The lentil (Lens culinaris) is a feathery legume with lens-shaped seeds, which typically grow two to a pod. The plant originated and was among the first crops to be domesticated in the Near East. It has been a part of the human diet since Neolithic times.
A similarity in shape to the lentil, which is Latin for “lens,” also led to the eye’s borrowing the name for its optical lens. Lentil types comprise a wide variety, with colors that include yellow, red-orange, green, brown, and black. Red, white, and yellow lentils have their hulls removed in a process called decortication. Many lentil types come in large and small varieties and are sold in many forms, with or without the hulls, whole or split.
The leaves of the lentil are relatively small compared to those of other food legumes. The pods are oblong, compressed, 6 to 20 mm long and 3 to 10 mm wide, and usually contain one to two lens-shaped seeds. Seed diameter ranges from 2 to 9 mm, while colors can vary from light green or greenish red to gray, tan, brown, or black. The seeds of some varieties can have purple and black mottling and speckling.
Lentils are usually sown in late April or early May, when soil temperatures are above 40 °F (4 °C). The North American lentil crop is planted in early spring and harvested in late summer. Early seeding will increase the height and size of the plant at first bloom, while planting after April can result in lower quality and diminished seed yield.
The Use of Lentils
Lentils are most well known for their namesake soup, which is popular across North and South America and Europe. In India and elsewhere, lentils are often combined with rice, which has a similar cooking time. Typically, lentils are consumed as a soup or combined with vegetables and boiled to a stew-like consistency before being seasoned with a mixture of spices to make a variety of side dishes, including the Indian dhal. These are then served over rice and roti. In the Jewish tradition, the round shape of the lentil symbolizes the life cycle, and for this reason they have become traditional food for mourning.