Ficre * Spicy Red Lentil and Tomato Curry

Light streams through the kitchen windows and washes the walls in golden wheat. On the stove, coffee beans like small gems shimmy and shake in a pot. As they roast — slowly, over low heat — a rich, nutty aroma fills the air and the beans begin to glisten. “You see that oil?” Ficre asks me. “You don’t want that burning off. This is the point when you remove the beans from the heat.”

Ficre Gheybreyesus

For Ficre, roasting his own coffee is only one of the many traditions he brought with him when he moved over 30 years ago to New Haven, Connecticut from modern Eritrea, an East African country of 3.5 million people located along the Red Sea. Like his coffee, Ficre is full of depth — his life a complex tapestry of experience, his food filled with subtle nuances and intricate flavors.

I am not the first, nor the only one to notice this. In the 1990s, when he opened an Eritrean restaurant, Caffe Adulis, with his two brothers, many people took note of his cooking, as did the New York Times. So I feel very fortunate that today he is sharing with me not only his coffee, but also another tradition: a smooth, spicy red lentil dish that his mother, a Coptic Orthodox Christian, would make for lent.

When I ask him what the dish means to him, Ficre shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t know! I’m a man of few words,” he says, grinning. “I guess the food speaks for itself, right? It’s healthy, it’s nourishing, it’s balanced. It reminds me very deeply of my parents and their faith. But it’s only the tip of the iceberg.” During lent, as Ficre tells it, the 40-day fast would be filled with all sorts of vegetarian extravagances his mother would make for their family of nine, each meal more flavorful than the next. “The breads become more sophisticated, the stews become more complex. It takes a certain leap of cognition to make so much out of a few vegetables and grains,” Ficre says. “It reminds me of my mom at her best.

Indeed, the red lentil dish proves much more than the sum of its parts. The ingredients are simple — tomatoes, lentils, curry, vegetables — though as they simmer, the flavors mingle, intensify, transform. The pot boils up with the deep, heady scent of spiced curry and sweet, smoky tomato. The final touch is a generous “blast of cilantro,” which Ficre adds “whenever the spirit moves me.” Here is a dish that gives back to you what you give to it; give it time to linger over low heat and you will not be disappointed.

As Ficre and I sit down to enjoy a small cup of coffee and a bowl of steaming hot lentils, the room gets a little quiet as we are both consumed by the food. “I think the only thing that could make this dish better,” Ficre starts, “is a little Tesmi, a clarified spiced butter. When I was little, if we weren’t eating this for lent, I would be holding my mother’s hand as she cooked, telling her to add more butter!’” he laughs. “It was always: more butter, more butter…”

Three Quick Questions…and Ficre’s Answers

It’s your last meal. What do you have?
Probably this dish. It’s a very good dish. There are many other things that I could have made that remind me of my parents, but I think this one is the best.

Your kitchen is burning down. What’s the one thing you grab?
This work of art right here (motioning to a watercolor painting of a pig sitting beside a giant flower vase, on the top of a hill). Our son Simon made it when he was eight or nine years old — we call him our little surrealist. Everything else in here is replaceable, but Simon is never going to be eight or nine again and paint this same painting.

Do you have a favorite cookbook?
I’m not sure — is it okay not to have an answer? My wife uses most of the cookbooks. She loves Nigella Lawson, says she’s a diva. I must admit that How to Be a Domestic Goddess is a very, very smart book. However, in general, I’m not a big believer in recipes. I find them a little controlling of one’s energy.

Spicy Red Lentil & Tomato Curry
Recipe type: Mains
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 4-6
Don't be scared off by the long cook time -- for the most part, once you've taken care of the chopping, all you'll need to do is check on this dish occasionally as it simmers. To cut down on cook time, you can also use store-bought vegetable stock rather than making your own (you will need 2-3 cups). A note on tomato passata: although it isn't incredibly common in the U.S., I've found it at Whole Foods and another grocery store in the area. It's a tomato purée similar to tomato paste and tomato sauce -- the main differences are that the tomatoes in the purée are uncooked, with no additional ingredients added, and it's not cooked down like tomato paste. If you can't find it, you can certainly substitute tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes for a slightly different flavor.
  • 2 heads fennel
  • 2 heads kale
  • 1 yellow onion, cut into large pieces
  • 2 large carrots, cut into large pieces
  • 1 stalk celery, cut into large pieces
  • 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 24 oz can tomato passata
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp curry powder
  • ½ tsp cayenne
  • ½ tsp paprika
  • 2 cups dry red lentils
  • ¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
  • salt to taste
  1. In a large heavy pot, combine the first 6 ingredients and enough water to cover the vegetables by about a half inch. Allow stock to simmer for 4 hours.
  2. After the stock has been simmering for about an hour, you'll want to start making the tomato curry sauce. Combine the tomato passata, 2 chopped carrots, 3 cloves chopped garlic, and the spices in another large heavy pot and allow to simmer 3 hours.
  3. Add lentils to tomato curry sauce and let simmer 20-30 minutes more, adding stock as needed to thin it out (about 2-3 cups). The mixture should be thick and creamy, not soupy or dry.
  4. Stir in fresh cilantro and remove from heat. Season with salt to taste. Serve lentils alongside basmati rice.


  • Erica

    The lentil dish is visually splendid and I can imagine the complexity of the flavors that emerge. The interview is also fascinating– what a wonderful opportunity to share coffee with and interview such an interesting person.

  • This dish looks perfect for fall. I make a red lentil tomato dal but I love the addition of kale and fennel here. Bookmarking for sure!

  • Grace

    Thanks, Erica! It is a gorgeous dish with lots of subtle flavors. And it was definitely an incredible opportunity to chat with Ficre.

    kickpleat – Is that dal on your site? I’m curious to check it out!

  • Having lived in Eritrea for 2 years in the mid-1990s, my heart skips a happy beat whenever I see an Eritrean recipe on the web. Your profile of Ficre is wonderful, and you’ve seriously made my week.

    • Grace

      Thanks so much, Cheryl. Have you written about any Eritrean dishes before? If so, I would love to see them! These lentils were amazing.

  • This looks extremely delicious! Having eaten delicious dishes from Eritrea in a restaurant before, I am happy to see this recipe here.

    • Grace

      Lemon – yes! Now you can make your own :)

  • my tummy is growling just from reading this recipe! thanks so much for sharing!! i’ve always wondered how to get started.

  • I love Ficre’s description of his mother’s Lenten cooking, “a great leap of cognition.” What an amazing interview and recipe. Thanks for sharing!

    • Grace

      Jennifer – I know! I love that. Such an interesting, unique way of looking at it.

  • Sarah

    I’ve been wanting to try this recipe out all week. Yesterday, I picked up the ingredients for this curry in order to make it today for friends at lunch. I’m simmering the vegetable broth and the tomato curry sauce right now. Already, there is something very satisfying about this dish— the ease of preparing the ingredients, the pleasure of periodically checking the vegetables in the broth as they simmer and give up their flavors, the wonderful aroma of the curry, fennel and onions. Can’t wait to add the red lentils and the blast of cilantro!

    • Grace

      Sarah, can I come for lunch, too?? :)

  • I love making dishes that require a long simmering time – the flavors develop in a way that just can’t be compared to anything else. I’m a huge lentil and curry fan so now I’m off to scour our local Whole Foods for a tin of tomato passata!

    • Grace

      Definitely. I love checking up on dishes like this one that go through such a progression as they cook. It’s such a comforting dish, too, and makes your whole house smell amazing! I’d love to hear how you like it if you end up trying it.

  • Debbie

    Would love to try this as I have a bunch of dried red lentils I have no idea what to do with, but is the 2 cups of lentils cooked or dried? Thanks!

    • Grace

      Sorry, Debbie, should have specified: dry lentils! If you’re wondering what to do with them, this is a great way to put them to use : )

  • Matt

    Any idea where the plates came from? I really like them and would like to get something similar for myself.

    • Grace

      Matt — The blue bowls with brown edges come from Target, the others are thrift store finds.

  • Kathryn, Ran into your mom at a poetry reading Friday night at the gallery where Ficre’s work is being displayed. She told me about this site and this story, and said I had to read it.

    I never knew Ficre, which makes me sad now that he is gone, but now I feel like I know him a little from reading this story. Can’t wait to try the recipe. Thank you.

  • Laila

    Do you just discard the vegetables after making the stock or incorporate them in the dish somehow? Thanks!

    • Grace

      You can just discard them!

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