Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Can the lentil save the world?

In a crowded world, we may have to think harder about what we eat – or at least, how much of it. It’s a challenge that calls for two things: good science and good recipes

The Saturday before last was cold in New York City. I was hungry, but had a lot to do and a near-empty fridge. All I could find was a large ageing onion, half a litre of cheap red wine and some red lentils. So I began to cook the lentils, and chopped and added the onion.

Red, green and puy lentils (Wikimedia Commmons)
Then I added a few herbs and spices. A big splash of curry powder, herbes de Provence, lemon pepper, cinnamon – anything, in fact, that had not taken cover at the back of the cupboard (which my spices mostly do; they’re very cunning, and can hide there for years). That done, I returned to my desk and tried to concentrate on the report I needed to look at before Monday. It was so turgid that I fled back to the kitchen. The lentils looked a little dry, and I was about to put some water in them when I noticed the wine and put that in instead. It turned the lentils a wonderful dark maroon – I used to have a car that colour. (Actually it had once been that colour. Someone had hand-painted it matt black). The lentils bubbled cheerfully and a sort of warm-in-winter smell filled the apartment.


Right now, we humans need the lentil. And, as I’ll explain a little later, it needs us.

Until recently I had a negative view of lentils. True, my mother had made a wonderful light lentil soup with the stock after cooking ham (which she cooked to perfection, serving it with a rich white sauce and new potatoes that, in those days, had plenty of flavour).  In later years, travelling, I came to like lentils more. I enjoyed addis in Sudan; smooth, slightly savoury and served with fresh bread and a small bowl of shatta, hot ground red pepper.  In Asia, of course, there was dal bhat (literally, lentil with rice) – monotonous perhaps, but satisfying; I will never forget a large plateful at a Nepali truck stop at three o’clock one morning, on the 22-hour journey to Kathmandu from  Kakarbhitta on the eastern frontier with India, in a spartan bus that stood outside with its engine running, emitting loud diesel shudders in the cold December air.  At home, however, lentils and other pulses were for preachy people who wore sandals. One does not like things that are good for you; as Mark Twain said, go to heaven for the climate, but hell for the company.

It is time to change my mind. There is a pressing need to switch to food production that is less hard on the natural-resource base. First, some lentil science. But if you can plough through the next few paragraphs, you'll find some jolly nice recipes below. Or just scroll down and get cooking. But the science is sort of interesting.


In his recent book The Future (2012), Al Gore quotes estimates that nine kilograms of plant protein are consumed for the production of every one of meat.  This needs to be seen in the context of a rising population, but also of an increase in per capita meat consumption.  According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), for which I once worked, in China it quadrupled between about 1980 and 2009. Significant rises in per capita consumption were also seen elsewhere in Asia. In Brazil it doubled. Global meat production more than doubled from 136.7 million tonnes in 1980 to 285.7 million in 2007.

These figures should also be seen in the context of climate change. In 2009 FAO estimated that livestock (which of course includes dairy production) contributed about 18% of human-driven (anthropogenic) carbon emissions. There are a number of reasons for this. One is that livestock produce 37% of emissions of methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. However, about 36% of anthropogenic emissions from livestock are from land-use change – which should make us think hard about deforestation for pasture, and about the fact that a third of global cropland is now producing animal feed.

None of this is an argument for a wholesale attack on livestock raising. There is an enormous area of the world where livestock production is sustainable but crops are not – a very hard lesson learned by Kruschev after the Virgin Lands scheme tried to turn the Central Asian steppe over to crops; it’s now being turned back to pasture. In some regions, crop-livestock integration is essential for lower-income farmers, while livestock, especially cattle, can also be culturally important. Besides, as FAO points out, although in some parts of the world people eat too much meat and dairy, in other regions they still eat too little. Nonetheless, those regions that currently eat too much may need to find more sustainable sources of protein. 

There is an additional incentive for limiting meat production in wealthier countries. I am not a vegetarian, but many friends are, and I do share their revulsion at the things we do to animals in developed countries in order to eat cheap meat. I am also alarmed – as everyone should be – by the casual use of antibiotics in meat production.


Lentils can help, providing a healthy source of protein. They are, in fact, one of our oldest friends; they were first cultivated about 8,000 years ago, perhaps earlier. Archaeological evidence for this comes mainly from what is now modern Syria and Turkey, and they are still widely grown in the region, but other big centres of production include South Asia and, perhaps surprisingly, western Canada. They are a sustainable crop; although they don’t leave much plant residue in the soil, they can fix nitrogen in it, effectively providing their own fertiliser.  (But to do so, they may need the soil to be inoculated with certain types of bacteria. Fixing of nitrogen is a big messy subject. Let’s not go there).

There are challenges to getting people to eat more lentil (indeed, all pulses). One is persuading people who are unfamiliar with them to cook them. It can seem a lot easier to pop a pork chop under the grill, or throw a store-bought lasagne (with or without horsemeat) into the microwave.  The best answer to this is some jolly good recipes, and I’ve gathered a few from my friends, including one or two that are a little unusual.  More of that below.

But lentils are a scientific challenge as well. If the public ever get to hear about agricultural research, it’s normally about Frankenstein foods and genetically-modified animals, or of seed companies forcing farmers to use genetically-modified seeds. This is a pity, because much good research is done in the public sector. Some of this is in the developed world, but much is in developing countries, where national scientists often cooperate with each other across borders through the CGIAR, a chain of international research centres.  From 1995 to 1998 I worked as a science writer for the centre dedicated to dry areas, ICARDA; it was founded in Lebanon in 1977, which was a bad moment in Lebanon, and moved not long afterwards to Aleppo in Syria. It has now, for obvious reasons, moved back. 

Over the years the centre has done much work on lentil, much of it led by an energetic British lentil expert, Willie Erskine.  The research has been an odd combination of ancient and modern. One hot afternoon in 1997 I sat enthralled as an impressive Sudanese PhD student  described unravelling strands of lentil DNA to identify the genes that conferred vulnerability to, amongst other things, frost. I was fascinated to hear that the DNA strands could, once treated, be seen with the naked eye – “like long, thin strands of cotton,” he explained.  This would greatly speed up the identification of good or bad traits in a lentil variety, so that the right ones could be crossed to make new, better varieties for farmers.

These traits may be found in popular varieties, but they can also be found in landraces and wild relatives. Landraces are crop varieties that farmers are growing, but have not obtained from an outside source; they have been selected and bred on-farm, often over many generations, and are locally adapted. Wild relatives are exactly that; descendants of the plants from which the lentil was first domesticated, still growing in the regions where it happened, maybe at the edge of a field, or on a patch of scrub, or deep in the countryside.

Finding these demands patience and knowledge.  In 1996 one of the centre’s researchers, Morag Ferguson, wrote a charming article on this for the magazine I had started, Caravan.  She described how plant collectors “grapple through bushes and entangled undergrowth day after day, battling with snakes and potentially rabid dogs in their quest for their elusive treasure.” This was the last stage; the team would do a lot to lessen the odds first, compiling as much information as possible about the soil type, topography, grazing patterns, geology and temperature preferred by the plant, and then identifying places that might fit the profile.  (The use of IT tools to model all this was just beginning; this was, and is, the field of another friend, Abdallah Bari, who also worked on the campus.)  Now and then they found their treasure. “Shrieks of delight erupt as one of the team spots a fragile lentil,” she wrote.

Using such genetic material in order to feed people can involve extensive international cooperation. Unlike politicians, scientists quietly collaborate across borders on a massive scale; they always have. In the 1990s, Willie and his colleagues worked with national scientists in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan to improve lentils in South Asia. The region produced nearly half the world’s lentils, which were an important part of people’s diet there (again, think dal bhat). But productivity had always been poor. Historical evidence suggested that there was a genetic bottleneck, in that they were descended from a small number of atypical lentils that arrived on the subcontinent about 4,000 years ago. Crossing them with better varieties had always been difficult, as the local varieties matured earlier than those from the Middle East.  So the ICARDA and other scientists used various tricks such as artificial daylengths to “fool” the Middle Eastern varieties into flowering early. The work eventually led to new varieties with useful characteristics that included disease resistance and an upright shape that allowed intercropping with sugar cane. Work has continued since. Similar work takes place on wheat, barley and many other crops,  including some that are of little commercial interest but are essential to certain people, such as the Ethiopian grain, tef

Producing more food is complicated; it takes multiple disciplines, international cooperation and the free flow of genetic material. The latter means guaranteeing to donors of that material that it will be used to develop products they can in turn use freely. In short, science must be at least partly in the public sector.  It sometimes is, notably in the international centres, and in certain countries, such as the US and Australia, that have distinguished research institutions. But funding for agricultural development in general has dropped in recent years. That is not a good idea.

That’s the science bit. If you’ve read this far, you deserve to have the recipes.


“I’m doing a post about lentils,” I said. “Does anyone have interesting recipes of their own?”  I am very grateful to those friends who responded, in particular Neil Monk from Norwich, who sent me several he had compiled for his own new food blog (link given below).  I’ve used two here.  Initially, he said, he hoped to send me a recipe for healthy “meatballs” made of lentil, smeared with a little oil and cooked in the oven. “Basically, it was an excuse to write ‘coat your balls with olive oil’,” he said.  However, he’s found frying your balls gives better results. Recipe below – the results, he says, are good eaten in stews (could be good with a nice sauce as well).  I’ve also included his winter recipe, lentils and bacon.  He explains that a big comforting stew is great for cold weather but takes a long time, whereas this takes a little over half an hour and will give you the same warm full feeling.  Neil is a practical cook who works with straightforward ingredients to create pleasant, fuss-free food. His blog includes several other lentil recipes , including “Swedish lentilball”, a dal and a dhansak. Do visit his page.

The next recipe is from Catherine Gnocchi , a friend and former colleague with whom I worked in Brussels many years ago. Now in Belgrade, she suggests an Italian-style recipe for lentil pasta (it can also be made as soup by adding more water).  It was, she says, one of the first meals made for her by Tom, who is now her husband – so it clearly worked. Like my own recipe, it quite properly involves large amounts of wine. 

From Melbourne, Nicky Reiss sent me a recipe for red lentil dal cooked with a mixture of coconut milk and olive oil, which sounds superb – so much for lentils being a plain, austere food. Nicky is an international development professional and is one of the most-travelled people I know; she has lived and worked in South-East Asia, Central Africa and Hawaii amongst other places. It shows in her choice of ingredients. She points out that the recipe should be OK for the fructose-intolerant. Nicky also sent me her sister Philippa Street's chestnut lentil hotpot, which sounds delicious and a real winter warmer.

Back to Norwich for Hazel Marsh’s Weird Lentils. Hazel has a very ad hoc approach to cooking and her children often claim that her cooking is “weird”.  “I don't follow recipes, but I'll try to remember how I do them,” she says.  Hazel is also extremely well-travelled, especially in Latin America; she is an expert on the links between music and politics in the region, and is about to publish a book on the Venezuelan protest singer Alí Primera.* But the recipe has a rather English feel and includes beer.

Finally there’s the recipe I cooked here in Harlem a week or two ago, which is very easy and quick.

Enjoy, and remember – lentils can save the world.

Neil Monk’s Lentil “Meat” Balls
75 grammes (3 oz) brown or green lentils
2 cloves of crushed garlic
Leaves of 2 sprigs of thyme, chopped
2 teaspoons of dark soy sauce
2 teaspoons of allspice
2 teaspoons of paprika
Large pinch of salt

Cook lentils according to packet instructions (usually rapid boil in plenty of water for 10 minutes, then simmer for 20 minutes). With a slotted spoon, remove half the lentils and set them aside, then use a hand blender to smooth the remaining lentils into a smooth paste. Stir the lentils you set aside into the lentil paste, along with garlic, herbs and spices, salt and soy sauce. Using wet hands, roll the mixture into balls about an inch (2.5 cms) in diameter. Heat the oil in a wok. Test to make sure the oil is hot enough by using a small piece of the meatball mixture to make sure that the oil sizzles on contact.  Then fry the balls until nicely browned.

Neil Monk’s Lentils and Bacon
50 grammes (2 oz) brown or green lentils
125 grammes (5 oz) diced bacon
4 new potatoes, halved lengthways
2 large carrots, sliced
8 button mushrooms, halved or quartered if large
1 medium sized onion, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon cumin
3 sprigs thyme and/or rosemary, leaves stripped from stalks and chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

Put the lentils in a large saucepan on a high heat with plenty of water. Boil rapidly for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and cover with a lid. Meanwhile, in a sauté pan, heat the oil and add the bacon and fry, uncovered, until coloured all over. Push the bacon to one side in the pan and add the potatoes, and brown them on the cut sides. Turn down to a low heat. Add the carrot, mushrooms and onion and cook for further 5 minutes, with a lid on the pan. Add the spices and herbs to the pan. By this time the lentils will have had at least their 10 minutes rapid boiling. Add the lentils and their cooking liquid to the sauté pan and simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes, until the potatoes are cooked through.

Catherine Gnocchi’s Lentil Pasta
Fry one chopped onion, several cloves of garlic and lardons in olive oil. Add 2 large tins of lentils with their ‘juice’ and 2 ‘tins’ of water (you can use loose red lentils if you prefer) and a very generous amount of red wine. Season generously with salt, pepper and oregano. Bring to boil and simmer for 2/3 hours. When the juice thickens, add orecchiette pasta (300g) and cook for between 8 and 12 minutes until the pasta is al dente or slightly softer, depending on what you prefer. Serve in pasta bowls, drizzled with olive oil, grated parmesan and black pepper. Serves four.

Nicky Reiss’s Red Lentil Dal
1.5 cup red lentils
1 tablespoon vegetable oil (or better still a mix of coconut oil and olive oil)
2 cloves garlic
1 x 3cm piece ginger (or more), peeled and diced
1 small tin coconut milk
1 tin peeled tomatoes
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon garam masala
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon salt
pinch sugar
pinch hing (asafoetida)
hot water as needed – 1-2 cups

Wash lentils thoroughly. Heat up large frying pan and add oil. Add garlic and ginger, stir often, then add other spices. Add lentils, stir, add tomatoes and some water. Simmer over low heat for 15-20 minutes. Add coconut milk; add salt and sugar. Add more water if necessary. Serves 5.  (Can be made without coconut milk – less creamy.)

N.B. For those who are fructose intolerant, leave the garlic in large pieces and then remove before eating. For those who are not, add as much garlic as you like – and onion too if you want. It’s also possible to substitute tinned lentils of any kind, but the red ones are best.

Philippa’s Chestnut Lentil Hot-Pot 
4 medium potatoes
3 medium onions 
1 cup brown lentils (soaked at least 2 hrs, boiled 15 mins)
2 cups chestnuts (canned chestnuts are ok; dried chestnuts need to be soaked overnight)
Salt and pepper
2 teaspoons soy sauce or tamari scant
2 cups warm water
A few splashes of red wine 
4 tablespoons butter 

Peel and slice the potatoes and onions thinly. Put layers of potatoes, onions, lentils and chestnuts into a greased casserole dish, ending with a layer of potatoes.  Season well between each layer. Add the soy sauce, water, and wine.  Dot with butter and cover.  Bake at 375F (190C) for an hour or until the potatoes are tender. Turn the oven up to 400F (204C), remove the lid from the casserole and return to the oven for 10-15 minutes until the potatoes are crispy and golden brown. Prep: 20 mins, cooking: 1 hr 15 mins. Serves 4-6. 

Hazel Marsh’s Weird Lentils
Slice 2 onions (onion in half, then thin slices through it – not chopped), and loads of cloves of garlic (Hazel uses about 6). Cover bottom of pan with olive oil, heat, then add onions and garlic. Add some chopped carrots (maybe 6-7) and chopped celery sticks (6-7). When everything is coated in oil and is transparent, empty your packet of lentils in with it (Hazel likes brown or green ones; the packet must be 500 gr, or about 17 ounces). Then cover with beer, add salt, bay leaves, and oregano, and start to simmer. Top up with water and leave to simmer for about 30 minutes.

Mike’s Wine in Red Lentil Sauce
1 mug red lentils
1 large onion
4 large tablespoonfuls of olive oil
Selection of mixed herbs
1 tablespoonful curry powder
1 tablespoonful garlic powder
1 heaped teaspoonful of lemon pepper
1 small cube vegetable stock
200ml (approx) red wine (crap cheap wine will do)
Salt to taste (but I don’t use any)

This is a crude, easy recipe you can cook when you are busy doing something else. Dump the lentils into a large saucepan and cover with two mugfuls of water. Add the olive oil, stir it in well and start to heat. Meanwhile chop up the onion (not fine, big bits will do), add and stir in. Add and stir in the herbs, garlic powder and curry powder. Crumble the vegetable stock cube into the pan as well. Stir as it starts to simmer. Cover. After it’s been simmering for 10-15 minutes, uncover and add the wine; stir it in, and allow to simmer uncovered for 5-10 minutes. Then cover and simmer for another 10 minutes or so. Keep an eye on the pan and make sure it doesn’t get too dry; you can add more wine and/or water and olive oil as you go along, to get the consistency you want.  Finally (optional), take a further 175-250ml red wine per person, place in glasses, and serve separately. Eat over rice, or in a bowl, accompanied by a baguette. Serves 2-3.

Neil Monk’s food blog is at
For more information on the work of ICARDA, on lentils and much else, go to
Dr Hazel Marsh’s book Hugo Chávez, Alí Primera and Venezuela: The Politics of Music in Latin America will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016.

A collection of Mike Robbins' travel pieces, The Nine Horizons, was published in spring 2014. His book Crops and Carbon, on agriculture and climate change, was published by Taylor & Francis in 2011.
Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads


  1. Ah lentils. Indeed back in my early veg days, they were a staple. Now, I eat more garbanzos, pinto, haricot and butter/granjas.
    Possiblyhe worst lentil meal I have had innmy life was at The Ivy, where it was their token gesture at a private party to vegetarians. Lentils are … tricky.

  2. It is always disappointing when one is eating with vegetarian friends and they can find just one or two "token" dishes on the menu. I think the answer is to go to an Indian or other restaurant where the cuisine makes good use of pulses etc. anyway.

    What I'd like to get into is cooking with chickpeas. Middle Eastern cooking has always used them but I'd love to experiment with a big hearty soup or stew.