Smoky Ethiopian Lentils

When the temperatures are low and the winds are biting I crave all things warm and exotic from the kitchen. Consistently better weather, minus spring tornado season, is just moments away, but while we wait, bring on the spicy complexity of North African and Middle Eastern flavors and foods.

Smoked paprika and Ethiopian berbere — a mix of spices that includes dried red chiles de árbol and a slew of aromatics — steal the show here, with red onion, garlic, spicy fresh ginger and rich sun-dried tomatoes rounding out the earthy black lentils. A splash of balsamic vinegar swirled in at the end as a subtle but bright touch bringing everything together.

Lentils fall into the pulse category — nutritionally-dense edible seeds of plants in the legume family, which also includes dried beans, chickpeas and split peas. Pulses are gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan, and among the cheapest sources of plant-based proteins on the market.

A staple food for cultures spanning the globe, today we’re utilizing flavors and ingredients from the eastern tip of Africa (plus a few from the Mediterranean). I chose black lentils for this recipe, because they have a clean, yet earthy flavor, and hold up during cooking without turning to mush.

What’s in it for me?

Like all lentils, black lentils are high in proteinfiber and iron; one serving (1/2 cup cooked) contains 12 g protein (2 g more per serving than red lentils), 10 g fiber, and over 20% of your DV for iron. Lentils are also a rich source of complex carbohydrates, mainly in the form of soluble fiber and resistant starch. Research shows that regular intake of all varieties of pulses, including lentils, may lower cholesterol levels, reduce risk of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers, and may improve mood for menopausal women.

Black lentils, also called beluga or French de Puy lentils, contain high concentrations of anthocyanins — pigments in blue-purple produce + grains that promote antioxidant activity with beneficial effects on cardiovascular function + inflammation, and are being studied for potential cancer-fighting and memory-improving abilities. Unlike the pre-cooking-soak + lengthy cooking time of dried beans, in some instances up to 60 or 120 minutes, lentils require no soak + this variety goes from the package to your bowl in about 35 minutes.

Phytochemicals prevalent in oniongarlic and ginger increase protection from hypertension, and are linked to lower cholesterol levels as well as decreased cancer risk. Ginger may boost immune cell activity, and is known for aiding digestion, alleviating nausea, and its anti-inflammatory properties.

We ate it in bowls atop a mess of braised kale (collards would be just as nice), with a drizzle of aged balsamic and lots of fresh cilantro and mint to finish. Add more flavor and color with garnishes of drained capers, chopped preserved lemon, or my Quick-Pickled Jalapeño Slices, or punch up the protein with a hard-boiled, soft-boiled or poached egg.

Next time I might take a note from a Weekly Suppers past and serve these “sloppy” with roasted asparagus over white grits, or loosen the lentils with a bit more stock, even coconut milk, to serve as a soup or dal with brown or Basmati rice. It keeps well in the refrigerator so think about doubling the recipe to enjoy it later in the week as a quick lunch at home or at the office. You can even pack it up and take your meal outdoors for the first springtime picnic!

Quick, uncomplicated, budget-friendly and healthy, this recipe is a meatless main keeper.

Cheers, Heather

Tell me… Do you regularly eat lentils, or would these pulses be a new addition to your meals? If the latter, even if the former, consider taking the Pulse Pledge with me — a delicious health upgrade awaits!

Smoky Ethiopian Lentils
Prep Time
Cook Time
Total Time
Recipe Type: meatless main, vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, entree, legumes, lentils
Makes: 4 servings
  • 2 tsp olive oil
  • 1 medium red onion, finely chopped (to yield about 1/2 cup)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and minced (to yield about 2 to 3 tsp)
  • 1/4 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained well and chopped, oil reserved
  • 1 Tbsp berbere spice mix (or Ras el Hanout, baharat or even a good chilli powder; see HGN Notes)
  • 2 tsp smoked paprika (regular paprika is fine, too, but won't offer the smoky flavor)
  • 1 cup dried black (beluga or de Puy) lentils, picked over and rinsed well (see HGN Notes)
  • 3 cups water (or homemade or low-sodium veg or chicken stock -- see HGN Notes), plus more as needed
  • 1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar (aged or regular is fine, but aged will have more flavor), plus more to finish
  • Handful fresh cilantro leaves, roughly chopped, to serve (optional)
  • Handful fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped, to serve (optional)
  1. Heat oil in a medium saucepan or Dutch oven over medium. Once hot, add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions soften and begin to turn golden brown, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add garlic and ginger; cook 1 minute more. Stir in the sun-dried tomatoes, berbere (or other seasoning) and paprika, and cook another 3 minutes. Add the lentils and 3 cups water (or stock), scraping up any bits stuck to the bottom. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, covered, until the lentils are tender, between 30 and 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. (Cooking time will vary depending on freshness of the lentils; see HGN Notes.)
  2. When the lentils are softened to your preference, stir in the balsamic vinegar and reserved sun-dried tomato oil. Taste, season with salt and pepper, and adjust spices, as needed.
  3. Ladle into four bowls, and finish with picked cilantro and mint leaves, if desired.
  4. TO MAKE AHEAD: The sloppy lentils can be cooked up to 2 days ahead. Let cool; cover and chill. Reheat as needed, or serve cold.
HGN Notes
Cooking time will vary depending on freshness of your black (beluga) lentils, and could be as much as 45 to 50 minutes. If using alternative types of lentils, e.g., green or brown, note suggested cooking times on the packages, as each variety is different. For this recipe, I would not recommend red lentils -- this variety does not hold its shape well during cooking, and is better for soups, stews and purees. And keep in mind that salt toughens pulses, like lentils, during cooking; therefore, you will notice that the salt is added only at the end of the recipe.

Short on time? Canned or frozen pre-cooked lentils are fine; just be sure to rinse or thaw, accordingly, before using + because they are cooked, add in the last 10 minutes of cooking.

Ethiopian spice blends can be sourced at many Middle Eastern food markets + online/in-store spice merchants, such as The Spice House, as well as larger traditional markets, including Whole Foods + World Market. To make your own Ras el Hanout, grab the HGN recipe here:

HGN recipe for homemade bone (chicken or other) stock + variation for veg stock:

+ Substitute a mild or hot chilli powder for the berbere, or try lemony sumac for a non-spicy Mediterranean flavor.
+ Give the lentils an Indian note by substituting the berbere with curry powder OR garam masala (HGN recipe here:
+ Use a different fresh herb in place of the cilantro and/or mint, such as basil, oregano, parsley, dill or chives.
+ Swap balsamic vinegar for cider, red or white wine vinegars, or omit entirely in favor fresh-squeezed orange or lemon juice.
+ Serve atop dark leafy greens or other green veg, tucked inside a small steamed sweet potato (or half of one large), or over a roasted half of a long thin eggplant; over white grits or polenta; or on a toasted English muffin (homemade: or other warm roll as a meatless alternative to "sloppy joes."
+ Bump up the protein and add another layer of flavor with a dollop of plain Greek yogurt or an egg (soft-boiled, hard-boiled or poached) on top.
Nutrition Info
Serving Size: 1/4 of recipe (about 1/2 cup) Calories: 219 Fat: 4 Saturated fat: 1 Unsaturated fat: 3 Trans fat: 0 Carbohydrates: 34 Sugar: 5 Sodium: 95 Fiber: 13 Protein: 13 Cholesterol: 0

Recipe adapted from Bon Appetit + Golubka Kitchen.

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Check out my downloadable nutrition guides.

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