When I was younger, I wasn’t much of a picky eater, but tomatoes – either in their raw form or cooked – proved problematic for a good portion of my childhood. The woman who ran our daycare, Sandra, used to make us a lunch of Campbell’s tomato soup and Kraft-singles grilled cheese, about once a week. It probably goes without saying that the grilled cheese was gobbled up with ease; the soup, however, was another story. I can still remember the tart, salty, faintly metallic canned-tomato flavour that would coat the back of my throat with every reluctant spoonful. That tomato soup was the bane of my five-year-old existence; it was like punishment in a bowl.
Then there was that trip to Italy, to visit family – when I was seven and my brother was five – and neither of us would eat pasta with tomato sauce; only with burro (butter). This was incomprehensible to our Italian relatives, who’d shake their heads, and with furrowed brow, ask, “Ma, non ti piace i pomodori?” (Don’t you like tomatoes?). Their question breathed equal parts bewilderment and despair, but would quickly melt into capitulation with a shrug of the shoulders, when they’d swirl a spoonful of butter into our pasta, as requested. To the dismay of our relatives, we spent that entire trip avoiding pomodori in every way, shape and form.
Fortunately, I’ve since mended by ways with tomatoes; they’re often in the recipes I make at home – from sugo di pomodoro, to lentil soup, to foccacia, to tomato salad. That said, I’d be lying if I said that our relationship was an uncomplicated one. Raw tomatoes are the ones that still, on occasion, send a shiver down my spine. We can blame both latent childhood sensibilities and the Canadian climate for that one: I grew up in a place where, for a good six months of the year, tomatoes were (and still are) flown in from exotic destinations, arriving in a grainy, hard, tasteless state, then flaunted in their raw form – in big, rough chunks – tossed into a plain green salad, or Greek-style, swimming alongside cucumber and slivers of red onion. Unless those tomatoes are vine-ripened under the hot, summer sun and served within a few miles of where they were grown, tasting like the rich, sweetly acidic fruit that they should be, they usually aren’t coming anywhere near my lips. Otherwise, it’s just a waste, because I will, without fail, pick around them.
To this day – most likely stemming from Sandra’s Campbell’s soup days – I also don’t have a particular affinity for tomato soup. That said (and since the criteria by which my brain accepts and rejects tomatoes is still a total enigma) there is one notable exception – and that is for the Moroccan soup harira, a tomato-based blend made with chickpeas, lentils and a handful of spices. It’s traditionally served during Ramadan as a nutrient-rich dish to break the daily fast, but I’m told that it’s served in different regions of Morocco, all year round. I first had harira at my friend Sophie’s house, when her husband, Hicham, cooked us dinner one night, a few short weeks after he’d come to Canada. We had it as a starter to lamb tagine with dates. A CD of gnawa music played in the background. We drank wine. He tried to teach me a few expressions in Arabic, though I only remember the words for ‘hello’, ‘no’, ‘look’ and ‘enough’. But the harira – I’ll always remember the harira: silky and tangy and heady with spices. It was the one tomato soup that broke the rules to my aversion. And for that – and to Hicham – I am forever grateful.
A note on the recipe: Most recipes incorporate meat (beef, lamb or chicken), broken up vermicelli noodles or rice, as well as a roux (called tadouira) of water and flour at the end of cooking to thicken it up a bit. The recipe below doesn’t have any of these things, but it’s a close approximation to Hicham’s harira, which is always filled with warm spices and creamy chickpeas, which he cooks from dried (not canned).
It’s a simple soup – but well-rounded, sustaining and comforting. Hope you like it.
Vegetarian Harira Soup
Makes 4-6 servings
- 100g lentils, rinsed and picked through
- 150g cooked chickpeas
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, pressed
- 3 Tbsp tomato paste
- handful fresh parsley, chopped
- 400g ripe tomatoes, smashed
- 700ml vegetable stock
- salt and pepper, to season
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp turmeric
- 1 tsp ginger powder
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp ground cloves
- 1/4 tsp cayenne
- pita bread
- fresh cilantro, chopped
Note: only add the salt at the end, otherwise the lentils won’t cook through.
1) Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Sauté the onion until browned. Add the garlic, spices, tomato paste and sauté for about 1 minute. Add the parsley, lentils, and smashed tomatoes (with their juices) and stir.
2) Stir in the vegetable stock and bring to a boil over high heat; reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 40 minutes. Add the cooked chickpeas and simmer for another 5 minutes, or until the lentils are cooked through. Season with salt and pepper.
3) Ladle into bowls and top with chopped cilantro, a little olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice (the lemon is important – don’t skip it!). Serve with pita or flatbread.