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Meditation Retreats, Friendship, and Red Lentil Dal — an Indian Version of “Stone” Soup

     As a self-declared “peasant cook”  I have a natural affinity and appreciation for stone soup.  What could be better than combining all kinds of ingredients in the pot to create something new?  This recipe comes from – well all over the place, as it should–but essentially it is stone soup with an Indian flare.
     For me this soup has a way of stirring up memories hankering back to days of embarking on a spiritual journey, of attending and hosting meditation retreats, and of traveling to ashrams in India.   In fact before participating in a meditation community, I had never cooked Indian food and was unfamiliar with red lentils. I only knew of the larger brown lentils – and I didn’t much care for their very earthy flavor.  But red lentils, I found out, I like.  They are smaller, and both sweeter and a little nutty (something like the meditation community itself!)  They are a common main ingredient in vegetarian dal, and as such are full of protein and very filling.   They are the perfect starting ingredient to feed a large crowd.   They are the stone in this stone soup. The basic recipe for this red lentil soup, also known as Masur Dal, shown in the picture attached, was originally copied down at a gathering with fellow meditators.
     The legend of stone soup, while it starts out as a kind of trick, ends up being about a gathering of community–of coming together and sharing–of letting go of individual belongings to create something greater.  Do you recall the story?
     Weary travelers–let’s call them gypsies — come to a village carrying nothing more than an empty pot.   They are starving when they arrive but the villagers are not willing to share any of their food.  So the gypsies fill the pot with water and drop a stone in the pot. The actions spark the curiosity of the villagers. They ask the gypsies what they are cooking.  “Stone Soup” is the reply. “Come join us!” they say.  “It’s quite tasty, although it would benefit from a little salt.”  One villager decides he doesn’t mind parting with a little seasoning to help them out.   The gypsies stir the pot.  “It’s very good, but a carrot might add something too.”  Another villager decides he can offer up a carrot. “Maybe some pepper … “  And so word gets out and soon all the villagers have come round the pot, bearing their own addition to the soup pot.   As each villager lets go of something from his or her own cupboard, the soup is enriched and grows more delicious, and the villagers instead of resenting feeding the gypsies, anxiously await the new concoction and ultimately appreciate the potential for new friendship.
     A meditation gathering, coincidentally, is much the same–although perhaps the opposite is happening.  Weary travelers on our own spiritual journey, we gather together for support, initially unknowingly hanging on tightly to our thoughts and beliefs.  As we sit with our own self–we notice our thoughts and we practice gently letting them go.  Ultimately, we discover something more–a quiet fullness that is present in the gaps between our thoughts.  Later, we share with the group our experiences.  And, as a result of sharing our intimate selves with other, we gain friends.  
     So while a full pot is the hope of the stone soup ritual and an empty mind is the hope of a meditation retreat–it comes from the same principal of letting go of our attachments and opening to something unknown with curiosity.  And, whether we empty our minds or fill our pots,  when we come together in friendship and share, something greater than the individual is bound to be experienced.
     And so it was that my spiritual journey encouraged me to be curious and ultimately led me to meet new people and to have all kinds of new experiences, including enjoying new and delightful foods.  As Jay and I got to know the meditation community, it came to pass that we offered to host meditation retreats at our house.  We would gather in communal spirit for several days and nights together.  Because the intention was to meditate – not to host a party – the eating arrangements were to be vegetarian and very simple:  yoghurt, granola, fruit and nuts in the morning; fruit in the afternoon; a one pot meal plus salad in the evening.  All the guests brought potluck ingredients so that nobody was too burdened with cooking obligations.  We took turns being responsible for the evening meal.  
     At the end of one of these retreats, our good friend and meditation teacher Durga, announced that she was going to make an Indian Masur Dal. I watched her fill a large pan with small very pretty tiny red beans and was immediately intrigued.  What are those?  How do you cook them?  She rinsed the red lentils and added water to the large pot.  She had set out turmeric, coriander, cumin, ginger, garlic, curry and coconut milk.  She indicated the rest of the ingredients would come from leftovers of earlier meals. 
     I can’t help but pause now, thinking of Durga.  Let me just say Durga is truly a force unto nature herself – small in stature, but large in spirit and exuberance (and hair J) she fills a room with her presence.  Her name, which represents a Hindu goddess, is a kind of spiritual stone soup in itself:  Durga is said to combine the energies of all the gods and the weapons depicted in her many arms are weapons given to her by various gods:  Rudra’s trident, Vishnu’s discus, Indra’s thunderbolt, Brahma’s kamandalu, Kuber’s Ratnahar.  Whatever the case, in the last 15 years, my stone soup friend, Durga, has taught me much about meditation and about the spiritual journey, but perhaps most about friendship — Durga understands the value of friendship, and honors it as a supreme spiritual path unto itself.   For Durga, friendship is the stone in her spiritual soup.
     But back to the red lentil soup . . . as Durga indicated that day, once you have the basics, you can add whatever else you want.  The last time I made this, I literally added all the leftovers in my fridge: tofu, potatoes, peas, broccoli, bell peppers, rice, onions, pesto . . .  Shortly afterwards, we went on a mini vacation, but there was still some left.  I asked our pet sitter to give Gypsy (our dog) some on top of her food.  Gypsy, who once was a  stray, always gets some sort of human food on her dog crunchies.  I figured she was used to foraging for human leftovers;  she so clearly loves them all.  Besides, it makes me smile to add some to her dinner every night – dogs should enjoy stone soup too!
     When we returned our pet sitter had left us a note.  “Everything went well.  By the way, what was that soup that I put on top of Gypsy’s food?  It looked delicious!  Can I have the recipe?”   
     So here it is, friends – a stone soup with an Indian flare honoring the soul searching Gypsy in all of us.
Basic Recipe:
1 cup red lentils
3 Tbl olive oil
1 onion, chopped finely
3 cloves garlic
½ tsp minced ginger
I usually use more
1/2 tsp turmeric
½ tsp – 1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp coriander
½ tsp garam masala
½ tsp mustard seeds
1 tsp crushed pepper
3 cups water or chicken broth
1 can coconut milk
Common additional ingredients:
1 can or 2 tomatoes, diced
1 carrot, chopped or grated
1 -2 bell pepper, chopped
½ bunch green onions, chopped
Lemon or lime juice
Cilantro or parsley to garnish
Options for the “stone soup” part:
I tend to add whatever leftovers I have
cooked potatoes
cooked rice or quinoa
Jalapenos or cayenne
Cooked broccoli
  • Heat the oil in a big pot and cook onions and garlic for a couple of minutes
  • Add green onions, peppers, and carrots. Stir for 5 minutes
  • Add tomatoes, ginger, turmeric, curry, cumin, coriander, garam masala, cumin, mustard seeds, crushed peppers, and salt. 
  • Stir for another 5 minutes, and add red lentils and water or broth
  • Bring to boil then simmer until done
  • Pour in coconut milk and simmer 10 more minutes 
  • Add cooked leftovers
  • Garnish with cilantro. Squeeze a little lemon or lime juice on the soup.

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