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Monsoon Special

Around the world in a soup bowl

| Updated on June 08, 2019

Toss in and stir well: From greens to animal protein, a good soup accommodates a wide range of ingredients   -  istock.com/Jag_cz

Apart from keeping ailments away, broths and consommés are perfect for wet afternoons

Zac O'Yeah

When I was a kid back in Sweden I had a misgiving: Soups seemed like fake food, tasteless watery random vegetable glop. It was only later in life, while travelling and sampling vibrant ‘potages’ and ‘consommés’ (thick and clear respectively) that I realised what a versatile dish soup is and how effective it can be, for example, to keep ailments away during the monsoons.

 

Mulligatawny is the maharaja of fusion soups, a colonial take on the Madrasi milagu-tannir, according to Hobson-Jobson: The Anglo-Indian Dictionary, or as KT Achaya establishes in his seminal Indian Food: A Historical Companion, “pepper water (rasam) was literally rendered into English as mulliga-tawny, a fiery soup”. The memsahibs turned the tangy broth that rasam is into a thick, meaty stew, typically of chicken or mutton, onions, carrots, apples, maybe a turnip chucked in for good measure, all cooked in the meat fat, spiced up with curry powder and garnished with symbolic grains of pre-cooked rice. In a way, it’s a caricature of an Indian meal and it became popular, even fashionable, in the rainy and misty 19th-century England, where a sailor’s chant went: “In vain our hard faith we repine/ in vain our fortune we rail/ On Mullaghee-tawny we dine/ Or Congee, in Bangalore jail”.

Hot favourite: Mulligatawny is a colonial take on the tangy rasam   -  istock.com/bonchan

Regarding soups travelling in the opposite direction, the minestrone is curiously popular on Indian menus — the name roughly meaning ‘great soup’ in Italian. Though I doubt that Indian restaurants make it the authentic way by melting pork fat in which smoked bacon is fried before all manner of veggies are thrown into the pot — cut onions and leek, carrot, turnip, celery, cabbage, tomatoes, French beans, peas, garlic and other seasonal varieties that can swim side by side in the minestrone. Interestingly, in India, it is typically garnished with some macaroni, to make it feel more Italian, while Italians, apparently, often prefer to add rice.

By contrast, another iconic European soup, the bouillabaisse — a five-starrer of French cuisine, the name of which loosely hints at ‘mix of things to swiftly boil in water’ — has not made inroads in India, despite a history of French colonial presence in the coastal areas. This Provençal soup was essentially a quick-boiled staple among the fisher folk in Marseille. They chucked in discarded small catch, cheap eels, shellfish and fragments of crab that wouldn’t fetch a price in the market. Apart from seafood, in went chopped onions, tomatoes, a seasoning of pounded garlic cloves, Mediterranean herbs and dried orange peel, and it was generally eaten along with fried bread slices (the predecessors of croutons) in the soup bowl. However, depending on where bouillabaisse is made and, especially if seafood isn’t available, one can substitute it with poached eggs, potatoes and spinach.

Getting fishy: Originally a staple among the fisher folk in Marseille, bouillabaisse was made with discarded catch that wouldn’t fetch a price in the market   -  ISTOCK.COM

Bouillabaisse was adopted into haute cuisine due to the French Revolution, which became a restaurant revolution too, as many chefs who had worked in the private households of the nobility — whose heads were famously guillotined off in the 1790s — had to find new ways to support themselves. Plenty of affordable soup kitchens popped up during the early 1800s, especially in Paris. Subsequently, bouillabaisse acquired such a fine-dining status that the Calcutta-born novelist William Makepeace Thackeray wrote a lengthy ballad about how much he loved sampling the “noble” dish in pleasant taverns he found along Rue Neuve des Petits Champs in Paris — “A sort of soup, or broth, or brew,/ Or hotchpotch of all sorts of fishes... Indeed, a rich and savory stew...” In the restaurant culture of today, soup has unfortunately been reduced to a starter and is, like the French sometimes say, what an overture is to an opera. Which is ironic, since the very word restaurant originated from the humble soup stalls that offered ‘restoratives’, so the outlet itself became known as a ‘restaurant’, where a customer gets ‘restored’ by a hearty broth.

An overseas relative of the bouillabaisse which I slurped during my days in New Orleans — the Creole gumbo — was indeed proclaimed the national dish of US state Louisiana to highlight its multicultural heritage. It’s a thick soup, condensed traditionally with okra cooked in meaty stock to which are added shellfish (or spicy sausages or even de-furred squirrels), plus onion, tomatoes and peppers — basically another cheap dish into which any kitchen leftovers could be tossed, and if eaten with rice, it fed multitudes. Apart from its French roots it fused Native American flavours favoured by the Choctaw tribe, while gumbo itself is apparently an African word for okra, that way making it the most emblematic American dish. Like bouillabaisse, recipes vary widely. So, for example, during Lent, the Catholic period of abstention, a vegetable gumbo was made with turnips and greens instead. The major difference between the two soups is that gumbo is zingier thanks to peppers and chillies, and slow-cooked for several hours (before the shellfish is added at the very end), while bouillabaisse shouldn’t boil longer than 14 minutes.

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My top soupy moments happened in China, where I fell in love with the small canteens into which customers step to select ingredients from shelves lined with baskets that hold cut greens of all imaginable kinds, noodles and meat options, handing it over to the proprietor, who charges by quantity and asks whether she should cook it in the hotpot or the madly-spicy broth cauldron. This soup with its do-it-yourself factor opens up infinite possibilities and became my standard lunch, especially when the typhoon season hit Shanghai’s streets. I still cook soup the same way at home with Chinese condiments, which I pick up from the exotic grocery stores of Kolkata’s Lu Shun Sarani.

 

Although we tend to connect the aromatic miso soup with Japan — where it is eaten daily with sushi or rice and vegetables, like one might add rasam to rice in India — the nutritious fermented soybean paste actually originated in China more than two millennia ago. Buddhists brought it to Japan a thousand years later, where it evolved into its multiple popular varieties. The fermentation, for which soybeans are mixed with grains such as barley, millet or rice, essentially turns the sludge into a mouldy fungus, meaning that it is actually alive and hence should be added to the soup only moments before it is taken off the gas — or even once it is cooling — so that the beneficial micro-organisms of miso are not killed.

Over time, I’ve come to understand that soups are fundamental dishes, for, after all, humans have come out of water — like all life on earth we originated in the primordial hot broth that covered the planet ages ago and our bodies still contain 80 per cent water, remnants of that same prehistoric mulligatawny. Philosophising thus, I even started appreciating the dull goops of my childhood, essentially thick stews like the Swedish national dish ärter med fläsk, yellow peas with pork which is eaten (for unknown reasons) every Thursday. In many ways it resembles an Indian dal, if it wasn’t for the ham that goes into it.

Another soup that works well in India is the Finnish kesäkeitto or ‘summer soup’ celebrating a first harvest of tender vegetables such as diced carrots, cauliflower, potatoes, fresh peas, spinach and onions — ingredients also loved by Indian chefs — that are boiled in salted water, which is thickened with a mixture of milk and flour. As you notice, there’s not much spice in it, so a pinch of garam masala can be stirred in to make it more palatable. The deep-red Russian borsch is another easy-to-cook standard from those parts, an iron-rich beetroot soup which can also contain plenty of other veggies and even meat. I nowadays often prepare spiced-up versions of the broth.

Finally, for those with a sweet tooth, it might be an interesting revelation that in my native Scandinavia a popular dessert (which can also be drunk out of a mug as an afternoon pick-me-up) is fruit soup made of dried or fresh fruit or berries that are boiled with starch in syrup. Historically it was for winter consumption to ward off the inhospitable climate, a natural survival strategy to infuse vitamins into the body when the weather turned grim. Now wouldn’t that be a perfect bowl on a monsoon afternoon?

 

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist;

Email: zacnet@email.com

Published on June 07, 2019

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