This Middle Eastern dish of lentils with pasta, known by many names, becomes pageantry on the plate.
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There is never one lentil but always a crowd. They start out as pebbles in the hand, hard and tiny — in certain parts of the world, they are the size against which all small things are measured. Then, in the pot, their little stony hearts melt. They soften, loosen up and let other flavors in. They’re still discrete, still individuals, but now joined in common cause, and they swell and grow plump, so you end up with more than twice as much, velvety and lush. They feed many.
In the West we tend to think of lentils as merely virtuous, something good for us. So eating them feels like a duty, and our desire for them wilts. Other cultures are wiser. They know this humble, inexpensive ingredient is a path to luxury. Out of a handful of seeds, abundance; out of austerity, splendor.
The lentil stew rqaq w adas is extravagant on the table, but has its origins in thrift. As the Palestinian artist and chef Mirna Bamieh explains, it was traditionally a way to use scraps of dough left over from baking bread. (In Arabic, adas are lentils, rqaq is a flatbread as thin and nearly as sheer as paper and w — here pronounced “wa” — is the conjunction that unites them.) First the lentils are set to simmer with a dusting of cumin, bringing its stealthy warmth. Then the onions go in, bronzed from a pan, along with tamarind, to make the mouth pucker, and sweet-sour pomegranate molasses — which is molasses only in spirit, slow-moving and thick, the fruit’s ruby seeds crushed and strained and the juice cooked down to a near lacquer.
This could be enough on its own, but here comes the dough. The scraps not destined for bread are rolled out, then up into cylinders and slashed into long skinny strands that look like tagliatelle. If there are no scraps, no matter: The dish is so good, so earthy and flagrantly delicious, that people don’t wait for the excuse of baking day to make it. Instead, they knead together a quick dough or swap in dried pasta. (It’s just as great.) The noodles are dropped right in the pot, to cook among the lentils, leaching starch into the water and making it even richer.
The work in the kitchen is invisible, but there is pageantry on the plate: bright pops of pomegranate seeds, fresh parsley, little pan-fried squares of flatbread and crispy onions all entwined. These are strewn over the top, not willy-nilly if you want to do it right, but in bold stripes. (You may forgo the onions or the flatbread to save time — what you can’t do without are the pomegranate and parsley, for a sweet crunch and sunny finish.)
Rqaq w adas is known by different names. Sometimes the ingredients are reversed and yoked by a preposition. In some areas, it is called rishta or, poetically, harak osbao, or he-burned-his-finger — presumably commemorating a diner who was too eager to dig in. Bamieh, who was born in Jerusalem, didn’t grow up eating it at home. She found it later in life, when she began to research the cuisine of her heritage in 2017. She wondered why the Palestinian restaurants in Ramallah at the time all served the same limited number of dishes. Recipes are both living history and cultural archive, and she worried about what was being lost in the fragmentation of life under occupation. “Dishes are leaving our tables,” she says. “Stories are leaving us.”
She traveled through the West Bank and Israel, studying local culinary traditions. In one village, she touched the grooves of an ancient hand-carved wooden mold used for generations to bake milk bread for Easter. Then she went deeper, going family to family, documenting their cooking practices and repeated displacements. Later that year, she founded the Palestine Hosting Society and started staging dinner-performances to tell the stories behind the food — of foraging for snails in the hills of the Upper Galilee and fishing off the coast of Gaza (before the Israeli government set restrictions); of grandmothers shaping qizha, an inky tahini of pulverized nigella seeds that is a specialty of the ancient city of Nablus, into dark orbs laced with orange-blossom water, each hoarding a whole pistachio inside.
“I’m presented sometimes as a food activist,” Bamieh says. “I’m just doing what I like.” She thinks of these dinners — with the food laid out slowly, course after course, and everything shared — as “a way for people to talk to each other. To be curious.”
Recipe: rqaq w adas (lentils with pasta)