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.