Updated: Feb 19
Lentils and Malaria in the Amazon jungle
Several years ago, I took a spontaneous five-month visit to Venezuela. It seemed like everything that happened during that trip was birthed out of spontaneity. Especially including the time I decided to go to the heart of the Amazon jungle with some of my cousins!
My cousin, Carlos, and I packed our bags and took off for adventure on a whim. We travelled about 17 hours from Puerto La Cruz to the Amazon on an old, rickety, uncomfortable school bus. We rode across the country from the Caribbean coast in the North of Venezuela, to the South, near the Colombian border.
The further south we got, the hotter and more humid the weather became, and (of course) the bus didn’t have air condition. The only relief from the heat came by way of air circulating through missing glass panes in some of the bus windows - even though they were covered and taped-over by plastic bags. The plastic bags kept blowing everywhere and getting loose.
In fact, that bus was so old and loud that during a few minutes of sleep, I dreamed that I was on a train! And the cherry on top? The bus driver decided to hold a concert – he blasted music and sang loudly all night long … A fun ride, huh?
But everything paid off the next morning, when we encountered one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed: the sun rising on the majestic Orinoco river (Amazon River). The colors that filled the sky, the songs of the birds, the size and tremendous force of river’s waters keeping its power and strength under dominion. Seriously, the utter awesomeness of the second longest river on our planet was absolutely stunning!
In that moment, standing there, it didn’t matter how sweaty I was, how suffocating and humid the heat already was so early in the morning, how many mosquito bites I had on my body, how terrible or dangerous the ride was … that moment was magical! My first encounter with the Amazon River changed something inside of me.
That time spent in the Amazon was so special to me. I spent tons of time with family, and I discovered myself in the middle of nowhere. But by the end of my trip my legs were so filled with mosquito bites that I literally couldn’t count all the bites!
I went back to Mexico City a couple of weeks after that adventure, only to suddenly find myself lying in bed with a high fever for several weeks. I had contracted Malaria, and my immunity defense system had plummeted so low that I almost died!
The truth is, my trip was so spontaneous that I forgotten to get vaccinated and didn’t consider the possibility of becoming sick.
“Young people never think they will get sick,” a friend later told me.
The good news is: I survived!
It took me an entire year to completely recover from that illness and other complications as result of it on my body. During my recovery time, my life stopped entirely and I was forced to deal with several changes in my traveling lifestyle. Everything had to be adjusted to the recommendations of my doctor; everything else paused. Among many other things, my diet needed to be modified.
A carefully designed diet - heavy in iron - was a fundamental part of my treatment. That was the moment I started realizing the importance of good nutrition and the proper balance of the food I eat; and not only when I am sick, but always.
Greens, grains, seeds and controlled amount of fruits were a huge part of my daily meals. My consumption of meat, fish and poultry were also controlled, and in many occasions substituted by proteins like lentils. I ate a lot of my mom’s lentils during that time. Lentils were a definite super food for me during that season.
Now when I cook lentils, I remember that bittersweet time of my life, when I enjoyed the Amazon and got a second chance at life.
I believe God gave me another opportunity to live and see life and death from a different perspective. I guess only people that have been to the edge of death completely understand what I am trying to put into words; but I am thankful. And ever since that experience, that is how I try to treat each day.
Lentils remind me of that involuntary time of resetting; the difficulty and frustration, but also the great time of learning, the power of hope, faith, love and discipline.
One day I will share my mom’s yummy lentils (with meat), but for now, here is my vegan version of lentils with a Mexican touch. I hope you like them!
Joha's Vegan Mexican lentils
1 cup of lentils (if possible let them soak overnight)
5 tomatoes, blended.
1/2 Green bell pepper
1 onion (1/2 chopped finely)
3 cloves of garlic
2 bay leaves
3 cups of vegetable stock
1 bunch of fresh cilantro
Ingredients (Spicy sauce):
3 guajillo chili peppers (without seeds)
2 pasilla chili peppers (without seeds)
2 Tbsp of oregano
1 clove of garlic
Vegetable oil or coconut oil
*If you cannot find dry chili peppers, substitute adding canned chipotles or jalapeños (do not use the vinegar).
1. Blend the tomatoes with some vegetable stock. Set aside.
2. In a large pot on low-medium heat, sauté onion, bell pepper and mushrooms in oil. Add some salt.
3. Once the onions have cooked and turned translucent, add blended tomatoes, bay leaves, carrots, potatoes, lentils, and cilantro. Slowly stir in the spicy sauce*. (I suggest only pouring half if you’re afraid that it may make your lentils too spicy.)
4. Add the rest of the ingredients: oregano, cumin, salt, pepper, and the rest of the vegetable stock to cover all the lentils (and if needed, water).
5. Let simmer with lid on for about 20 minutes in low-medium heat.
6. After 20 minutes, taste it and adjust salt and seasonings. Let cook on the stove for a total of 1 hour, or until lentils are soft. If you have a little more time, leave them cooking for 1 1/2 hours on low heat.
7. If you have a slow cooker, I recommend leaving it in low heat between 7-8 hours. The longer they are left, the better the flavors are!
*Instructions for spicy sauce:
1. (Use gloves for this step to cover hands) Take seed out of the chili peppers (to tame the spice content yet maintain flavor when cooking). Be very careful and try not to do this with bare hands – if you must, wash your hands very well directly afterward.
2. In a small pot on low-medium heat, add some oil and the de-seeded guajillo chili peppers, pasilla chili peppers and sauté for a couple of minutes.
3. Add peppercorns, oregano, bay leaves, onion, garlic and enough water only to cover the peppers. Let simmer for about 10 minutes or until the color of the water darkens and the peppers have softened.
4. Remove the bay leaf and add it to the lentils pot. Blend everything else until smooth.
5. Strain the mix and pour the liquid in the lentils mix (*for step 3)
*If you cannot find dry chili peppers, substitute adding canned chipotles or jalapeños (without the vinegar).
Check the tutorial video for this recipe!
Try this recipe and share your experience with us using #johastable