The Story Behind the Soup

Mercimek Corbasi (Turkish Lentil Soup)

There are actually a few stories about this soup, but I’ll start from the beginning. My visit to Turkey just happened to fall during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. While there, I learned that many people break their fast at sunset with a traditional Turkish lentil soup called Mercimek Çorbasi. It’s perfect for this purpose because it is high in protein, warming to an empty stomach and satisfies so that you don’t gorge yourself after so many hours of fasting.

While traveling, I became a little obsessed with this soup. You can find it in every restaurant (and I did) even if it’s not on the menu. There are many variations, but all versions include red lentils, chili pepper and lemon. In my recipe I have included sumac spice, which is made from the powder of the red sumac berry (relative to poisonous sumac but this guy is not poisonous!). It has a really nice tart and tangy flavor and is used as garnish on many Turkish soups and sometimes as a substitute for lemon. You can find the spice in Middle Eastern markets in the US. Anyway, I really wanted to find a recipe for this soup, which takes me to the next story…

During a terrible rainstorm, Marissa and I found ourselves holed up in a really magical cafe near the Galata Tower. Everyone that worked in this cafe was so sweet and nice and they literally fed us constantly for 3 hours straight. Of course we had the lentil soup, which was the best I had tasted. One snag though – the owner/chef would not give up the recipe! While his back was turned though, his waitress (my hero) rattled off all the ingredients she could remember. I quickly jotted them all down, but knew I would need more detail to complete the recipe…

Me and the cafe owner who is apparently going to take his soup recipe to the grave, laughing all the way (very evil man!). Galata Tower is in the background.

That night we ended up taking a ferry to Kadıköy and of course missed our ferry back (many ferries were missed in Istanbul) and ended up meeting Selçuk. This was very fitting as we were just discussing how we would get to the town of Selçuk the next day. Not only did Selçuk help us plan the rest of our trip, he also invited us to a dinner at his friend’s pizzeria where we met a number of his sweet friends AND, most importantly, he later sent me the recipe for Mercimek Çorbasi. I have combined his recipe with what I jotted down at the cafe:

With Selçuk & buddies at the pizzeria

Thanks Selçuk for sharing your soup recipe (unlike a certain cafe owner)!



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  • Knob

    I was actually blessed with the opportunity to sample the soup and I must say it was absolutely delicious. I’m a very picky eater so I was a bit nervous at first, but much to my surprise, it tasted amazing. I especially enjoyed the spicy flavor that the red pepper flakes gave off. You could actually taste the difference between regular store bought pepper flakes and the ones that Chitra used. Another great point was that the soup wasn’t laced with an abundance of sodium!

    Overall I give this soup like a 10!!!

  • Erin

    I agree – this soup was so delicious!!! It is exactly what you want to eat on a cold fall or winter day. It is really filling and warms up your body – a hearty meal with lots of yummy spice!

  • Aparna

    Chitra, this was the amazing Turkish soup I experienced in Istanbul and that I told you about! Glad you discovered it and chased down the recipe! I think I will make it for a dinner party soon. What else would you make with it to complete a meal? Love, Aparna

  • Chitra

    This soup is actually quite filling from the lentil and potato so if you just have a salad with some bread and cheese that would suffice for a meal. Also some people put a little dollop of yogurt on top as well.

  • Katie

    Just found your blog thru — I love it! I am fascinated by Indian food, and all of your recipes look great…I’ll definitely try some soon. I love red lentils in soup, so I think this will be my first ABCD recipe try. Keep it up, you have a great blog!

  • Katie

    Made this, and it was wonderful!

  • newwaytowrite

    A cousin lived in Turkey for about 5 years. This soup was one of the many dishes she learned to cook in terms of Turkish cuisine. It is incredible and I too now make it regularly.

    Also her Kishir recipe is a fantastic and it is a staple around here.

    Now I am hungry.

    I am leaving this comment now as I saw your comment on Kitchn of Apartment Therapy.