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The seed of an annual herbaceous plant thought to have originated in Central Asia, the lentil has been eaten since prehistoric times and was one of the first foods ever grown by man; it is mentioned in the book of Genesis. Archeologists have found lentil seeds in Middle Eastern agricultural sites dating back 8,000 years; these lentils were eaten with barley and wheat, which originated in the same region. All three of these foods spread throughout Europe and Africa during various migrations. The lentil was introduced into India prior to the first century A.D., and spiced lentil dishes known as dal have long been a staple of the Indian diet. Today the leading producers of lentils are Turkey, India, Canada, Bangladesh, China, and Syria.

The lentil grows on a small bushy plant that has very thin, angular stems and is between 14 and 18 inches high. The short, flat, oblong pods, which are rarely more than half an inch long, contain one or two seeds.

Lentils are divided into two groups according to their size: macrospermae (large lentils) and microspermae (small lentils). There are dozens of varieties of each type of lentil. One of the most common varieties in Western countries is a round, unhusked, green or brownish lentil shaped like a biconvex disk. However, lentils can also be black, yellow, red, or orange and somewhat less round, as well as oval, flat, or heart-shaped. Lentils are sold whole or husked and are sometimes separated into halves like split peas. Their texture and flavour vary from one species to another.