sask.

Some enterprising chefs noted that it resembled the black caviar of the Beluga sturgeon and, voila, black Beluga lentils began appearing on trendy menus.

While I’m a big fan of old-fashioned lentil soup, I also like a new food trend. This cookie recipe fits that bill — a delicious new way to enjoy the ancient legacy of the lentil.

Chocolate lentil cookies

Small black or brown lentils look deceptively like chocolate chips in these delicious cookies.

  • 1/2 c. soft butter
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1 c. cooked small black or brown lentils
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 tbsp. milk
  • 1 c. flour
  • 1/3 c. cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 c. quick oats

Cream the butter, sugar and lentils. Some of the lentils will purée and some will remain whole. Mix in the egg, vanilla and milk. Sift the flour, cocoa powder and baking soda, adding to the batter with the oats until well blended. Drop by the spoonful onto cookie sheets. Bake at 350 F for about 15 minutes. Allow cookies to cool slightly then remove them to a cooling rack. Makes about 30 cookies.

About the author


Amy Jo Ehman is the author of Prairie Feast: A Writer’s Journey Home for Dinner, and, Out of Old Saskatchewan Kitchens. She hails from Craik, Saskatchewan.

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