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Back to basics - Getting centred with lentils after rich holiday feasting

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If you’ve just about ODed in a wonderfully decadent way on gooey chocolates, holiday hams and too much turkey, have I got a quick fix for you.

One of my favourite gifts this Christmas was a Chunky Cook Book from the UK’s New Internationalist Press called Vegetarian Main Dishes from Around the World. Its name belies its size: this little book only measures about 4 by 5 inches but it packs a wallop, and not just in the food department.

Sales of this book support Fair Trade, plus the only place in the Lower Mainland where I know you can get it is in one of the Ten Thousand Villages Stores (on Commercial, Broadway or Davie Street in Vancouver, in North or West Van, or Langley). So to get a copy you’ll have to walk in the door of one of these amazing little shops where you can conduct your “commerce with a conscience” and walk away with exotic gifts that add to, not take away from someone’s life elsewhere.

Reading it is a journey away from winter and a feast unto itself: the recipes are simple and authentic — enough to make any post-holiday junkie swoon. There’s a fragrant spicy stir-fry from Bangladesh featuring turmeric, chili and lots of potatoes and peas; a Syrian casserole with eggplant; and an Ethiopian shiro wat (peanut stew) — dishes you might have savoured on your travels or while dining out but could never find recipes for them.

While every recipe looks great, it was the dal with coconut from India that got me to the kitchen first. I knew I had all the ingredients at hand, plus there’s something about eating lentils that makes me feel, to borrow an old hippie term, centred.

But reading the recipe I was confused: wasn’t dal the name of the dish made with lentils, not the lentils themselves? So I started a little investigation into lentils.

First off, my Encyclopedia Britannica explained that lentils come from a small annual legume that’s a member of the pea family, so-named for their lens-shaped seed. They are one of the most ancient cultivated foods, known for their rich protein — about 26 per cent of their content. “Dal” is simply a Hindi word (also spelled “dahl”) that refers to both the lentil and the dish you make from it.

I’ve also seen lentils called “pulses”, especially in European cookbooks. “Pulses” refers to all seeds from legumes that come in pods and are used for human or animal food. Pulses are all high in protein (about 20-25 per cent by weight) and come in a variety of forms, including lentils, soybeans, kidney or lima beans, peas and garbanzo beans.

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