(Lens culinaris— Family Leguminosae)
The lentil plant is an annual herb grown for its edible, high protein, flattened seeds.
It is one of the oldest cultivated crops and presumed to be native to southwestern Europe and temperate Asia.
Carbonized seeds found in Neolithic villages in the Middle East have been dated to between 7000 and 6000 BCE, but it is believed they were domesticated long before that. By 2200 BCE, plants appeared in Egyptian tombs.
Lentils, common in the diets of ancient Greeks, Hebrews, Egyptians, and Romans, originated from a wild species that still grows in Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries.
The English term lens, used to describe the glass in optical instruments, comes from the Latin name for lentils, which referred more to its shape rather than its use during Lent. However, lentils were, and are, traditionally eaten during a period of fasting.
Lentils, rye bread, and cabbage were the main items in the diet of an 18th century German peasant and still viewed by many as a poor man’s food. Nevertheless, since the rise of the health food industry and vegetarianism, lentils have gained a new status in the western world.
The lentil plant is a climbing vine similar to the pea, but with only two seeds to a pod.
The two main types are the orange or Egyptian lentil, which is very small and generally available only in split form with the skin removed; and the other is the brown French variety, which is at least twice the size and marketed whole with the skin intact. This lentil is the one preferred by Europeans as it can also be sprouted.
The orange lentil continues to be the most frequently used legume in the making of dahls and also continue to be a major food staple in Egypt and other areas of the African continent. Lentils vary, not only in colour, but also in husked and unhusked states.
Dahl/Dal is the Indian term used when legumes are dried and split and Gram is the one used for whole legumes.
Lentils, like other legumes, are a nourishing food often bypassed by many. They are a good source of protein, fiber, carbohydrates, B vitamins, magnesium, iron, and zinc. Its high protein content is more easily digested than any other legume and plays a major role in the diet of many underdeveloped nations.
For every twenty-five grams of protein needed by man every day, 134 grams of beef needs to be consumed, but only 100 grams of lentils. In addition, being a plant food, lentils do not contain cholesterol; and the protein derived from them is much easier to digest than the animal equivalent, or even soybeans.
Next to soy beans, lentils have the highest protein content at 25%.
There are many varieties of the lentil; but the green, brown, and red are the most common types found in the West.
Lentils are grown throughout the world and have become naturalized in drier areas of the tropics. Because of its relatively high drought tolerance, it is a suitable crop for semi-arid regions.
India grows more than fifty different varieties and accounts for about half of the world’s consumption. Because of this, they have developed their own lexicon and classification system.
There is an interesting Parsee dish called dahnsak, in which up to nine different kinds of lentils of various colours, textures, and flavours are used. The object of the dish is to challenge the cook to achieve harmony and proper balance.
In Europe, some kinds of lentils have achieved the status of a delicacy as with the French variety, Verte du Puy,
which are very small, bluish, and expensive.
Lentils, like other pulses, should never be eaten raw, and tend to figure more often in hearty dishes than in delicate, costly ones.
Lentils have also been used as a source of commercial starch in the textile and printing industries, with the by-products used for cattle feed. The whole plant can be used fresh or dried as hay and fodder.
Attempts to list lentils run up against a fundamental difficulty since the use of the term spills over into other species, but some popular types are listed below:
are very small, fancy, black lentils that fetch a high price. They are so named as a play on their resemblance to high-priced Beluga caviar.
French Green lentils,
also called ‘lentilles du Puy’, are raised mainly in Puy, a region of southwest France. They are small, speckled, deep green, or brownish green, and remain firm when cooked, which only takes a short time. Because of their attractive appearance, tasty flavour, tender texture, and speedy cooking, they are popular in French and American restaurants.
are also popular and hold their large firm shape well after cooking. Hulled green lentils are ideal for soups as they disintegrate easily when cooked.
Petite Crimson lentils
are tiny red lentils about one-third the size of regular lentils. Originally from Turkey, Egypt, and India, they are now cultivated in the West. Taking only minutes to cook, these lentils are favourites when mixed with rice or made into soups.
Spanish Pardina lentils,
also called Spanish brown lentils, are small and richly-coloured, ranging from an earthy brown to moss green with streaks of black. They also hold their shape well during cooking.
Split Red lentils
are small and salmon-coloured, even when husked. They are also known as red chief lentils, pink lentils, Egyptian, and “masoor dal” (India). When cooked, they turn golden and very soft, making them ideal for soups and purées. These are the ones eaten by Muslims in the north, especially Bengal, as well as in Pakistan. Hulled red lentils disintegrate quickly, but have a good flavour. Unhulled red lentils have a stronger flavour.
Split White lentils
are creamy coloured when split and their dark skins removed. Lentil-like, they are actually the inner seeds of black gram beans mainly used as a seasoning or a red colouring in dishes from southern India. They are members of the mung bean family and very easy to digest. When toasted and ground, they are used as an Indian spice called “urad dal”.
Split Yellow lentils
are the seeds of the Cajanus cajan plant, which is the botanical name for the “pigeon pea”, and are nothing more than split peas. In India, the classification of legumes is much looser, causing legumes of different families, that are closely related in culinary uses, to be considered as the same.
from Mexico have mottled seeds and thrive in semi-arid conditions.