Lentils: One Person’s Side Dish is Another’s Main Course

Fatima Elmasri is a human rights activist, educator, and passionate knowledge seeker who is pursuing her Master of Education degree at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. She shares her experience of the symbolic value of food in peacebuilding.

“The making and sharing of food infuses relations of trust, care, and empathy between people; it strengthens the belief in our ability to do good. Sharing food provides people with comfort and security and breaks barriers of communication.

Fatima and Mika

During this school year, I made lentils on many occasions. When the lentils dish was ready, I would share it with my roommate, Mika. Mika and I would buy a few bags of red lentils to eat and share. Over time, the lentils dish became symbolic of our growing friendship; many stories and heartfelt advice was shared over lentils. The making of lentils became a shared creative process. Every lentils meal was different yet the same. We have tried lentils with cabbage, lentils with tofu, lentils with tomatoes, and lentils with veggies. Mika, being Japanese, would make lentils with oriental flavours.

While lentils can be just beans to some people or a ‘prisoner’s choice of food’ for another, for us it was much more than our end-of-day meal. The lentils dish represented our diversity, openness, and the sharing of resources; we made it with various colors and shapes. At a deeper level, the lentils represented our core values: openness (I introduced it to Mika and she was open to experiencing it); mutual understanding (it’s affordable and not time consuming); and compassion (on a bad day, eating lentils together makes the day much better). For us, the lentils were a way of communicating and sharing.

In many cultures, lentils are associated with transition, hardship, and wisdom. According to Wikipedia, in Muslim Shia narrations lentils are said to be blessed by seventy Prophets, including Jesus and Mohammed. In the Jewish tradition, they are considered as food for mourners together with boiled eggs because their round shape symbolizes the life cycle from birth to death. In Italy, eating lentils on New Year’s Eve traditionally symbolizes the hope for a prosperous New Year because of their round, coin-like form. Even though they’re not part of the Japanese culture, Mika can’t get enough of them. I believe that lentils are food for peace. They are cost effective, nutritious, and easy to make and share at any event.”

Fatima’s Lentils Dish


  • 1 cup red/yellow lentils
  • 1 1/5 cube tofu, diced
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • any vegetables, chopped
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 1 tbsp rosemary


Add olive oil to a deep pot. Fry the onions and tofu. When golden, add the lentils with 3 cups of water. Add any vegetables you like.                                   Add salt and rosemary and cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Enjoy!