Goodness in a bowl

Be it tomato soup, minestrone, or mulligatawny, soups are a universal favourite

There’s no joy that equals slurping a bowl of hot soup.

Thick like gumbo. Thin such as a consomme. Smooth like a bisque. Chunky as a chowder or bouillabaisse. Sounds like body types in a book of physiology? Mulligatawny. Vichyssoise. Callaloo. Borscht. Cock-a-leekie. Gazpacho. A page from tongue-twisters? Or a list of cannot-pronounce names? I was poring through the beginning of soups when these names popped out of the bowl. 

What’s in a name?

First, the name. ‘Soup’. The inherent etymology is ‘soaking’ from the Latin suppare (soak) — soaking the bread in liquid or broth poured over bread. The Old French word was ‘soupe’ which entered English in the 17th century. Before soup attained common usage, any liquid made by simmering meat in loads of liquid was called ‘pottage’. Soup was always part of a meal, so even in the earliest times, soup was meant to be eaten, not drunk.

What’s in a soup name? The bard would have asked. Sandeep Choudhary, executive chef, Ibis New Delhi, Aerocity, begins with minestrone. The name comes from minestra (the Italian word for soup) which gradually metamorphosed into minestrone. “In the 17th and 18th centuries, minestrone emerged as a soup using exclusively fresh vegetables and was made for its own sake, that means it no longer relied on leftovers. Nowadays, minestrone is made with humble ingredients like pasta, tomatoes and beans, and escarole or spinach is added near the end,” adds Chef Choudhary who knows all about Italian soups, broths and stews. 

Many to choose from

Mulligatawny. Literally, this means pepper water (milagu-thannir in Tamil); this was the rasam of South India, which was modified with the addition of meat stock as a soup by the British in India. Vichyssoise, a cold potato and leek soup seems to have been born in Vichy, but food historians do not corroborate that. Instead, attribute its birth to Louis Diat, a chef at the Ritz-Carlton in New York in 1917. Callaloo is a Caribbean term applied both to the large leaves of taro and to a soup made from them. Borscht stems from barszcz, the Polish word for European cow-parsnip which was the original ingredient of the soup. Though now commonly interpreted as a beetroot soup, borscht never found favour on the European royal table, though during the Middle Ages, it was prepared in the soup by itself or was cooked in chicken stock with such additions as egg yolks, cream, or millet meal. 

Cock-a-leekie, a Scottish favourite, gives away its main ingredients in its name — chicken and leeks. In its earliest medieval versions, it was a chicken stew with onions, and also raisins or prunes. The Scots replaced onions with leeks and by the 19th century, the prunes almost disappeared from the recipe. 

An assortment of soups
An assortment of soups

Gazpacho, the ice-cold all-American soup that we know of, is a Spanish recipe with Arabic borrowing for the name (Arabic origin, and means literally soaked bread). The Arabs had occupied much of Spain from the 8th to the 13th centuries and the essential ingredients of their soup were bread, garlic, olive oil, salt and water. The Romans added vinegar to the gazpacho and ingredients from the New World, notably tomato, were not incorporated into gazpachos until comparatively recent times. 

You might think goulash is a soup, but for the Hungarians, goulash is a cattle driver, the cowboy. Written as gulyas in Hungarian, the soup is referred to as gulyas leves (the soup of the cowboy). What is known all over the world as Hungarian goulash is called porkolt in Hungary. 

In India, there are countless soup varieties. Bajra (pearl millet) and ragi (finger millet) soups are very common to keep the cold away. There’s chawli made of potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, cauliflower and French beans. Paya, the broth made of animal bones by simmering for hours, is packed with healing compounds like collagen, glutamine, glycine and proline.

For winter, Somnath Deb, chef de cuisine, Hilton Jaipur, has a favourite — Bajre ki Raab. A warm soup made with bajra flour, dry ginger powder, jaggery, ajwain (carrom seeds) and loads of ghee, it is common in Rajasthan and Gujarat. Chef Deb also recommends the ancient Rajasthani Makai ki Raab (soup made with crushed corn kernels) and Paya Shorba (soup made by simmering lamb trotters with whole spices for hours).

From finding details of peasant soup in Pharonic paintings to the innovation of turtle soup in the mid-18th century, a very specific wedding soup and the century-old tradition of serving pea soup every Thursday in most Swedish homes to the pepper pots of the West Indies, soup that began life humbly as a one-pot meal has found a permanent place in kitchens worldwide. 

John Steinbeck was right when he wrote in East of Eden: “The lore has not died out of the world, and you will still find people who believe that soup will cure any hurt or illness and is no bad thing to have for the funeral either.” 

RECIPE

Bajre ki Raab

Ingredients

1 tbsp ghee

1/4 cup bajra flour

4 cups water

1/2 tsp dry ginger powder

1/4 cup jaggery grated

1/2 tsp ajwain or carom seeds

Method

Heat ghee in a pan and cook the bajra flour over medium flame for 2-3 minutes will a bit brown in colour. Now add the water, dry ginger powder, jaggery and ajwain simmer. Allow the raab to cook for 8-10 minutes until the jaggery melts and the raab thickens. The consistency should not be too thick nor too thin.

Recipe courtesy: Chef Somnath Deb, chef de cuisine, Hilton Jaipur.

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Goodness in a bowl

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