Both Indian and Ethiopian cooks use ajwain when making lentils; this recipe is something of a hodgepodge of those two traditions. Ajwain's thymol content provides an aromatic lift while its other flavors create a distinctive curry-like background. When combined with rich, full-bodied paprika, it elevates the humble lentil to a warm, earthy, and complex bowl of comfort food. You can alter the proportion of sweet to hot paprika according to your tastes and heat tolerance, but all sweet paprika may be too bland. The amount of paprika may also seem pretty high, but lentils can take plenty of spice, and it is the main flavor- and color-component of this recipe. If you don't have any niter kibbeh lying around, a few dashes of garam masala, or dare I say it—curry powder—will do in a pinch.
- 6 tablespoons of niter kibbeh, ghee, butter, or oil, divided
- 2 medium-large onions, roughly chopped
- 1 3-inch piece of ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
- 6 cloves of garlic, peeled
- 1 teaspoon of ajwain
- 2 tablespoons of sweet Hungarian paprika, divided
- 2 tablespoons of hot or semi-sweet paprika, divided
- 1 pound (2 cups) of red lentils
Melt 4 tablespoons of niter kibbeh in a large pot over medium-high heat. Meanwhile, combine the onions, ginger, and garlic in a food processor into a loose paste. When the fat is hot and shimmering, add the paste. Stir to prevent sticking, but let the paste develop a deep, rich brown color.
Add the ajwain and half of each of the paprikas. Stir so the fat coats the spices, and cook for about a minute, till the now-red paste darkens in color.
Add the lentils and five cups of water. Bring the pot to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Let the lentils stew, covered, for about an hour, or until they’ve completely fallen apart. When about 3/4 of the way through, salt them well. Stir occasionally and add water if needed to prevent sticking.
When the lentils are completely tender, add the rest of the niter kibbeh and the paprika, and stir to combine. This will refresh some of the aromatics lost in the long stewing; the ajwain won’t need any refreshing. Serve with rice or flatbread.