Vegetarian Curried Green Lentil Soup with Sweet Potatoes

Vegetarian Curry Green Lentil and Sweet Potato Soup

One of my favorite things in the world might be throwing an impromptu dinner party with just a few hours’ notice. Maybe it’s all those years in my teens and early 20s spent in restaurant kitchens, but I love the mad dash to plan a menu and execute with only what I’ve got in the fridge and pantry.

Just such an opportunity arose Thursday afternoon. We’d scheduled a get together with all of my girlfriends to celebrate the year that was, gathering in a few out of towners in Chicago visiting family for the holidays. We’d planned to go out for dinner, but had not called ahead for reservations, and the spot we’d picked was booked, which gave me the opportunity to offer to host and whip up…something for a crowd of 10. Mind you, we’d just returned from five days in Michigan with family, so the fridge was a teensy bit bare, but there were enough bits and bobs of green, and my well stocked pantry saved the day to make a fitting feast.

With 3 hours until party time, I assembled a big pot of beef and black bean chili, spiked with a tiny bit of Mexican chorizo that was lingering in the fridge, gluten free cornbread, a white peach balsamic vinegar slaw with fennel, apple, cabbage, toasted pepitas and dried cranberries, and finally, this pot of curried green lentil soup, which turned out to be an unexpected star of the menu.

The soup is vegetarian, and can be vegan with swapping out the tiny bit of butter for olive oil and suffer none for the change. Typically, I have homemade veggie broth in the freezer, but the freezer was bare, so as I searched the crisper drawer for flavor options, I knew I’d have to layer in flavors with a couple of tricks to make a full bodied soup that satisfied.

I’ve fallen hard for Indian flavors in the last few years, and with my dear friend Sabera teaching me what her momma taught her, I applied a couple of Indian techniques in the creation of this quick soup. Making the flavor foundation by frying the black mustard seeds and ribbons of fresh curry leaves in oil before sauteeing the veggies gets this humble soup off to a good start, and applying the same technique of herbs fried in oil at the end brings a fresh punch of curry to the finished pot of soup.

Curried French Green Lentil and Sweet Potato Soup
Serves 5-6 as main course

Lentil Quick Brine
1 ½ cups of french de puy lentils*
2 T kosher salt for lentil brining, plus more to season soup to taste


2 T olive oil, divided
1 T butter
1 T brown mustard seeds
12 fresh curry leaves, divided*
1 onion, diced
2 carrots, peeled and diced
1 orange or red bell pepper, cleaned and diced
2 1/2 T Madras (or sweet) curry powder, divided
1 tsp garam masala
4 cloves minced garlic, divided
1 T tomato paste
2 Sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into bite sized cubes
¼ tsp red pepper flakes
1-2 tsp red wine or sherry vinegar

*Ingredient notes: I’ve recommended the French de Puy Lentils here, as I like that they keep their shape a bit more than standard brown or green lentils, but if you can’t find them, by all means, substitute with your favorite variety of lentil.

You will typically find fresh curry leaves at Indian or Asian Markets – a flat, waxy leaf, you’ll know them when you smell them, and when you do, buy a couple of bunches and keep them in your freezer in a plastic Ziploc bag, so that you can pull out a few leaves as you need them.  Fresh curry leaves add an extra earthy punch that you just can’t get from ground curry leaves that create intense aroma in the finished dish. If you can’t find curry leaves, add an extra teaspoon or two of curry powder for a little extra oomph.

  1. Soaking the lentils:  Boil up a kettle of water, and add 2 T kosher salt to a 2qt bowl. Add the lentils, and cover with 3-4 inches of water, stirring to dissolve the salt. Soak for 1-2 hours while you prep the veggies for the rest of the soup and perhaps enjoy a cup of tea.
  2. Heat a large soup pot over medium heat. Add 1 T butter and 1 T olive oil to the hot pan. When the butter has melted, add 1 T brown mustard seeds and 6 fresh curry leaves sliced into ribbons. Stir around with a spatula until you start to hear the mustard seeds start to pop and jump around in the oil.
  3. Add the diced onion, carrots and bell pepper to the pot with a pinch of kosher salt, and saute for 5-8 minutes, until the onion is translucent, stirring every now and then.
  4. Add 1 ½ T of madras curry powder, 1 tsp garam masala, ¼ tsp red pepper flakes and 2 minced cloves of garlic to the softened vegetables and stir for 1-2 minutes until fragrant.
  5. Drain the lentils, and rinse for a few seconds under running water in a sieve. Pour the lentils into the pot along with the tomato paste and cover with 2 inches of water, cover and bring to a boil. Once the soup reaches a boil, turn the heat down to low and simmer, covered, for 40 minutes, until the lentils are nearly tender, and just a tad on the al dente side. Stir the pot whenever you think of it, but it doesn’t need a lot of babysitting. Add more water if the lentils get too thick, you want the soup to have a bit of broth to it.
  6. Add the cubed sweet potatoes to the pot, stirring them in, and then cook covered for another 20 minutes until the potatoes are tender. As before, pour a little more water into the pot as needed.
  7. When the lentils and potatoes are tender, it’s time to spice up the soup. Heat a small pan over medium heat, then add the remaining 1 T of olive oil, 2 cloves minced garlic, remaining and 6 fresh curry leaves sliced into ribbons. Cook for 2 minutes until the curry leaves start to crisp and the garlic has softened a bit, and then add the 1 T madras curry powder, and stir for 30 more seconds.
  8. Pour the oil and spice mixture into the soup and stir. The last hit of spices and oil will brighten up the soup and refresh the curry flavors.
  9. Finally, season the soup with kosher salt to taste – it might take a healthy pinch or two to get the right balance, and finish with 1-2 tsp of red wine or sherry vinegar to brighten the flavor of the cooked lentils. Serve your hungry guests.

Chana Dal

Sabera is one of my very favorite bloggers. Over on One Life to Eat, she shares simple recipes from her homeland, India. Sabera has taught me a few of the subtle techniques in Indian cooking that really make the spice combinations sing. Like dropping black mustard seeds in hot oil to hear them crackle and pop before sauteeing the onions. The aroma of the spiced oil is amazing and immediately reminds me of my favorite chana masala dish at the small Indian cafe in our neighborhood.

A couple weeks ago, there was a beautiful 60 degree, sunny day…seems like ages ago now, as we’ve been stuck back in the high 30s with gale-force winds for days on end. I took advantage of the good weather and got my bike out for my first ride of the season. I went down to the Indian/Pakistani area on Devon Avenue in Chicago to stock up on spices and lentils so I could make a few of Sabera’s recipes. Biking down Devon is a sensory experience. As you coast down the small hill into the Indian corridor, the smell of spices wafts from open shop doors and the aroma of roasting meats from the Kebab houses makes your stomach rumble. Biking also allows you to take in all the sights at a slow pace, so you can stop and wander into any shop that looks interesting – not to mention that parking a bike is MUCH easier than parking a car in this bustling neighborhood.

Patel Brothers
grocery is a spice-lover’s haven. The walls are lined floor to ceiling with cubbies full of spice packets, many of which are unfamiliar to this Midwestern woman. Luckily, Patel is well-staffed, and I had a personal guide through the shop to help locate everything on my list – and then some. Returning home, I dove into the kitchen to soak some chana dal (split chickpeas) so I could make this dish the next day. This is a really simple dal, and I loved the heartiness of the split chickpeas which retain most of their structure after the dal is made. Sauteeing the onions with the whole spices and curry leaves really made a huge flavor impact on the finished dish. I don’t often cook with curry leaves, but every time I do, I’m reminded of how important they are, adding a wonderful fragrance to any dish and a light curry flavor without a lot of heat.  If you enjoy dal, I’d encourage you to give this one a try!

What’s your favorite kind of dal, or your favorite chickpea dish? Share your chickpea obsessions in the comments below…

Chana Dal
Adapted from One Life to Eat
Serves 6

2 T olive oil + 1 T coconut oil
2 cups Channa dal (Split Chickpeas) washed well and soaked overnight in a large bowl, covered in at least 3″ of water
1 large onion chopped
1 can diced fire roasted tomatoes
3-4 curry leaves
1 T black mustard seeds (same as brown mustard seeds)
1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds
4 cloves chopped garlic
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 T fresh grated ginger
3/4 tsp chili powder
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp Garam masala
Salt to taste
A large handful of chopped cilantro
Lemon wedges for garnishing

  1. Heat large dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the oil, and when it’s hot and shimmering, add the mustard, cumin seeds and curry leaves. When the seeds start to pop and splutter, add the onions and saute until the onions are translucent and soft – about 5-7 minutes.
  2. Add the ginger & garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and cook until heated throough. Add the chopped bell pepper and add all the dry spices and cook for another 5 minutes.
  3. Drain off all water from the soaked chickpeas, rinse and add to the pot. Add enough water to almost, but not quite cover the beans. Cover, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer until the beans are done, but not mushy – about 2 1/4 hours. Stir the beans occasionally as they cook. (Note: bean cooking time will vary, so it may be more or less time for you). If the beans soak up all the liquid while cooking, you can add a bit more as they cook.  Add salt to taste.
  4. Chop a big handful of cilantro and stir it in at the last moment, reserving a few leaves to garnish each bowl. Serve with brown rice, or Indian breads (roti, naan, paratha). Add a wedge of lemon with each bowl for seasoning.
300 cal per 1 cup serving, 45 cal from fat, 9g fat, 410mg sodium, 150mg potassium, 43g carbs, 8g fiber, 4g sugar, 15g protein