The History and Origin of Lentils

A Legume Over 8,000 Years Old


Peggy Trowbridge Filippone

Lentils are legumes, along with other types of beans. They grow in pods that contain either one or two lentil seeds that are round, oval, or heart-shaped disks and are sometimes smaller than the tip of a pencil eraser. They may be sold whole or split into halves with the brown and green varieties being the best at retaining their shape after cooking. The lowly lentil has been sustaining man for thousands of years.

Some foodies once considered lentils as poor man's food and refused to eat them because they are so inexpensive. Although they may be cheap, lentils are very nutritious, filling, and more importantly, arguably the most flavorful of all the legumes. 

Lentil History

Lentils, botanically-known as Lens culinaris esculenta, have been a source of sustenance for our ancestors since prehistoric times. The word lentils comes from the Latin lens, and indeed, this bean cousin is shaped like the double convex optic lens which took its name from the lentil.

Lentil artifacts have been found on archeological digs dating back 8,000 years, and the Bible's book of Genesis tells the story of Esau, who gave up his birthright for a bowl of crimson lentils and a loaf of bread. As a tasty and plentiful source of protein, lentils graced the tables of peasants and kings alike. Poor Catholics who could not afford fish during the season of Lent substituted lentils.

Thought to have originated in the Near East or Mediterranean area, lentils (known as dal or dahl in India) are small disks resembling a flat baby pea. When halved, dried lentils resemble their split pea cousins. They grow two to a pod and are dried after harvesting.

Where are Lentils Grown and Where to Buy Them

There are hundreds of varieties of lentils, with as many as 50 or more cultivated for food.

They come in a variety of colors, with red, brown, and green being the most popular. Lentils have an earthy, nutty flavor, and some varieties lend a slight peppery touch to the palate. Lentils grow best in cool weather. Sow lentils in spring as early as 2 to 3 weeks before the average last frost date. Most lentil production in North America takes place in the Pacific Northwest, Eastern Washington, Northern Idaho and up into Western Canada, where it has been grown since the 1930's as a rotation crop with wheat.