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French Lentil Soup with Cilantro

by Jeanette on October 15, 2010 · 6 Comments
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French Lentil Soup with Cilantro
French Lentil Soup with Cilantro
As the weather gets cooler, I crave lentil soups.  I’m always on the lookout for a good recipe for lentil soup, especially one with a twist of flavor.  I came across several interesting lentil soups, but the one in Suvir Saran’s American Masala cookbook sounded especially interesting.  Suvir’s lentil soup recipe uses French lentils (firmer in texture than some lentils), toasted cumin seeds, red chilies and ground peppercorns.  It also contains the anti-cancer spice, turmeric, prevalent in Indian cooking.

This soup is dark and luscious, though none of the ingredients on their own give that impression.  The technique of deeply browning the onions was the secret to the beautiful color.
Here is the recipe for this hearty French lentil soup.  I have substituted whole wheat Israeli couscous to make it a bit healthier.  Brown rice would also be a nice healthy alternative.

French Lentil Soup with Cilantro

adapted from Suvir Saran’s American Masala cookbook


  • 13 cups water
  • 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper chili flakes
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black peppercorns
  • 1 large red onion, quartered and sliced
  • 2 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 2 cups green French lentils
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/4 cup whole wheat Israeli couscous or brown rice
  • chopped fresh cilantro, for serving
  • fresh lemon wedges, for serving


  1. Place 1 cup of water next to the stovetop.  Heat the oil with the cumin in a large soup pot over medium heat until cumin is browned, about 2 minutes. Add chili flakes and ground peppercorns, and cook for 30 seconds. Add the onion and salt, and cook until onion is deep browned and crispy, 15-20 minutes, adjusting the heat to medium-low as needed to prevent from burning.  Stir often and splash with water, scraping browned bits from the bottom of the pot when the onions begin to stick.  
  2. Add 2 cups of water along with the lentils and the turmeric to the pot and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add 10 more cups of water and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, cover and cook for 20 minutes, stirring halfway through.
  3. Stir in the couscous and return the soup to a boil.  Cook, partially covered, until the couscous is al dente. Cover the pot and turn off the heat.  Let the lentil soup stand for 30 minute to 2 hours to thicken.  
  4. Before serving, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for 10 minutes.  Taste for seasoning and serve sprinkled with chopped cilantro and a squeeze of lemon juice.
Anticancer Ingredients: Lentils, Turmeric, Whole Grains
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  1. This sounds wonderful to me.

  2. Thanks Kalyn, the slow cooked onions really add a lot of richness and flavor.

  3. Oh, I love lentil soup. Bring it on!

  4. Lentil soup is also one of my favorites, so comforting and good for you too.

  5. Jeanette – Thanks for cooking from American Masala. Many thanks also for being savvy and using whole wheat Israeli couscous or Brown Rice – I am going to take these tips and enjoy putting them to use.

    This soup is one of my favorite soups on the planet. Those that enjoy it at my table, or at the home of our friend Mary Ann Joulwan at whose home I first tasted this amazingly delicious and luscious soup are hooked at first spoonful.

    Hope you and yours continue to enjoy this amazingly simple, nutritive and delicious recipe. It is a traditional Lebanese Rishta (the name of the soup in Lebanon) of course with some American additions like the Orzo in Mary Ann and now my version, brown rice or couscous in yours. Originally it would have been made with pasta made by hand and thrown in.

    When cooking the onions the key is to use a very heavy bottomed pan and cook the onions till they get dark and crispy and almost ready to burn in a few seconds. This is the time when you add water and they dissolve away and create a thick richly burnished and dark sauce that becomes the base of the soup. Thanks for sharing this for your fans. It is truly this one step that makes or breaks this soup.

    Mary Ann Joulwan – from whom I learned this amazing recipe, and to whom I am eternally grateful, told me once about someone close to her who had grown up eating this soup, and when they made it at their home, never got the dark color Mary Ann and others had achieved when she ate it outside of her own table. When Mary Ann spoke with this person, she realized they were not browning the onions as they ought to be, and so the person realized quickly what the difference was. How interesting cooking is. In dishes such as this soup, where Less Is More, one truly has to be mindful when cooking and follow instructions and do what it requires. This browning of the onions is where the heart and soul of this soup resides.

    So excited to see you share its magic with others.

    Wishing you a 2011 lived in good health and shared with friends and family enjoying wonderful soups and other delicious and honest foods.

    Suvir Saran

  6. Suvir, thank you so much for your kind words. I have really enjoyed cooking from both your Indian Home Cooking and American Masala cookbooks, so approachable and easy to follow. This lentil soup is one of my favorites. What intrigued me about this recipe was how rich and deep the color of this soup was with such a simple list of ingredients. I followed your friend's, Mary Ann Joulwan's, advice and browned the onions longer than I would have felt comfortable, "dark and crispy and almost ready to burn" as you describe, and was rewarded with this beautiful soup.

    Wishing you a healthful and peaceful 2011 filled with joy, delicious wholesome foods, and wonderful memories.

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