I've been in France for a little more than a month now, and for the most part I've been embracing French ingredients and cooking methods: you can't get much better than a cuisine based on delicious essentials like good butter, good bread, good cheese, and aromatics like garlic, shallots, onions, and a variety of herbs. That being said, it's getting to the point where I'm starting to miss the heavily Asian accents my cooking has been taking on over the past few years, and especially right before I made the big move overseas.
I find it odd that for a country that happily colonized several Asian countries during its Third Republic, the French are remarkably resistant to spicy food, and, in general, Asian ingredients and condiments are quarantined to a limited number of specialty épiceries , or grocery stores. You should see the "international" section in my local supermarket; I almost literally laughed, when I did. There were a few dusty jars of curry sauce, some teriyaki and soy sauce, a little bag of dried peppers. Not much to work with, that. (To be fair, I've heard good things about the épiceries asiatiques here in Toulouse, and I'm planning on checking them out this week or next. I'll report back.)
Sometime last week, I was jonesing for a quick, spicy dinner, and my heart sank a bit when I realized that my usual staple, fried rice, just wasn't going to be possible: I was lacking, well, almost everything but the rice. I did notice, however, a small carton of coconut milk among the pantry items, and when I also spied some bright red lentils nearby, I had it: curried lentils. I'd never made it before, but it seemed easy enough, and fast, too: red lentils cook through in about 15 minutes.
I set to work chopping up some garlic, ginger, shallots, and a (homegrown!) red chili. Then I took a picture, because I thought the colors looked pretty together:
Then I rinsed some of the aforementioned lentils, drained them, and took another picture because, they, too, looked beautiful:
I sautéed the garlic, ginger, shallots and chili in some oil, adding a few good shakes of curry powder when they softened. Then I added the lentils, the container of coconut milk, and enough water to cover. I simmered this mixture over medium-low heat, adding more water as necessary, for about 15 minutes, then ate the curry over rice, with a squeeze of lemon and some harissa (the easiest hot sauce to find in these parts, France being so near to North Africa and all) on top. It wasn't fried rice, but it went down just fine.
Curried Red Lentils
2 tbsp. vegetable or canola oil
3 cloves of garlic, minced
3 tbsp. minced fresh ginger
3 shallots, finely chopped
1 hot red chili, seeds removed, minced
1 tbsp. curry powder
3 cups red lentils, rinsed and drained (you cannot substitute green or brown lentils, they don't cook in the same way)
1 can (14 oz.) coconut milk, or use light coconut milk
Lemon or lime wedges, for serving
Sriracha or other chili sauce, for serving
1. Heat the oil in a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan set over a medium flame. Add the garlic, ginger, shallot and chili and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the curry powder and cook until heated through, about 1 minute.
2. Add the lentils, the coconut milk, and enough water to cover the lentils by about 1 inch. Salt. Bring the mixture up to a boil, then drop to a simmer.
3. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, adding more water if the lentils absorb it all too quickly. Check for seasoning and serve over rice, with lemon or lime wedges and sriracha.