The lentil is Middle Eastern in origin and was one of the earliest cultivated crops. It is at least 10,000 years old, and in many countries, India in particular, it has long been an indispensable part of the diet. (Lentils are nutritionally rich, full of protein, vitamin B, iron, and phosphorus.) The Romans were connoisseurs of red lentils, which they imported from Egypt; lentils were a favorite food of Christians during periods of religious abstinence from animal products in the Middle Ages; Louis XV anointed one French variety as "lentille a la reine"—of the queen. Elsewhere, because it grew easily and was cheap, the lentil became known as the "poor man's meat". Lens culinaris, as the lentil is designated botanically, is a legume like peas and beans—a plant that yields edible seeds in a pod. In this case, the seeds are small and flat (the optical lens, similar in shape, was named after the vegetable lentil), and the color, depending on the species, ranges from flat black to iridescent orange. The typical lentil plant grows about 16 inches high, with small green leaves and around 40 tiny pods, each containing only one or two lentils. In harvesting, the vines are clipped and the lentils are left to dry in the pods for a week or two. The pods are then picked, the seeds separated, and the lentils sold either whole or decorticated—with the seed covering removed. Either kind is tender enough to be cooked without soaking, though decorticated lentils cook fastest and are thus more conducive to making what is a standard dish in India: velvety purees called dal.