A soup can be an appetiser or a meal in itself. Paradoxically, depending on the type of the soup, it can be used to gain weight or lose weight! Soup is not a drink, but a food and English professors constantly remind students that you do not drink soup, but eat soup. In many Western communities chicken soup is recommended as a home remedy for the sick. Jack Canfield, therefore, named his series of motivational books Chicken Soup for the Soul.
Soup is considered an affordable means of preserving one’s strength. In ancient Greece, athletes taking part in the Olympic Games consumed meat soup boiled in a huge cauldron before the contest began. Giussepe Verdi, the great Italian composer, joked that he drew his inspiration from a bowl of hot chicken soup.
Every nation has its favourite soup: French onion soup, Bavarian pea soup, Polish cabbage soup, Boston fish soup. The Tom Yum soup of Thailand is a popular soup worldwide and includes ingredients like chicken stock, shrimp, coconut milk, lemon grass, lemon leaves, tomato, garlic and coriander. Another popular soup is the Italian minestrone soup. With nearly five kinds of vegetables, spaghetti, bacon and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese, it is a rich and filling alternative to a meal.
From slave to chef
Legend has it that soup was first made in 3000 BC in Egypt by a slave of Pharaoh Menes. The slave stole a chicken from the Pharaoh’s kitchen, boiled it to make soup and was caught just before he could eat it. He would certainly have been put to death, had the Pharaoh — catching a whiff of the aroma wafting from the bowl — not insisted on sampling the broth. He liked it so much that he appointed the slave as his cook.
In India, soups did not have the same status they enjoyed in Western culture. The concept of soup as the first course in the meal is an import. In the North, the shorba, a stock made of meat, vegetables or lentils and flavoured with spices may have come in with the invading Mughals a few centuries ago. Chicken Shorba is a popular non-vegetarian soup and Tomato Shorba a vegetarian variant.
In South India, the tamarind-and-lentil rasam has been around since time immemorial. It is usually served as the second course of a meal to accompany rice. Rasam is strictly vegetarian and most Indians still don’t consider it as a soup. In some restaurants in Bangalore they serve a snack called Bonda Soup, which is a black lentil doughnut (bonda/uddina vada) dunked in lentil soup. The Hyderabadi Paya Soup is popular non-vegetarian soup.
Perhaps, the widely known soup of Indian origin is the Mulligatawny Soup translated literally from Tamil, mulligatawny (millagu for pepper and thanni for water). Despite the name, however, pepper itself is not a vital ingredient. There are many variations on the recipe for mulligatawny. Sometimes, the soup has a turmeric-like yellow colour and is garnished with parsley and chicken meat or lamb meat and is more soupy, which takes on its Anglo-Indian adaptation to be a thick, spicy meat soup.
These days there is a variety of instant soup mixes available, but nothing can replace home made soup. Soups get a bad name from the instant variety. Soup should ideally be thin, but some people are so fussy that it should be thick that restaurants add corn flour to make it thick.
Bouillon, bisque or broth?
A soup can be simple or complex depending on the time taken and the ingredients used. The best soups are the simplest with just a few ingredients such as Onion soup, Tomato soup, Cabbage soup and Pumpkin soup.
A soup can be clear, creamy or special. Clear soups are normally thin and clarified like consomme or bouillon — both based on stock of vegetables, meat and chicken. Thin soups are time-consuming in preparation but they are most nutritious.
Bouillon, in French cuisine, is simply a broth. It is usually made by the simmering mirepoix (French name for a combination of onions, carrots, and celery) with either beef, veal or poultry bones and shrimp or vegetables in boiling water. This is not to be confused with a Bouillon cube or stock cube which is dehydrated broth or stock formed into a small cube. It is made by dehydrating vegetables, meat stock, a small portion of solid fat, salt and seasonings and shaping the mix into a small cube. It is also available in granular form.
Broth made from rehydrated cubes is different in taste from fresh broth because of its higher salt content and flavours which change during the boiling process.
Consomme is a clear, strong broth often served as the first course of French meals. Made from stock, it is clarified by straining the stock. It can be made from traditional meat stock or from vegetables. Stock itself is made from lengthy cooking, particularly of vegetables or the bones of meat in order to yield a broth.
Broth is a liquid in which bones, meat, fish, cereal grains or vegetables have been simmered. It is a basis for soup, gravy, or sauce. It can be eaten alone or with garnish. If other ingredients are used, such as rice, barley, oatmeal or noodles, it is then generally called soup. In Britain, broth is a nourishing thick soup with chunks of vegetables, pulses and sometimes meat.
Bisque is a thick, creamy, highly-seasoned soup of French origin, classically of pureed crustaceans. It can be made from lobster, crab, shrimp or crayfish. Also, creamy soups made from vegetables instead of seafood are sometimes called bisque. Chowders, like the American Clam Chowder, are thick soups of fish, meat and vegetable to which salt, pork, diced vegetables, even bread and crackers are added.
Soups are not always hot. There are a variety of cold soups. Notable among them is the Gazpacho, a cold Spanish tomato-based raw vegetable soup. There are many modern variations of gazpacho, in different colours and minus the tomatoes in favour of avocados, cucumbers, parsley, watermelon, grapes. Gazpacho has become an almost generic term for chilled vegetable soup.
Gourmet soup bars appeared in New York in the ’90s with such operations as Daily Soup, Soup Nutzi, Mr Soup and Hale and Hearty. The UK’s Soup Opera and Soup Works opened their first units in 1998. Bangalore now has salad bars like Namdharis, but we are yet to have a full-fledged soup bar. Until such time do make your own soup.