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Delicious and versatile, the tiny lentil packs a powerful nutritional punch. Possibly man’s first food crop, this legume seed is as popular in modern Turkey as it was in Neolithic times. Berrin Torolsan has her finger on the pulse
Professor Ayşe Baysal, or “Mercimek Ayşe” (Lentil Ayşe), as she was affectionately known in the Eighties, was a famous dietician and lifelong advocate of lentils. A colourful character from a poor village on the slopes of the Taurus Mountains, Prof Baysal started her education in the enlightened Village Institutes – they insisted that every village boy should bring a village girl with him to school – and became a dedicated scientist. By the time she was promoted to full professorship, she was already top of her field in Turkish nutrition studies. She tried to guide people towards a healthy and balanced diet, with an emphasis on legumes – of which Turkey has plenty – and the pulses they produce. On her radio programmes she provided housewives with practical advice and recipes, encouraging them, above all, to cook protein-rich lentils. Thus she earned her nickname.
One of the most ancient of edible plants, the lentil has always been a crucial element in the diet of those living in the Fertile Crescent, from where it seems to have originated, along with other pulses such as chickpeas and peas, as well as wheat and barley grains. Indeed lentils were perhaps the most widely grown legume in the Neolithic Levant.
At Yiftahel in Lower Galilee, archaeologists recovered a 7.4-kilogram hoard of more than 1.4 million charred lentil seeds on the floor of a house carbon-dated to around 6800BC, while excavated deposits of similarly small lentils at the pre-pottery sites of Hacılar, Can Hasan and Çayönü (7500-6000BC) prove that domestication was starting in central and southeast Anatolia too. This leads to speculation that, at the dawn of agricultural history, lentils were the very first field crop.
Around 5000BC, the lentil was also the first legume to be introduced to western Europe, the seeds probably carried there via the Balkans by human migration. By around 2500BC it had spread eastwards to provide an indispensable source of nutrition for communities in India. It would only reach the New World after Columbus.
The lentil plant, Lens culinaris, is a slender annual vetch with delicate white, blue or violet flowers, which develop into purse-like pods containing one or two round, lens-shaped seeds. It is a self-pollinating, hardy, modest plant that thrives in dry and cold climates and in poor soils, and is always popular with farmers as, like other legumes, it increases the soil’s fertility through nitrogen fixation. Traditionally it is planted twice a year, in rotation with cereals: in spring before wheat or barley are sown, and again in autumn, after the grain harvest, to produce a winter crop. The hay also provides good, nutrient-rich fodder for livestock.
Since ancient times, the Anatolian diet and that of the neighbouring Levant have relied on a combination of wheat and pulses, very often in the form of bulgur and protein-rich lentils. Lentils provide a valuable substitute for meat. Combined with bulgur, we have a perfect balance of protein, carbohydrates and fibre. Today every town and village has its own hearty grain-and-pulse specialities, many including the ever-adaptable lentil.
Lentils were also popular in the Ottoman capital. Reinhold Lubenau, a Protestant pharmacist from Königsberg who came to Istanbul in 1587 with a delegation from the Catholic Habsburg emperor, notes in his travel journal that lentils were among the piles of pulses on sale in markets near the Bedestan. Instead of returning to Vienna, he pretended to be English and befriended the newly appointed Kapudan Pasha of Algiers, setting off south with his fleet for the Mediterranean. His ship paused at the island of Tenedos, today’s Bozcaada, to take on huge quantities of lentils to feed the crew. As a cheap and plentiful staple, lentils tend to be seen as a food for the poor. The book Voyage to Turkey (Viaje de Turquía), written three decades earlier, in 1558, and attributed to the Spanish nobleman Cristóbal de Villalón, is an account of the observations of one Pedro, captured by the Ottomans while sailing with an armada to Naples. He ended up as a slave of the admiral Sinan Pasha, brother of the grand vizier, Rüstem Pasha. Describing his life in Istanbul and the various dishes of the Turks, Pedro mentions sopa de lentejas, lentil soup, with lemon juice squeezed over it. He and his fellow slaves were also given bowls of lentils when working on the building site of Sinan Pasha’s new palace near the Hippodrome in Sultanahmet.
However, as an ingredient, lentils appeared on the menus of both grandees and servants. In the first half of the 15th century, Mahmud Şirvani, who served as a doctor and dietician to the Sultans, includes lentils in his companion guide to well-being, Sultaniyye, dedicated to Çelebi Mehmet, grandfather of Mehmed the Conqueror. He recommended they be given to those with tasks requiring great strength. The Topkapı’s kitchen accounts in the 16th and 17th centuries record that some 30 tons of lentils a year were bought from Egypt to supply the palace kitchens. The Venetian bailo Bon Ottaviano (1552–1623) confirms that “rice and lentils, and all other sorts of pulse, of which a great quantity is consumed, are brought every year from Alexandria in large galleons”.
In his Book of Travels, the 17th-century Ottoman courtier Evliya Çelebi also mentions Egyptian traders bringing coffee, rice and lentils from Alexandria, and in the great processions of the guilds he lists the Guild of the Lentil-Sellers, Esnaf-ı Adeseciyan, who had no fewer than 70 registered shops in Istanbul. As they paraded through the streets they would distribute largesse in the form of generous quantities of lentils to spectators from their wagons.
Evliya uses the old Turkish for lentil, mercümek, as well as the modern Turkish word, mercimek, and the Arabic ades. Interestingly, as in Latin, all three words are related to the optical lens. Very few people know that the lens got its name from the lentil, rather than the other way round, because of its double-convex shape.
So ubiquitous was the lentil in Turkey that it became a common simile for anything minuscule. For instance, a smidgen of a valuable spice would be described as mercimek kadar, “as tiny as a lentil”. This expression is also used to disparage the brains of people who behave doltishly.
The lentil thrived, with many local and wild varieties, in its native Turkey, which in the 20th century became one of the world’s main producers, alongside Syria and India. Even today, despite the flooding of the global market with Canadian lentils, Anatolia’s field still produce some 354,000 tons annually.
FOOTNOTES AND LINKS
Ayşe Baysal, Mercimek Mucizesi (The Wonder of Lentils), Güneş newspaper
M Ömer Akkor, Bursa Mutfağı (Bursa Cuisine), İş Bankası, 2009: see Pandora Bookshop
M Faruk Bayrak, Doğu Anadolu Yemekleri (Dishes of Eastern Anatilia), Alfa, 2014
Aylın Öney Tan, The Taste of Sun and Fire: Gaziantep Cookery, Gaziantep Chamber of Commerce, 2012 (reprinted in paperback by YKY, 2015)
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