A lentil soup with its heart in Armenia
By Joan Nathan
For her birthday, my friend Audrey wanted one thing: a lentil soup from Yerevan Market and Cafe, an Armenian spot in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
Ethereal yet somehow earthy, it was unlike any lentil soup we’d ever had — orange and slightly tangy. We were left curious about its flavor.
It turned out the secret ingredient was apricots, the national fruit of Armenia.
Though apricots originated in China, their tie to Armenia is strong. They’re botanically known as Prunus armeniaca (or “Armenian plum”). The wood of the tree is used to make the duduk, an ancient Armenian wind instrument still played today. When Armenia gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, its new flag was striped in red, blue and an orange hue that recalls what else but the apricot.
“Armenians are very much in love with apricots,” said Marina Sarukhanyan, the owner of Silk Apron Catering in Gaithersburg, Maryland, which counts Yerevan among its customers.
According to Armenian folklore, apricots were among the fruit that Noah brought on the ark to cultivate after the floodwaters receded. These most coveted trees are in the Ararat Valley, beneath Mount Ararat — the mountaintop on which the ark supposedly landed.
Armenians collect apricots quickly during their short season, to be put to use in pies, breads and punch. Often, the fruit is cut and dried in the sun for fruit leathers, frequently called fruit lavashes, one of the oldest-known snacks. Mostly they’re eaten fresh.
But possibly the most exquisite, yet simple Armenian dish in which apricots feature is simmered and savory. It was that very soup we tasted: tsirani vosp apur, which is among the modern Armenian dishes Sarukhanyan prepares for her clients, alongside lahmajoun and jingalov hats with 14 different herbs and greens.
Traditionally eaten in and around Yerevan, the Armenian capital where Sarukhanyan was born, the soup is prepared with fresh apricots in the summer and dried apricots throughout the year and can be eaten hot or cold.
“This contemporary soup is as common today as vegetable soup in other countries,” said Sarukhanyan, who came to the United States in 2006. “But Armenians from outside Armenia may not even know this dish.”
Lentils (red, orange or yellow), tomatoes and sometimes carrots are simmered in vegetable broth, though you could also use chicken broth. Lemon juice lends a punch of acidity. Then, it’s drizzled with pomegranate syrup and finished with a few bright red pomegranate seeds, if you have them. But the defining feature of this distinctive soup is, of course, the apricots.
“We have the best in the world,” Sarukhanyan said.
Tsirani Vosp Apur
(Armenian Apricot and Lentil Soup)
This soup is best made with fresh apricots, available at farmers markets and grocery stores for a few precious weeks in the summer. But when fresh are not in season, Marina Sarukhanyan of Silk Apron Catering, who makes it year-round for her customers, suggests using bright-orange unsulfured apricots, not the dark ones. She usually gets hers from Iranian food stores, but you may be able to find them in Middle Eastern, Armenian or Russian shops as well. Make sure to drizzle the soup with tart pomegranate syrup, which contrasts with the apricots in a lovely way. — Joan Nathan
Yield: 4 servings (about 7 1/2 cups)
Total time: 55 minutes, plus 40 minutes’ optional soaking
1 1/2 cups roughly chopped fresh apricots (about 7 ounces, from 2 large or 4 small apricots), or 1 cup sugar-free, unsulfured dried apricots
2 tablespoons avocado or vegetable oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 medium tomato or 1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, chopped
5 to 6 cups vegetable broth
2 cups red, orange or yellow split lentils, rinsed
2 medium carrots, roughly chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 lemon, juiced, plus more if desired
Pomegranate syrup, for drizzling
1. If using dried apricots, at least 40 minutes before cooking, cut them into quarters, soak in warm water to cover, then drain and set aside. (This can be done up to a day ahead. Cover and refrigerate, then bring to room temperature before using.)
2. Warm the oil in a medium saucepan set over medium-high heat. Add the onion, season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring often, until the onion begins to turn golden at the edges, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomato and cook for 5 minutes more, stirring frequently.
3. Pour 5 cups of the vegetable broth into the pot, scraping any stuck-on bits from the bottom, and bring to a boil. Add the lentils, cover, and reduce the heat to maintain a strong simmer. Cook, stirring once or twice, until the lentils are soft, 15 to 20 minutes.
4. Stir in 1 more cup of broth if the soup is too thick, then add the carrots, apricots and 1/2 teaspoon salt, and season with pepper to taste. Increase the heat to bring to a boil again, then reduce the heat and simmer, partly covered and stirring once or twice, for 10 minutes, or until the carrots are as cooked as you’d like.
5. Turn off the heat and stir in the lemon juice, then taste. If it’s not sour enough, add a little more, and adjust for salt and pepper.
6. Ladle into bowls and serve warm, with pomegranate syrup drizzled over the top.