Soup without borders

Every Trini cook has a recipe for corn soup, tasty staple of family limes and street parties alike. But how would this creole delicacy go down with Japanese diners? And where do you find chadon beni and dhal in Japan? Suzanne Bhagan learns that humble soup can cross cultural boundaries

Illustration by Shalini SeereeramCilantro, known in Japan as pakuchi, is a workable substitute for Trinidadian chadon beni. Photo by Shutterstock.com/merc67

In Trinidad and Tobago, corn soup is not a dish you cook for yourself. When you make a big, steaming pot, you call your friends and family to share in this crucible of joy. It’s the star attraction of many a lime, as everyone gathers around a large coal pot or stove to wait for the magic to happen. They wait and wait until the ingredients and flavours fuse into a creamy, one-pot medley that never disappoints.

And corn soup isn’t just something Trinis rustle up at home. It’s also a staple street food, something we gulp down after a long, sweaty session in a nightclub or fete. On Carnival Monday and Tuesday, one sip is all a reveller needs to keep dancing on the streets for hours on end, even after the sun’s gone down.

When my husband Jesse and I arrived in Japan last year, we didn’t know what to expect. After spending a few days in Tokyo, we got ready to head west, to the heart of the Japanese countryside. I was going to teach English at a public high school in a small city in Japan’s least populated prefecture — miles away from the creature comforts of cosmopolitan Tokyo. To survive, we had to adapt.

Shopping was an adventure in itself. At the local supermarket, we couldn’t read the food labels. Everything was written in kanji, Japanese characters composed of unintelligible lines, squares, and dots. During our first shopping trip, we bought a clear, golden liquid that resembled vegetable oil. But when we tried to fry chicken in it, it just wouldn’t heat up. Soon we discovered it wasn’t oil at all, but mirin, a sweet Japanese rice wine. Even Japanese flour was different. Our dumplings fell flat. Our fried bakes burned. We were ready to give up.

Then we discovered there was one thing we could not mess up: Trini corn soup. Japan had almost all the ingredients. However, instead of the more pungent chadon beni that grows wild in any T&T backyard, Jesse found giant bunches of cilantro at the local fish market. In Japan, the green herb is sometimes known by its Thai name, pakuchi. We also found sweet potatoes, pumpkin, carrots, Japanese ginger (although not as robustly flavoured as ginger from the Caribbean), vacuum-packed corn on the cob, tinned coconut milk from Thailand, and a small packet of cornmeal. We couldn’t find one key ingredient: dhal, or yellow split peas. Then thanks to online shopping, we got our dhal sent from Osaka overnight, sourced from India. We were ready, but we worried the soup wouldn’t suit our friends’ subtle Japanese palates.

Japanese food, in general, celebrates the art of separation. Dishes are usually served apart from one another: a ceramic bowl with fluffy rice topped with umeboshi or pickled plums, another with pickled herrings, a steaming bowl of miso soup, a plate of karaage or Japanese fried chicken, a platter of sashimi, and a plate of tempura (vegetables dipped in a light batter and fried). Even ramen, Japan’s favourite B-class gourmet food, is an assemblage of slippery ramen noodles, thin slices of pork, softened nori (seaweed), sliced green onions, julienned mushrooms, and bean sprouts swimming in a thin soy sauce or thick pork-bone-based dashi or broth.

In the Caribbean, however, we don’t separate our food. Instead, we love to mix their textures and flavours, blending them into mouth-watering rice dishes, stews, and soups. Aware of these cultural differences, we were a bit nervous when we first introduced corn soup to our Japanese friends.

At our dinner party, Jesse brought out a steaming pot of corn soup and started ladling it into bowls. “Would you like to try some?” he asked Ayaka, the school nurse’s daughter. “Sure, why not?” she said. At her first mouthful, she said, “Oishi!” her eyes glassy from the chilli pepper. In spite of the soup’s spiciness, Ayaka cleaned her bowl and asked for seconds. We breathed a sigh of relief. The soup was a hit with the other guests as well, warming them up in a cold apartment during that harsh winter evening.

 

Because the corn soup was such a success, I decided to invite Jesse to share the recipe with my high school’s English Club members. Although usually shy, my students came early and excitedly donned aprons. Soon, they were volunteering to wash, peel, and chop the sweet potatoes, carrots, and pumpkin. Jesse showed them how to chop the vegetables into bite size chunks and to slice the corn cobs into thick discs. Before long, they were laughing and talking loudly.

Then, he showed them how to make the dumplings. First, he kneaded the cornmeal and white flour with some vegetable oil and milk, then rolled the dough flat and cut it into small squares. Some students gathered around the stove, peering into the pot as Jesse sautéed the chopped onions, garlic, and ginger in vegetable oil. They were especially curious about the dhal, picking up a few of the grains and poking them gently in their palms. They watched as Jesse added the dhal to the oil and chunkayed or sautéed the split peas until they were well coated with the onion mixture. After that, Jesse added water and coconut milk and let the dhal mixture boil until soft. Lastly, the students added the chopped vegetables and waited for them to cook.

Everything seemed to be going well. But when Jesse began chopping the cilantro leaves, some students grimaced. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “We don’t like that,” one of them said, scrunching up his face and pointing at the green herb. “Why don’t you like it?” After some moments of silence, they smiled and said, “It smells.” Jesse ladled the soup into bowls and left the bowl of chopped pakuchi next to them. “You should try it. It’s delicious,” he said.

Some hesitated, while others delicately sprinkled some of the cilantro on their corn soup. At the end of the meal, all the bowls were licked clean, with no traces of pakuchi. Two giant pots of corn soup disappeared in less than half an hour. I was pleased. At the end of the school year, when I asked my students what their favorite English Club activity was, they unanimously agreed: making Trini corn soup with Jesse.

Who would have thought Trinidad’s most humble street food would become the bridge across two distinct cultures? Trini corn soup warmed stomachs during the harsh Japanese winter and challenged my students to give pakuchi a second chance. Most important, it became our gift to a small city in Japan, something they could taste from a country they had never heard about before.