Soup, soup, beautiful soup

In this part of the world, soup isn’t just an appetizer — it’s a whole meal in itself.

A regular sight on the eastern side of the Queen`s Park Savannah, Trinidad, a corn soup vendor serves her many customers. Photograph by Shirley Bahadur

One sleepy Saturday, I changed my status on Facebook – the time-gobbling social-networking site – to “Franka Philip is going to make comforting ham and split-peas soup today”.

It seemed innocuous enough: making soup on a Saturday is a Caribbean tradition and one of the best ways to use up leftover vegetables and meat in the fridge. But after just a few minutes, idle Facebook friends were commenting on my status, giving tips for the proposed soup, and some boldface people even suggesting that if my soup didn’t have dumplings, then “it isn’t really soup”.

I imagined that I was engaging in a ritual along with domestic goddesses all around the world who were also peeling onions, mincing garlic and seasoning meat in preparation for the day’s big meal. While Madame Jolie in Marseille, France, fillets fish for a bouillabaisse, in Scarborough, Tobago, Auntie Allison must be putting the oxtail in the pressure cooker for a hearty oxtail soup, and if it is Ramadan, Mrs Belghiti in Morocco is certainly rinsing the peas for the huge pot of harira with which her family will break the fast. Every culture has its own soup, and often, it’s one of the dishes that makes for a great shared dining experience.

In her excellent book A Celebration of Soup, English writer Lindsey Bareham points out that soup is widely regarded as man’s oldest food, developed around the same time that boiling was discovered to be a way of cooking. When I chatted with food historian Ivan Day, he said “soup” derives from the word soppe. Soppes were thick pieces of bread over which the cooking liquor was poured to make a thick, soupy liquid. In fact in medieval times, bread was the main thickener for soups in Europe. And up to now, we still get bread with soup as a matter of course.

I’ve found in the UK lots of the soup we get in canteens and takeaways like Pret à Manger are pretty light. But lentil soup, tomato soup or cream of mushroom soup with a slice of bread isn’t my idea of a filling meal. I guess that’s why so many dieters use soup as a cornerstone of their diets. While most sensible dieters opt for soups like carrot and coriander or light chicken soup, there are those who go down the extreme route. Who can forget the cabbage-soup diet fad that was much touted by celebrities as the key to weight loss? Not only was that devoid of any nutrition, the unpleasant after-effects weren’t worth it.
One of the healthiest options is corn soup, with loads of chopped cilantro (chadon beni) and garlic. For light but filling soups, though, you can’t go wrong with seafood. There’s a former canteen in Port of Spain called the Breakfast Shed, which was located on the city’s docks and initially catered to stevedores and dock workers, but soon enough, the word spread about the ladies of the Breakfast Shed, who’d cook the freshest food at extremely reasonable prices.

On many a morning (after eating a light breakfast at home) before heading to work, I’d nip into the Breakfast Shed for some of Ann’s fish broth. She would never tell me what her secret ingredient was, but I have often tried to reproduce that flavour and goodness.

I’ve also found some good French Caribbean seafood soup recipes, particularly those by chef Babette de Rozieres from her book Creole. My favourite is Ouassou (crayfish) Blaff. The soup is called a “blaff” because of the sound it makes when you put the fish in the spicy stock or court bouillon. The stock ingredients are thyme, parsley, scallions, bay leaves, stock cubes, garlic, onion, Scotch bonnet pepper, grated lemon zest and the juice of five or six limes. The result is a citrussy and peppery stock that permeates the crayfish, and leaves your palate feeling clean.
But much as I love fish soups and chowders, I cannot resist the drama of making a proper, full-bodied soup. This is the kind of soup that you need to eat on a Saturday because an hour after eating it, you’ll have “ethnic fatigue”. The only thing you’ll want to do is lie down and snore in a hammock.

Soups in that category are usually – for me at least – meat-based. So oxtail, cow heel, lamb or beef are usually the main ingredients. Oxtail is my favourite soup and I think I have truly perfected the art of cooking it. The two-day preparation includes going to the market to find eddoes, sweet potatoes, plantain and yams, as well as fresh chives, scallions, coriander and parsley, and buying the oxtail. The next steps are making a marinade, seasoning the chunky cuts and leaving the meat to marinate overnight.

When I’m cooking oxtail soup, I usually imagine I’m back home in Trinidad. Either soca music or old-school dancehall has to play at full volume while I peel vegetables and knead the flour for dumplings.
I’ve found the fastest way of making oxtail soup is to use a pressure cooker for the meat. Once the meat is cooked, add the peeled vegetables and dumplings, then some more water and seasoning, and let cook for around 40 minutes. After that, the most amazing soup is ready, and the house smells like my mother’s kitchen back home.
Caribbean soup cooking has come a long way from the standard oxtail, cow heel and callaloo. At restaurants and functions, I see many more people serving cold soups, notably the famous gazpacho or chilled cucumber soup. I’m not a huge fan of cold soups, not even in the summer. But I have found that if they’re done well, they can make fantastic starters. In A Celebration of Soup, there are rather delicious-sounding cold soups that would appeal to the Caribbean palate, like chilled passion fruit and melon soup, and cold lentil and spinach soup.

The cold soup that I have tried and I’ve found to be quite special is chilled curried carrot soup with coconut milk. It’s simple, uses few ingredients and would suit practically any occasion. If, like me, you’re not a huge fan of cold soups, this one is likely to change your mind.

But as winter approaches, I’m sure I’ll be digging out the ham knuckle, split peas and vegetables yet again – and much to the joy of my friends, it will be “real soup”, because there will be lots of soft, chewy dumplings.

 

Recipe: Chilled curried carrot soup with coconut milk

  • 450g carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 900 ml chicken stock
  • 15g butter
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp curry powder
  • 225 ml coconut milk
  • 1 lemon, peeled and sliced into thin pieces
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Method

  1. Cover the carrots with the stock and bring to the boil.
  2. Lower heat, cover pan and simmer until carrots are tender.
  3. In another pan, heat the butter and sauté the onions until soft but not browned.
  4. Add the curry powder and stir-fry for a couple of minutes.
  5. Purée the carrots with the onion and curry mixture and pass through a fine sieve.
  6. Reheat, adjust the seasoning and simmer gently for ten minutes.
  7. Cool to lukewarm and stir in the coconut milk.
  8. Chill, stir and serve garnished with peeled lemon slices.