Spicy Lentil Soup with Chile and Lemon

April 3, 2020

Is there a right way to react to a global pandemic?

Are we supposed to remain calm, even as we’re told to “stock up” on items we didn’t consume before, even as we witness the largest economy in the world crumble like soft-baked shortbread? 

I flick the hair away from my forehead, and a wave of anxiety rushes over me.

Did I just touch my face? 

Something we cannot control has jolted our lives into a flurry of fear and uncertainty. We don’t know what will happen next week, or even tomorrow. The days careen forward as if driven by a ghost.

And all we can do is stay at home. 

COVID-19 and the kitchen

But something I think we often forget, is that human beings have an extraordinary capacity to take care of themselves. 

From apps that budget our money, to cars that drive for us and electric boxes that cook our food, modern conveniences make us forget that we have the knowledge, skills, and opposable thumbs to do it all ourselves. 

For moments that feel out of control, there is one space that gives us the opportunity to be proactive, productive, and to provide something for ourselves. The kitchen reminds us that we can take charge of a situation even if that just means shaping a cluster of ingredients into dinner. 

Let’s make spicy lentil soup

This soup was not originally meant for cooking during the novel coronavirus. It was meant for much happier occasions: cold Sunday evening dinners, packed work lunches, healthy weeknight meals that happen to delight the whole family.

But now, this soup’s reliance on just a few shelf-stable ingredients that transform into something abundant and hearty, deliciously satisfying, and deeply comforting, makes it the perfect easy meal to serve during hard times.

This is how I’m reacting to COVID-19. I’m making spicy lentil soup.

I remind myself that I am capable as I chop onions even if my eyes are still not immune to the sting of the onion’s milk.

I give it a few seconds, it’ll stop burning.

I rediscover my appetite as the smell of garlic, sweating in olive oil, touches my nose and taunts my tongue.

I remember that nourishing, nutritious spices like cumin, turmeric, and chile paste, that are now in my pot, once came from the ground.

Nature produces far more virtues than viruses. 

A can of ready-made tomatoes, a cup of thick, lustrous coconut milk, and a scoop of earthy red lentils go into the mixture next. Pantry items are sensational both in times of need and not. 

Pouring a can of coconut milk into a pot of spicy lentil soup.

I allow the lentils to simmer softly. I treat them as gently as I ought to treat myself. 

The finished soup welcomes a sprinkling of fresh herbs and lemon juice, if you have it. Add a drop or two of vinegar if you don’t.

A dollop of yogurt or sour cream and a piece of warm bread for dipping will absolutely make you feel better. Or, simply enjoy this dinner with a glass of wine.

I will probably never eat the frozen riced broccoli, canned refried beans, or boxes of elbow macaroni that I hoarded at the grocery store but at least they are meant to last for a long, long time. 

They’ll last even after paper goods start appearing on shelves again, after everyone returns to work, and long after COVID-19 becomes a memory.

Spicy Lentil Soup with Chile and Lemon

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (7 votes, average: 4.43 out of 5)
Dinner; Lunch American; Indian
By Samantha Serves: 3-4
Prep Time: 10 minutes Cooking Time: 25 minutes Total Time: 35 minutes

Spicy lentil soup is deeply comforting, healthy, easy, and flavorful. With just a few pantry ingredients, it's also the perfect thing to cook in times of need.


  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced (about 2 teaspoons)
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
  • Salt
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 tablespoon hot chile paste (such as sambal oelek or gochujang)
  • 1 cup dry red lentils, thoroughly rinsed and drained
  • 1 (14-ounce) can diced tomatoes
  • 1 (14-ounce) can coconut milk
  • 1 cup water
  • Freshly cracked black pepper
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (about ½ lemon)
  • Whole-milk Greek yogurt or sour cream, for serving
  • Bread for dipping (like pita, naan, or country loaf)



Heat oil in a medium, heavy-bottomed pot (such as a Dutch oven, at least 3.5 qt) over low heat. Cook onion, garlic and ginger, stirring often, until softened, 5 minutes. Season with salt. Add cumin, turmeric, and chile paste and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute.


Add lentils and stir to coat in the spices and chile paste. Add tomatoes, coconut milk, 1 cup of water, and 2 teaspoons of salt. Season with freshly cracked black pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until lentils are soft but not mushy, about 25 minutes. Off heat, stir in the cilantro and lemon juice. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired.


Serve topped with a dollop of Greek yogurt or sour cream and bread for dipping (optional, but highly recommended).


  • 539 Calories


If you do not have chile paste, you can substitute sriracha, hot sauce, or red pepper flakes, just reduce the amount to 1-2 teaspoons, adding more to taste. From a range of mild, medium, and hot, 1 tablespoon of sambal oelek will make this soup hot. If you’d prefer something more medium, use 2 teaspoons instead.

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