Red Lentil Soup with Toasted Coriander


When I think of the zambra, I am reminded of the time I got lost in the gypsy quarter of the Albaicín in Granada at 1 am in the morning. Somehow I had taken a different turn and had completely missed the secret steps to my apartment. My adventurous soul, being seduced by the thick fragrance of jasmine and the magic of the Alhambra, had lingered a little longer through the maze of the Albaicín, made worse by lack of daylight. Was I worried? A little, but then again a gypsy guitarist had blessed me with a long and happy life the night before, incidentally, also at 1 am in the morning. What can I say? Flamenco happens at night, in caves set up for touristic spectacles and in the gypsy quarters, where folks from young ’til old stay up late to socialize with their families. I would love to say that I came upon a gypsy family dancing a zambra. That would be make believe, however, not farfetched, since the Arabic word for zambra means ‘party’. Today’s zambra dance in the caves of the Sacromonte are called zambra granadina and are gypsy festivals, mainly danced at weddings.

As far as the origins of flamenco dance go, music and song came before the dance. At the beginning of the twentieth century, an influx of artists and musicians to Granada were engaged in a song contest led by Manuel de Falla and Federico García Lorca to preserve the art of flamenco. A new style of zambra song and dance evolved. From a musical standpoint, today’s zambra is closest in style to the tangos, a much faster and more melodic version than its oriental counterpart.

One of my most favorite, modern flamenco singers is Estrella Morente, from Granada of course. Here is ¿Qué quieres de mí?, her interpretation of a zambra.

By now you are probably wondering how my story ends. As luck would have it, I did indeed stumble upon a gypsy family, in fact, that of a gypsy guitarist I had listened to at Le Chien Andalou, a flamenco cave bar. He graciously listened to my broken Spanish and pointed me in the direction of my street.

(Serves 4-6)

1 cup red lentils
6 cups water
1 medium onion
1 tablespoon coconut oil
3-4 celery stalks (finely chopped)
1-2 teaspoons whole coriander (crushed and toasted)
1/2 teaspoon whole cumin (crushed and toasted)
1/2-1 cup fresh cilantro (chopped)
salt and pepper to taste
pimentón to taste

Sauté onion and celery in coconut oil until translucent, 5-7 minutes. Crush the whole spices with a pestle and mortar (or in a spice grinder) and toast for a couple of minutes in a warm dry pan until fragrant. Take care not to burn them. Add the spices to the onion and celery and sauté for a couple minutes more. Rinse the lentils and add them together with the water to your soup pot and simmer on medium heat for 20-25 minutes. When the lentils are done to your liking, add freshly chopped cilantro, salt, pepper and pimentón to taste. Serve immediately, or make ahead and reheat.

(dedicated to my friend Natasha T.)