Lentejas Rojas

I don’t even really like red lentils — well, that’s not fair. I should say that I don’t have strong feelings for red lentils, one way or the other. I like sturdy green lentils well enough I guess, but brown, red and yellow lentils have always been lumped together as uninteresting things we’re supposed to eat more of. Until today.

It’s such a silly, insignificant thing that happened, and I’m embarrassed about how excited I am about this, but whatever. I wanted to make Melissa Clark’s red lentil soup with lemon, so out of desperation, I forced myself to go to my local municipal market today, Mercado de Anton Martín. I had already taken two subway trains to the fancy El Corte Inglés Supermercado in the Salamanca neighborhood because I’m comfortable shopping there, and I thought they’d for sure have red lentils. I knew they had the other ingredients I needed, and—right now, at least—I’m comforted by the anonymity of a big grocery store. I can take as long as I want and read all the labels and look up words I don’t know and people mostly just leave me alone in my English-language bubble. I had already found cumin (comino) and cayenne (pimienta cayena) and chicken broth (caldo de pollo) no problem. I was smiling and feeling great. “Hey, look, at me! I’m learning how to live here. I’m finding what I need and I don’t need to make a fool of myself to do it!”

When I found the aisle filled with dried beans, I was feeling pretty confident. There were bags and bags of garbanzos and beans that looked like they might be black-eyed peas, and then there were lentils. So many lentils. And all of them—green. Well, actually, there were a few bags of brown lentils (though they might have been old green lentils; it was hard to tell) and one bag of yellow lentils. I stood in that aisle for at least 10 minutes, carefully examining each bag of lentils to make sure my eyes weren’t skipping over the red ones I’d ridden two subway trains to purchase in quiet peace. But no dice. So I put the small bag of yellow lentils in my cart and moved on, thinking, “Hey, no big deal. This kind of thing happens back home, too—you head out to Whole Foods to get mustard greens and end up coming home with kale because all they ever stock is kale.” Dinner might be yellow instead of orange, but it would still be tasty.

This feeling was gnawing at me on the ride back home, though: there had to be red lentils in this city. Was I really going to give up? In the process of making a life in a new country and a new language, there are going to be really hard, stressful, tear-causing moments. And obviously, buying lentils is never going to fall into that category. So if I’m going to give up on such an easy task, how am I ever going to handle getting myself out of a legitimate jam? Exactly. I decided that I needed to find these damn lentils—if only for my own peace of mind and pride.

There’s a barrio market in Salamanca, Mercado de la Paz, that I’d gone to a few times—it’s clean and charming, with wine bars and flower stands and pastry shops next to the produce and meat stalls. Well-dressed families are everywhere, and it feels like something out of a postcard. There’s even a guy playing the accordion on a corner outside most days. The mercado in Huertes, my new neighborhood, is not like this at all. You’ll see families there, of course, and you can sit down at a few stalls to have a bite to eat or drink, but it has a decidedly more work-a-day or even commercial feel. It’s also contained in this two-story warehouse-ish building that, well, doesn’t smell great. The market is clean, functional and busy, but I doubt anyone has ever called it charming.

After dropping my bag of groceries (wrong lentils included) at my apartment, I headed back out—this time away from the metro station and the posh, tree-lined streets of Salamanca and toward my grittier Mercado de Anton Martín. Walking through the tiny, winding streets of Huertas, I started feeling better. This is a city! This is exactly what you think of when you think of Spain—narrow streets and close buildings and tapas bars and vermouth joints and loud, laughing voices and having to jump out of the way when a scooter scoots by. I crossed the busy Calle de Atocha and rounded the corner to the market’s entrance, feeling totally ready to find a bag of Madrid’s finest red lentils and sheepish that I hadn’t come here first, when I heard a record scratch in my head.

La siesta. It was 13h40, and all of the stalls outside the market were shuttered. It hadn’t even occurred to me to look at the time, and now I was going to be out of luck for a few hours more at least. But then I saw someone walk into the indoor portion of the market, and I figured, well, why not? May as well poke around since I was here. Inside, most stalls were closed and others looked like they were in the process of closing up shop for the mid-day break. Not wanting to look like the dumb American who showed up to shop at the wrong time, I decided to stroll around anyway, so I could instead look like the dumb American who showed up at the wrong time and didn’t realize that the market was closed.

At the end of my quiet row, I saw a still-open meat counter, and figured I’d make my way over and then out the exit behind it. As I got closer to the counter—positively juicy with all types of jamon and charcuterie and other delicacies—I saw something at the end of the case that I was definitely not expecting: dried beans. At least 10 bins of different varieties of dried beans and literally right there in the front row, before all the other types of lentils, were the lentejas rojas. The brightest, orange-reddest, plumpest (is that even possible?) dried lentils I’d ever seen. At the far end of the counter, an older man was steadily carving slices of jamon iberico off the leg. I walked over to him and, summoning nearly all of the Spanish words I’ve picked up thus far, said “Hola, señor, buenas tardes. Quiero un kilo* de lentejas rojas, por favor.”

It worked! He smiled and said things that I didn’t understand in a jovial tone while he measured out the lentils and took my 4 euro and sent me on my way with an hasta luego and a bag of the right pulses. I felt like I was walking on air the entire way home—which is so ridiculous, really. Back home in the States, if I’d had to go to two stores to get something for a recipe, I’d be annoyed and frustrated with the waste of time. But here in Madrid, I feel like I’ve won a small battle or have slowly begun chipping away at the veneer of a terrified expat. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone, spoke a language I don’t speak in an unfamiliar location, and now I feel amazing.

I can’t even imagine how good this lentil soup is going to taste tonight.

*I get that that’s a lot of lentils. But I haven’t figured out how to say any quantity less than that yet, so it’s a kilo of everything right now.

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