Curried Sweet Potato and Red Lentil Soup

Right now we’re at the peak of summer, but I first encountered this rib-sticking soup in the chill of last November. It’s an all-season soup; I can’t stop craving the stuff, with its exotic aroma and bright flavors.  

I can thank the TipTop Café of Thomas, West Virginia for introducing me to this hearty manna. After a long day of teaching a charcuterie class in the adorably historic village of Thomas, I was beat. We’d driven up the mountain with a car full of kitchen equipment and specialty cuts of dead animals. We all had a blast, but anyone who’s cleaned up after a day of sausage-making knows what a task it is. After we’d dried the last sheet pan and swept the floor a final time, we walked a few blocks to the TipTop, a darling little coffee shop/bar/restaurant in a well-preserved former mining town (population 600-something). Passing through its door was like entering a portal to Brooklyn or Portland: the tidy row of specialty chocolate bars, the gleaming shelf of infused liquors, the kid’s area with an IKEA play kitchen. I was famished—when I teach classes, I get hyper-focused and can’t really eat anything of substance—and a steamy bowl of vegan soup topped off a day of pâté-making like nothing else could.

Thomas is hours away, and I’m saving future TipTop visits for fancy chocolate bars and cocktails made with nibby bourbon. I can’t get those here, but I was able to replicate the soup in my own kitchen. Slightly sweet with a gingery bite, it’s easy to throw together (and, if you own a pressure cooker, will be ready to eat in all of 10 minutes). Even my four-year-old daughter consented to eat spoonfuls at the dinner table, a rarity for any food that’s not a cheese sandwich.

We returned from on a two-week trip recently. I peeked in our root cellar (actually just a basement-corner “IN” basket salvaged from a former library job) and saw tendrils sprouting from the giant sweet potato I’d intended for soup. After lopping off the rooty top, I plopped it in a dish of water, and lo! It grew. My hope is to pot the thing in a hanging basket, once the roots really get going. Sweet potatoes make cute houseplants, but they make better soup.

Curried Red Lentil and Sweet Potato Soup

Serves 4-6  

Do not even consider using a can of lite coconut milk. Fatty coconut milk is what makes this soup so rich and fragrant.

  • 1 13.5-ounce can coconut milk
  • 1 medium onion, finely diced
  • 1 tablespoon minced ginger
  • 4 large cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1 tablespoon curry powder
  • 2 medium sweet potatoes (about 1 pound 5 ounces), peeled and cut into 4-inch chunks
  • 1 cup dried red lentils
  • 3 cups water
  • 2-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon sriracha sauce
  • 1 lime
  • Chopped cilantro, for serving

Open the can of coconut milk and spoon a few tablespoons of the fat at the top of the can into the bottom of a pressure cooker at least a 4-quart capacity. (You may use a large Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed stockpot). Turn the heat to medium-high. Once the coconut fat sputters, add the onion and cook until soft and translucent, 3-5 minutes. Add the ginger and garlic and cook another minute. Add the curry powder and stir until combined. Dump in the sweet potatoes, lentils, remaining coconut milk, water, and salt.

If using the pressure cooker, lock the lid in place, bring to the highest pressure, and cook for 7 minutes. Let the pressure release naturally. (If you’re not using a pressure cooker, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cover. Cook maybe about 30 minutes, stirring often. You’ll probably need to add at least another cup of water, bit by bit).

Unlock the lid of the pressure cooker and either mash the soup with a potato masher or stir it vigorously with a big wooden spoon—the sweet potatoes should be cooked enough to easily fall apart. Stir in the sriracha sauce and squirt in the juice of half the lime. Taste and adjust the seasonings with more salt or a few squirts of sriracha. This soup thickens quite a bit as it cools, so you may need to add more water to make it more like soup and less like porridge.

Serve topped with cilantro, if you like, and more freshly squeezed lime juice. Once cooled, the soup will keep, tightly covered in the refrigerator, for 5 days.