Sunday, February 13, 2011

Ode To Soup

It's not just me. Everyone loves soup. I've never met someone who emphatically or otherwise expressed a dislike for soup. For me soup is more than just hot and soulful comfort food, reminiscent of home. It's all that plus more. Soup was the first thing I ever cooked. The first dish I ever made. And more than being a fondly recalled distant memory, soup serves as the basis for everything I love about cooking. While I couldn't have put it into words at the time, I was fascinated by the idea that one could start with water and create a flavorful liquid. And, as I was preparing chicken soup for matzoh balls at the time, the fact that we - mom and I - were dipping a chicken in our pot just like a tea bag into a mug made perfect sense to me. I was instantly entranced with the idea of extracting flavor from meat and vegetables. Even as I kid, I had a visceral objection to using a bouillon cube or other concentrated flavor boosting aides. Cheating! And so it began there, an ongoing experiment to make a better soup, a more flavorful soup, a more comforting soup by exploiting everything the natural ingredients hold within them. Every project I take on and every dish I cook is a new version of that first soup. And so that's why soup is so special to me. Oh, and it's just plain delicious…

My travels took me to some places where soup reigns supreme. These far off manifestations of our favorite steamy elixir are not unknown here in America. In fact, the pho of vietnam and ramen, udon and soba dishes of Japan are so accessible here that they are on the verge of being ingrained in our own melting pot culinary tradition. The fusion has begun. Going back to the source didn't necessarily bring any new revelations, but oh what I treat! I loved seeing how a dish that we have tightly confined images and definitions of in America can be wildly varied on its home turf. Think of the hamburger, a (sort of) iconic American food. On native land, there are endless variations of it. It's just what we eat and everyone is allowed to do it how they do it. I found the same to be true of pho, ramen dishes and especially miso soup at their respective sources. It made discussions of "authenticity" seem ridiculous to me. Some foods cannot fit a mold that is rigorously defined by a panel of experts, and soup of all things cannot be shackled. After all, what is more down home than soup? What is more open to the interpretation of every family feeding mother and every DIY epicurean? Nothing, that's what.

One thing I know for sure is that enthusiasm for soup is human nature. It's not a trend or particular taste. It's not pop culture. Soup has always been here and soup is here to stay! All food starts as water and all food can end as soup. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. In South East Asia, where you'll find the ever popular Vietnamese pho among other regional riffs on the subject, people live on steaming soup in a stupidly hot climate. While I was visiting Hue, Vietnam I braved the heat to eat what are two of the most memorable meals of my travels. One afternoon I wandered down a side street to find a little tent where an old lady was stirring a massive cauldron of beefy rice soup. I was sweating so profusely over my food, I thought the bowl would never be empty. I chased the soup with with the juice of a basketball sized coconut while a sassy Vietnamese lady jokingly fanned me with a palm branch and her clique sat cackling at the silly looking American. Nothing but soup could outweigh the embarrassment of being reduced to a cultural punchline. The following night I walked with a two other travelers to find a place recommended to have the best Hue style rice noodles. We got a little twisted around with a less than accurate map, but ended up finding the little roadside setup that was packed with people sitting at kiddie sized tables. There was only one soup to order, so I flashed three fingers and waited for our three bowls to arrive. The tables all were set with baskets of boiled quail eggs and pork sausage steamed in banana leaves to adorn your soup with, as well as the ubiquitous chili sauces. To our right, three ladies sat hand cutting the rice noodles from handful of dough rapid fire, directly into giant bubbling pots. The noodles were paired with a simple fish broth, none too fancy but all made from the heart. Both of these soups atypical to what we commonly know of as Vietnamese, but just part or life where they come from. Just a local's twist.

It was in Japan, however where I witnessed a passion for soup that even made ME blush a little bit. I had been there a little over a week and already eaten myriad styles of ramen and udon. I was on an overnight bus from Tokyo to Nagoya. As we all tucked into our luxurious reclining seats, complete with electrical outlets, reading lights and complimentary slippers; I notices the salaryman sitting caddy corner to me was reading a magazine…a girly magazine. America is a little prude when it comes to boobies in printed media. I caught myself staring in amazement. What? Am I not human!? At least it was tastefully done. He flipped one page, and then another. On the third turn, I saw a page cover not with nude women, but bowls of soup. There was ramen and there was soba. Dressed up with fish cakes and char siu pork, side by side with undressed women. It was magnificent, and a little titillating. But hold all of your jokes regarding "food porn!" I can't stand that term. Pornography is something consumed with no feeling. It's overly processed empty calories, laden with preservatives. Soup is beautiful. It touches us with nostalgia and warms the heart. Soup is for everyone. It's the anti-hipster. We all have some form of it personal to our history, and through soup we relate to one another, one bowl at a time.


  1. It would have been more apropriate if you would have held off one day to post this. A love affair with soup is one that captures most of the world.

    My fiance loves soup. If she wasn't six months pregnant, we would probably be on a plane to Viet Nam to chase down the world's best pho and be cultural punch lines. It would be well worth it.


  2. I've never really been that much into soup besides my mom's chicken's soup, but wow! This post really made me wanna try some of that miso and that locally made ramen.