It is FREEZING cold here in Istanbul! I keep crossing my fingers and praying for snow (really wishing for a snow day), but there’s none in sight-only rain and icy winds on my walk to and from work. When I get home the only thing I want to do is curl up on the sofa with a huge bowl of soup. Just something WARM! Thankfully, Turkey is a culture for soup lovers where it’s a very important part of the daily cuisine. In southern parts of Turkey, soup is even eaten for breakfast to keep you full and get your morning started right. At every restaurant it’s on the menu and, in fact, I’ve never been to eat anywhere that didn’t offer soup. It’s served in most business cafeterias as a daily staple. It’s even served some places 24 hours a day, feeding the late night crowd on the weekends.
In Turkish, when speaking about soup, you use the verb ‘içmek’- to drink. So, when you say you will have soup for dinner or you are eating soup, you say ‘çorba içeceğim/çorba içiyorum’ which directly translates to ‘drinking soup’. I always crack a smile when my students ask me ‘Did you drink the soup today?’. Actually it makes sense and in many ways, to say ‘drinking soup’ seems more and more correct to me linguistically. It is in itself a liquid, and in Turkish recipes, it’s usually blended very smoothly with the broth being the star -the perfect dinner for this weather.
When I think back to those first few days upon my arrival years ago in Istanbul, I remember a conversation with a ‘new’ colleague at the time. She was inviting me to lunch and she said “Oh shall we go for soup? Soup is so filling here.” I remember trying not to laugh at this lunch option. I was never really a soup and salad kind of girl growing up in the states. But this was a new colleague and I didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes. Although here I was in Turkey… I was ready to run out the door and eat a huge kebab and this girl was inviting me for one of my first meals. But for soup? Reluctantly I pretended like I was just dying to eat it, we went, and I was pleasantly surprised…as seems to be the trend in my food adventures. True to her claim, the soup was delicious and also very filling.
The exact soup I ate on that day was one of the most common and most traditional, the beloved ‘Mercimek Çorba’. It’s a lentil soup that is hard to describe in any other way than just YUMMY. I then proceeded to eat this daily (sometimes even twice a day) alternating it with another very common lentil soup, ‘Ezogelin’. Interestingly enough, these two Turkish soups recall the same memories of comfort food from my childhood an ocean away from these recipes. It’s that feeling of having something warm on a cold night, being inside and listening to the wind, and knowing that the holidays are getting close. However, although the feelings take me back, I really have never had anything with these same flavors before. It’s like chicken soup meets vegetable stew and yet also not at all like that. They are a combination of rich and velvety, with a hint of something exotic, and they taste a bit like a kind of spicy wild rice dish or even a meaty gravy. Here’s the thing though, aside from the chicken stock (which can be left out), there is no actual meat and so all the heartiness comes just from the lentils and vegetables themselves.
These soups are very affordable, usually around 5-7 turkish lira for a serving. I got into the habit of just stopping in somewhere on my way home and ‘drinking’ a quick soup- or ordering it online and having it brought to my door (YES!! That’s a thing!! A very dangerous thing!!). My most favorite place in all of Turkey for soup is at Dürümcü Emmi, possibly my favorite restaurant just in general. They are more famous for other dishes, but the mercimek is not to be overlooked. I think they use the same garlic-infused-lamb bone-broth that they use for another dish of theirs to be the stock in their mercimek soup. This version is not vegetarian friendly but it is life changing! When you ‘drink’ it, you kind of just want to bottle up the broth and never stop drinking it- it’s so full of salty garlicky goodness! The waiters drizzle a spicy red pepper oil on top and it’s always served with fresh lemon wedges…that little bit of acid to freshen everything up.
Last year, I finally asked a friend (at a table full of colleagues) ‘So is it easy to make?” and I was met with wide-eyed stares. The answer to my question: YES-It’s very easy to make. Also, EVERY person here knows how to make it. Mercimek Çorba is made using red lentils, onions, carrots, and a potato. Sautee them, add chicken stock, salt, cumin, a bay leaf and some red pepper and throw in a spoon of rice. Ezogelin is very similar, just you don’t add the carrot or potato and instead you add tomato paste and some dried mint instead of cumin. Of course, there are different variations as to the amount of stock or lentils or bulgur instead of rice and in typical fashion, I wasn’t really given an exact recipe. As with many traditional dishes here, it’s such a staple of daily life that none of my friends could even give me a written recipe for it. They all just dictated how they make it and how they like it. My actual recipe I use is probably the result (or divine gift) of 3-4 different people who told me tips and tricks. I tried Ezogelin once before and couldn’t get the exact flavor right until just recently when my friend’s boyfriend shared his recipe. Through all the variations, one thing remains common, that is the fact that it is TRULY simple yet SO powerfully flavorful! These two soups will definitely turn you into a heavy ‘drinker’ but one you won’t feel guilty about!
***Read below the picture for recipes is you wish…
*Mercimek Çorba (Red Lentil Vegetable Soup):
*2 onions *2 carrots *1 large potato *1 cup washed red lentils *2 T. white rice
*1 (16 oz.) can veggie broth or chicken stock *1 bay leaf *2 tsp. salt *2 tsp. cumin
*pinch of hot red pepper flakes *dried mint and lemon wedges to serve
Chop all vegetables and saute them for a few minutes in olive oil (until the onions turn clear). Add the lentils and rice and sautee them too for about 5 minutes to toast them a bit. Add in the chicken stock, salt, cumin, red pepper flakes and bay leaf. Let this come to a boil. After it boils, turn the heat down low and add 4 cups of water. Let this slowly simmer until the lentils are tender (20 minutes). Take out the bay leaf and with a stick blender, puree the soup a bit (optional).
Serve with lemon and dried mint.
*Ezogelin Çorba (Red Lentil Tomato Soup):
*2 onions *1/2 cup tomato paste *1 (16 oz.) can veggie broth of chicken stock
*1 and 1/2 cups washed red lentils *1 spoon white rice, washed *1 spoon bulgur
*2 tsp. salt *pinch of red pepper flakes *dried mint (2 tsp. and more for serving)
*lemon wedges for serving
Chop the onions and saute them in olive oil until they become clear but don’t caramelize. Add the tomato paste to the onions and cook them together for about 5 minutes. Add the washed lentils, rice and bulgur and saute them together for another 5 minutes. Next add the chicken stock, salt, and red pepper flakes. Let this all come to aboil then reduce to low. Add 4 cups of water and let this all simmer on low for about 20 minutes.
Add the 2 tsp. dried mint at the very end and stir through. Use a stick blender and puree it before pouring into bowls (optional).
Add more dried mint and lemon wedges to serve.
**General note, as the lentils break down they can stick to the bottom of the pan and burn easily. Don’t let it simmer on anything but low heat and always re-heat on low.