G Daniela Galarza
THE WASHINGTON POST – In 1983, a restaurant called Reza’s opened on the corner of Berwyn Avenue and Clark Street in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. Characterized by a simple sign and glass-fronted doors, it was small, barely seating six tables.
But it quickly became a hub for Iranian immigrants in the Windy City.
The Iranians who gathered there were looking for more or less the same things: communal and Persian flavors — floral, saffron-scented basmati rice, creamy soups, thick stews, and tender stewed meats. These were the tense, unsettling years following the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the Iran hostage crisis.
Born in Iran but settled in Chicago after the revolution, my mother and aunt found Reza’s in its early days. It quickly became a second home for them and the families they raised in Chicago.
It’s not too far-fetched to say that I grew up within the brick walls of Reza’s dining room in Chicago. In the mid-1980s, the restaurant expanded from its original cramped footprint into a sprawling array of rooms, eventually seating 200 guests or more.
This may be hard to believe, but I was a picky eater as a kid. My mother tells me that when I was five or six I didn’t want to eat anything except the appetizer that Reza’s serves free with every appetizer order: a chunky tomato-based lentil soup, thick with rice and topped off with lemon juice and lots of chopped parsley.
After we ordered our main courses—long skewers of grilled meat or chicken, lamb shanks simmered with onions and tomatoes, fesenjan, or ghormeh sabzi—the waiters arrived from the kitchen with bowls of soup, baskets of warm pita, and plates of feta and sprigs of herbs (naan-o paneer -o sabzi). It’s rare that a formal Iranian meal excludes this combination of warm bread, cheese and herbs. But Reza added the soup.
I had my own little ritual around it. I crumbled in bits of feta and bread and let the cheese poach in the hot soup almost into creamy dumplings while the bread thickened it into a mush. As family members pushed away their bowls of soup to make room for their main courses, I asked for their uneaten bowls.
Once my mother asked the manager at Reza’s if they would share the recipe but they always declined, saying it belonged to Reza’s mother and was a family secret.
As an adult, I recreated it from taste memory. It’s a bowl of spicy warmth, with softened lentils and rice in a ruddy broth flavored with onion, cumin, cinnamon and parsley. For the full experience, serve with warm pita, feta, and fresh herbs to nibble between spoons.
PERSIAN-STYLE TOMATO AND LENTIL SOUP
Active time: 20 minutes | Total time: 50 minutes
Four to six servings (makes about seven cups of soup)
Storage Instructions: Leftovers can be stored in the refrigerator for up to four days.
– Three tablespoons of ghee or olive oil
– One medium yellow onion, diced
– Three quarters of green or brown lentils
– Half a cup of uncooked basmati rice
– A can of tomato paste
– A teaspoon of ground cumin
– A teaspoon of dried mint leaves (optional)
– Half teaspoon fine salt, plus more as needed
– Quarter teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
– Quarter teaspoon of ground cinnamon
– Six cups of low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth, divided
– Half a bunch of fresh parsley, preferably curly, leaves and tender stalks, finely chopped and divided, plus more for serving
– Quarter cup of fresh lemon juice (from two large lemons), plus more to taste
– Fresh herbs like parsley, scallions, tarragon, dill for serving to taste (optional)
– Six ounces of feta for serving (optional)
In a large Dutch Oven or saucepan with a lid, heat the ghee or oil over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the onion, stirring occasionally, until just beginning to brown, about five minutes.
Stir in the lentils and rice and brush with the fat. Add tomato paste, cumin, dried mint if using, salt, pepper and cinnamon. Add about 2 cups of the broth and stir to dissolve the tomato paste and evenly distribute the spices. Add the remaining broth, stir well, increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, stir, cover and simmer until rice and lentils are cooked, 20 to 25 minutes. (If the soup comes out thicker than you’d like, add water, 1/4 cup at a time.) Taste and adjust the seasonings as needed.
Stir in about three quarters of the parsley and remove from the heat. Stir in the lemon juice just before serving. Divide the soup among plates, garnish with the remaining parsley and serve hot.