Lentil soup comes to the rescue in quake-ravaged Turkey
In the midst of the humanitarian crisis that's followed the Feb. 6 earthquake in Turkey and Syria, one relief supply has been ubiquitous: lentil soup.
"It's cold here," says 28-year-old Aylin Kilinçli at a tent encampment in the hard-hit city of Nurdagi. "When we eat the soup, it warms us," she says.
Kilinçli and her mother have just picked up two steaming cups of lentil soup from volunteer chefs. They cook the soup in 70-gallon metal cauldrons. Because gas and electrical service has been knocked out throughout the area, the lentil soup is bubbling over in pots that sit on cinder blocks over open wood fires.
Other food is also being distributed to the hundreds of thousands of people left homeless by the devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake. But throughout the quake-affected zone, lentil soup is a staple.
It's a familiar dish – one of the traditional soups in the area around the city of Gaziantep, home to some 2 million residents. But that's not the only reason for its popularity.
"It is very quick to cook the lentil soup even in an emergency state. Also it is easy to serve," says Gülay Bozkurt, a nutritionist and food engineer in a municipal kitchen that used to prepare free hot meals to distribute to 21 locations across the city. Now the kitchen is serving meals to quake survivors and relief workers.
People can eat it without any utensils, straight out of a bowl, she says. "You can eat it standing up. It is very practical."
"It's very nutritious," she adds, rattling off statistics about the calories, grams of protein, carbohydrates and vitamins per serving.
"Also it's loaded with onions and garlic," which, she says, help ward off infections and colds.
In short, it's a supersoup, especially during a humanitarian disaster. It warms the displaced, fuels rescue crews and serves as a comfort food for residents traumatized by the disaster, even those whose homes survived. Many of themcan't cook at home because the quakes destroyed gas and electric lines.
Faruk Izi is the director of the kitchen where Bozkurt oversees the lentil soup. He says that in the first days of this crisis, when so many people had lost their homes or were afraid to return to them, two things were essential.
"First it was water and then it was soup," he says. The first meal his facility prepared after the earthquake was lentil soup, huge vats of lentil soup. Normally Izi's municipal kitchen provides 13,000 meals a day. On the first day after the quake he says they distributed soup to more than 200,000 people.
"The most important thing that people need is something hot. Therefore we started to cook soup," he says. "We offered lentil soup and tea. In this cold weather having something hot is very important and soup is very important."
Their soup kitchen didn't sustain any damage, he notes – it's a government structure built to rigorous construction standards. The worst thing that happened was that some of the soup spilled.
Mikail Dağtekin, the head chef at the kitchen, says part of the beauty of lentil soup is its simplicity.
"First we boil the water," he says. "We add some olive oil and salt to the water." Then he adds 45 grams of lentils –or roughly a quarter of a cup – for each person they plan to feed. For Dağtekin that means dumping 55-pound sacks of pinkish lentils into the pot. Then he adds in onions and garlic.
"Onion and garlic is the most important part of it. You can't do without them," he says.
Dağtekin, a chef for 30 years, says there is no need for him to set a timer. "Boil it for a while," he says. When the lentils are soft, they're done. Then he mashes them with a long immersion blender that looks more like a power drill than a cooking utensil.
If he has meat broth, he adds broth. If he has no broth, he skips it.
Then he adds enough flour to thicken the soup.
Meanwhile, in another pot he heats up cold-extracted olive oil – that's a process that reportedly retains more nutrients. (Some other chefs say they use liters of melted butter for this step.) To the oil, he adds cumin, bay leaves and ground pepper both black and red. Let the spices seep into the oil but don't let it get too hot, he says. Then he adds some tomato paste into the oil and spices.
The final step in his recipe: Stir the oil mixture into the mashed lentils. Serve hot.
Asked for the secret to making a really good lentil soup, Dağtekin doesn't miss a beat. "We add into it our love," he says with a warm, broad smile.
At a time when so many people affected by the quake are facing so many hardships, the warmth of a traditional soup is about more than just the temperature of the bowl.
Samantha Balaban and Tuğba Öcek contributed to this story
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