Lentils for plenty
Lentils used to be important for us. Everyone in my generation will remember lentil promotion programs in the early years of the Turkish national TV channel TRT. The late nutritionist Ayşe Baysal had used to brag about the nutritional benefits of lentils as a cheap source of protein to support the home economy, urging people to consume more lentils. The true reason for those promotion programs had been
because of the surplus of lentils in Turkey, and today, after a couple of decades, it is a paradox that we now import lentils from faraway countries like Canada and Australia.
Lentils have been a native domesticated crop in Anatolia since Neolithic times dating back to the ninth century B.C. Remains of lentils are found in almost all archaeological sites in Turkey, but one finding is truly exceptional: A cauldron full of lentil stew found in a burial chamber in the Phrygian capital Gordion near Polatlı, Ankara.
Gordion was continuously inhabited from 2,300 B.C. until the 14th century A.D., having its peak period in Phrygian times. It is known as the place where Alexander the Great cut the Gordian Knot and also as the home of the legendary King Midas. Among the countless tumuli (burial mounds) that dot the landscape in the vicinities of Gordion, the largest one gives deep insight into the food in the period. Tumulus MM, or Midas Mound, which had initially been thought to belong to King Midas, is now considered to be more likely of his predecessor Gordias. It has revealed many cooking and serving vessels with food remains.
In the early 1950s, an American excavation team from the Penn Museum headed by Dr. Rodney Young unearthed the remains of the tomb. The artifacts found were spectacular, beautiful intricately inlaid wooden furniture, exquisite metal vessels and three big cauldrons. Fortunately, they were wise to keep all the dirt and debris in the vessels aside. This was a visionary act, as advanced methods of archaeometry had not been developed at those times. The dirt and debris was actually remains of food and drink. They were transferred to the University of Pennsylvania and then forgotten about for many years.
Almost four decades later, scientist Dr. Patrick McGovern heard about these remains at a reception at the university and volunteered to analyze them. His analysis has shed light on the culinary practices and food items consumed in the early history of Anatolia about 2,700 years ago. The vessels in the burial chamber indicated there had been a funeral feast in honor of the deceased king.
The main dish seemed to be a lentil stew cooked with either mutton, lamb or goat meat. The meat had been cooked in direct heat first, probably a whole animal first spit-roasted, then boned and cut into pieces and added to the dish. Various indigenous herbs and spices had seasoned the feast dish; anise, cumin, fennel, fenugreek and thyme were the main flavorings. A fermented drink, a cross between proto-beer made from barley, honey mead and wine had been consumed. There were 150 metal vessels, interpreted by the archaeologists as “the most comprehensive Iron Age drinking set.”
Lentils, resembling little coins, are associated with money in various cultures. It is thought to be auspicious to eat lentils for the New Year in hope that it will bring wealth. I cannot help but think that belief might have been rooted from the legendary golden touch of King Midas. If the king, who had been believed to turn everything he touched into gold, had lentils in his diet, there had to be connection! We might speculate whether he had owed his gift to eating plenty of lentils, or whether his real gift had been the lentil!
Now looking back, I think lentils have brought me luck. In the early 2000s, I contributed to a documentary by Channel 4, to re-create the funerary banquet of King Midas. We became friends with food writer Fuchsia Dunlop while cooking lentil stew, or it might be more accurate to say, while toiling over a huge cauldron to serve at least 200 people in front of the tomb of King Midas.
My initiation to food writing had been a piece on lentils and our bizarre experience creating the funeral feast. Lentils have paved the path for my transition from the world of archaeology, restoration and architecture to the world of food writing, so I am grateful for lentils.
Though this shift in my career has not yet translated into money, I have full trust that lentils will eventually bring their golden touch!
Recipe of the Week:
Here is King Midas’ lentil stew, adapted to today’s palate. The meat in the Gordion stew had first been cooked in direct open fire, but for practical reasons you can just sauté chunks of meat in the same pot.
Soak 500 grams of lentils in salted warm water for a few hours. Meanwhile, finely chop 100 grams of tail-fat; this is crucial for authenticity and it really adds flavor, but of course you can just omit this step, or use bacon instead. Fry the tail fat in a pot until browned and crispy. Finely chop two onions and add them to the pot with half a cup of olive oil and sauté them until translucent. Add a few cloves of garlic cut in half and one tablespoon each of whole cumin seeds, caraway, fennel seeds and thyme.
When the spices release their aromas, add 500 grams of lamb meat cut in cubes and sauté it until well-browned. Top with warm water to cover, add about 1.5 teaspoons of salt to taste. Cover and let simmer for about an hour, until the meat is mostly cooked. Drain the lentils and add to the pot, top with more hot water if necessary to cover the stew completely. Continue to cook it for another hour or so, until the meat is very tender and the lentils are thoroughly cooked.
If you want to be more authentic, you can pre-roast a leg of lamb. First, marinate the lamb in a mixture of honey, wine, minced onion, thyme and cumin. Then, roast the meat in the oven until well-browned and cooked. Pull off the meat from the bone in bite-sized pieces and add to the pot with the lentils. Continue cooking until the lentils are soft.