There’s nothing like a hearty lentil stew. Healthy, comforting and warming, it’s one of the dishes I’ve been craving most during my time in lockdown. At the end of a tough day, a big bowl of lentils is like a bunch of legumes giving you a cuddle.
Our ancestors’ relationship with lentils goes way, way back. According to this article in The Times of Israel, lentils are “one of the oldest foods on the planet” and they have been “cultivated since antiquity in Egypt, Europe, Asia and the Near East.” Some of us might be familiar with the story of the patriarch Jacob, who was a lentil chef extraordinaire. According to Genesis 25, Jacob cooked up a lentil stew so delectable that his brother, Esau, agreed to sell his birthright for it. The birthright typically went to the first born son, and it meant, among a host of privileges, inheriting twice as much of the father’s possessions. The rabbis find loads of reasons to make Esau look bad, but I think it’s possible that Jacob’s stew was just so superior that it was totally worth it.
I wanted to find out what Jacob could possibly have put in his stew that might make it an attractive alternative to one’s birthright, so I did a little research.
Jewish chef Tori Avey suggests this version, which includes barley, since “barley was a staple food in the diet of the ancient Israelites…(it) was the chief grain cultivated in biblical times, and was eaten more frequently than wheat. Barley was ground and made into bread or cooked into stews.” She includes carrots, celery and onions, since these vegetables “have been cultivated since pre-Biblical times and the early Bronze Age in Ancient Mesopotamia.” She flavours with the following spices, which were “well known to ancient cooks”: “cilantro, cumin, hyssop, parsley, sumac and bay leaves”. She also notes that “Jacob’s stew was probably vegetarian,” as “chicken and other meats were considered luxury foods in ancient Israel.” It’s worth noting that Avey’s imagined recipe is also vegan.
This recipe from researcher Eli Gurevich theorises that when Esau asks for “ha’adom ha’adom hazeh” – “that red stuff” (Genesis 25:30), he’s referring to the colour of the sumac berries that Jacob uses in his stew. He also suggests that Esau might not only have been very, very hungry, he also might have been ill, and cites that lentils were often used “in the Middle East…as a remedy for colds and upper respiratory problems.” Sounds like something we could definitely use right now.
I also liked the look of this tasty stew from My Jewish Learning, which includes leeks, sweet potatoes and paprika. Although, it’s probably a less historically accurate version that the others. While leeks are definitely mentioned in the Bible, sweet potatoes originated in Central or South America and weren’t spread around the world until the Spanish colonial period. And, as Tori Avey notes, “paprika was not a known spice to the ancient Israelites.”
This intriguing version from Food Flavor Fascination reflects that the lentil stew appears similar to Mujaddara, a popular dish from the Arab world which includes lentils and rice. She also notes that it is unlikely that rice would have been a grain available to Jacob, substituting it instead for the much more likely candidate, barley.
Each of these versions provides their own opportunities for creating a delicious, comforting pottage. After all, our ancestors have long-considered lentils to be the quintessential comfort food, it being a traditional meal for mourners. Tori Avey quotes the following reason from Louis Ginzberg’s The Legends of the Jews: “the round lentil symbolizes death: as the lentil rolls, so death, sorrow, and mourning constantly roll about among men, from one to the other.” Indeed, the rabbis taught that the whole reason that Jacob was making this stew in the first place is that it was for his father, Isaac, who was in mourning for the death of his father, Abraham (Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 16b).
In these challenging times, a bowl of lentil stew might be just what we need. If it was delicious enough to exchange for a birthright, maybe it could be delicious enough to raise our spirits.
Kohenet Yael Tischler is a ritual-weaver, Jewish educator and song leader. She is the co-founder of Yelala, a constellation of work that celebrates Earth-centred, feminist Jewish spirituality and reclaims the practices of our women/femme and folk ancestors. She holds an MA in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University, a BA in English Literature from Columbia University and a BA in Tanakh (Bible) from the Jewish Theological Seminary.