Black lentil stew
Black lentil stew with beets and greens Photo by Daniel Lila
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Daniel Lila
Bulgar and lentil stew. Photo by Daniel Lila

Lentils, those unassuming modest legume, have a special place in Jewish mourning tradition. And as the fast of Tisha B’Av, which begins at sundown on Saturday, approaches, lentils are on the table once again.

According to Jewish tradition, the small round lentil symbolizes the circle of life and is therefore eaten in many Jewish communities as part of the consolation meal of mourners or during the days before Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The Gemara also sees symbolism in the fact that lentils, as opposed to other legumes, has no opening, no “mouth”, just like the mourner who has no words to express his grief.

On the seuda mafseket, the last meal eaten before the fast of Tisha B’Av begins, tradition teaches us to serve only one cooked dish - a vegetarian one - since meat and wine are forbidden. In my family we used to eat the Iraqi kitchri, a simple stew of rice and red lentils that is served with browned onions. Other Sephardi families make majadra, the more popular sister of kitchri, which is made with rice and brown or green lentil (those, unlike the red lentils, keep their shape after being cooked).

Some Ashkenazim serve a hardboiled egg, another round-shaped food that symbolizes the circle of life, sometimes sprinkled with ash.

In many communities the prohibition of eating meat and drinking wine on the seuda mafseket was expanded and performed from the beginning of the month of Av. A dish of kitchri or majadra, served with yogurt and caramelized onions or garlic on top, would be a complete protein-fulfilling meal for these days.

While the kitchri and the common majadra combine lentils with rice, the Lebanese Majadra - mixes bulgar with the lentils. The bulgar should be of the coarse type (the thinned variety is used for tabbuleh, for example, but is less suitable for cooking), and when simply cooked with green or brown lentils and a little salt, it is my favorite side dish all year long. While the dish is cooking you can slowly brown onions in a separate pan and mix them in or serve them on top when the lentils are ready. Or have a jar of crispy dried fried onions ready in your pantry (I always do. You can buy them at Middle Eastern markets or Whole Foods) and mix a couple of tablespoons in during the cooking.

It’s a great side dish during the week, not just before Tisha B’Av, but never on Shabbat! You could also serve it as a meal by itself with Greek yogurt on top and a large salad on the side.

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