The Charms of Tomato Soup

From being a standard serve in Dak Bungalows to a classic Railways’ Pantry menu to building an empire of recipes across homes around the world, here is to the simplest of soups that rules all.

By Madhulika Dash; Picture courtesy Chef Vikas Seth & Stock Images

There is something sinisterly joyous yet balmy of the tomato soup: be it its richness, the tanginess, that not-to-be-missed chance to pucker at every sip or just the feeling of satiation that washes over with the last drop of this soup. For most Indians, the introduction to this 19th century innovation has been through the railway pantry, which instated the tradition of having the soup with breadsticks, a square of butter, pepper, and salt. The addictiveness to this rather simple bowl of deliciousness has been instant. The outcome, fascinatingly, has been the same for even those few who have had the chance to have it the way it was had during the colonial times – when the soup was prepared either as a bisque, a cream of tomato (which was also said to be served in the Viceroy House) or as a blend of the two – or in the East Room of Rajkutir, where the soup has been inspired by the Dak Bungalow style with one difference, instead of fat it uses butter, says Chef Sumanta Chakrabarti (Corporate Chef, Neotia Group).

In fact, recalls Chef Vikas Seth (Culinary Director, Embassy Leisure), “the tomato soup was one of the first things that I learnt how to make during my hospitality college days where we followed a strict French style of making the soup with a little twist.” Interestingly, back then, says Chef Seth, “we followed the traditional method of scalding the tomatoes to deskin them before it would be crushed and then cooked with the rest of the ingredients like onion, garlic and ginger in some butter before a roux was added to get that velvety texture. The process though while was far less complicated to other soups came with its own pressure tests. Like the tomatoes. Choose something that has too big seeds or is too raw, heavily ripened or with high level of pH (which is a result of being too long on the vine) and the soup could be anywhere between a watery mush to a stinky gloop that no matter of flavorants could resolve.”

It was sometime before one realised that the key to a good tomato soup – one of the regulars across hotels and cruise liners too – was knowing the ingredient and a clever blend of ingredients that could turn it into a treat. And that clever combination, says Chef Sumanta, “often held the key to a great soup, even if you were using commercial reduced tomato soup cakes or dehydrated powders.”

For Chef Seth, that “key” is to begins with the tomatoes. “What we are looking mostly is for these medium size tomatoes that have this distinct sourness that can be played around,” says the Mexican food specialist, who often plays around with local red and green tomatoes coming from Kolar or Namdhari areas of Karnataka. They are known for the tartness that can be further tweaked using a traditional recipes, which in case of Chef Sumanta hails from the good old English clubs that used a bit of the rich chicken stock to get the flavours in place, while for Chef Seth is a mix of both the one learnt from her grandmother in Amritsar where we used onions, garlic and ginger along with carrots to give it a body with peppering from the recipes that he discovered over the years from Cruise liners to his travel abroad including the use of celery. That, he says, “gives the soup this distinct freshness and body and negates the use of the colonial roux which often turns this light, rich soup, heavy.”

Fascinatingly, the use of roux was not made popular either by Campbell – the company that made tomato soup a household name by introducing it in a condensed format following the recipe that is said to have perfected by the Paris-born Louis Charles DeLisle - nor America’s most celebrated cookbook author Eliza Leslie, who immortalised the American style of soup making by putting together its “definite” recipe in 1857 tome called Miss Leslie’s New Cookery Book. According to the book, which was considered Bible by young homemakers and chefs, a good tomato soup called for “shin and leg of beef that is boiled seasoned with salt and pepper till it is all to rags ( a process that takes six hours) to which was added a tomato mix made with half a peck of ripe tomatoes that were quartered and pressed through a strainer and reduced to a pulp to which half a dozen of sliced onions were added along with a tablespoon-full of sugar to lessen the acidity. Thickened with grated bread-crumbs and ochras, the soup could only be shifted to a tureen when no bone bits or meat shreds were left in the soup.



Curiously, this labour-intensive soup making did little to deter people from the chummy balminess that the soup provided during a wintery night. Such was the popularity of the tomato soup done Leslie style that soon it became a part of the “light meals” at homes of nobility, and, according to a few historians, may have played a decisive role in bringing back tomatoes that had once earned the moniker of ‘deadly apples’ thanks to lead poisoning back on the table. How did tomato soup travel from America or France, the two places where it had earned its stripes as a beloved meal, to India is not known. However, says Chef Sumanta, “there could be a good chance that it came with French chefs who were employed into various high ranked places by the British as a mark of superiority, especially places like Fort Kochi and Viceroy’s House.

This was around the 19th century, a time when the British had moved from the sparsely resourced Dak Bungalows, which many say could have been where tomato soup could have originated thanks to the wide availability of tomatoes, to the generously stocked messes, clubs, and military establishment, and had taken to liking quite a few Indian dishes including the curry and rasam including the tomato rasam also called thakkali rasam or tomato charu. And would have come out with their own creamier, less spicy option called the Cream of Tomato Soup, where the mildly seasoned soup was slow cooked (almost dum style) in cream till it had this glossy appearance and a rich, velvety palate feel.

Another version, says Chef Seth, “could be the influence that came from the Mughal Court and dynasty thereafter where tomatoes were used for the tartness and acidity that it provided. The tamatar ka shorba being one of them.” Brilliantly, the soup that was created in the colonial culinary corridors was a curious melange of a lot of influences and used an interesting array of spice and flavorant combinations that could result in a soup that appealed to the palate depending on the place it was made. So while those made in hill stations had to be creamy and dense, the one in the plains had to be light on the palate and tangy enough to rejuvenate the palate instantly. The addition of roux was a tradition that came here along with butter, which was later replaced with using a bit of cornflour that gave the soup a body without the obvious mouthfeel. It was around the early 20th century that tomato soup recipe was made completely vegetarian with butter toasted croutons doing the work with an occasional addition of fresh corn paste. However, the practice of doing the latter was soon given up for other interesting options like carrot that was cooked along with the onions, garlic, and ginger to then mashed into a paste to give the soup that delicious mouthfeel. In all probability, it was this version that reached the Railway Restaurant Cars (famously abbreviated as RC) when they were franchised to franchise of Kelners the subsidiary of Spencer & Company, old established wine merchants, caterers and hoteliers in Calcutta, while on the BAR the franchise belonged to Sorabji & Company. This was the case at least in the major stations across India. Soups back then was made according to the palate of the travellers, who were primarily British followed by well—heeled Indians, the new aristocrat.


Such was the popularity of the soup that by the time India won its freedom and most of the British menu was gradually moved out from the Pantry Car menu with newer Anglo Indian version making way instead, the famous Tomato Soup stayed with one change – instead of white soup bowl, it was served in a teacup (and later paper cups). In fact, the English style Cream of Tomato Soup made an appearance in the Palace of Wheels Dining Car along with Cream of Almond Soup, served the colonial way. Tomato soup mass appeal came around the mid-60s. With air travel as an exorbitant option, railways began looking for interesting options to become aspirational once again. The result was Rajdhanis that came with a food package, and the tomato soup became an integral part of the elaborate three course dinner menu that ended with a bowl of icecream. And with that debuted the familiar trio of tomato soup, in a cup, a square of butter with pepper and salt for taste.” with air travel coming in a big way, railways had to introduce special trains like Rajdhani where food was included. And on the it wasn’t just the way the soup was served that changed, so did the style of making it, which was tarter, buttery and in a few places with a hint of MSG that made it even more delicious. The addition of breadstick, says Chef Seth, “was a necessity since croutons became impractical when you had an entire train to serve. Dunking into the soup early on made it soft, and too late left it hard like a rock. Thus, the bread stick that did more than just add the crunch factor, it became the edible spoon that could be used to add more butter to an already tarter, buttery, mildly watery but vigorously seasoned from separating.

The trick, he continues, “was the little flour that was added to the soup, which in its all-Indian vegetarian iteration leaned more towards the shorba in taste than the cream of tomato soup or the French bisque, which was also a popular way of having the soup till the early 20th century thanks to the heavy French influence not just in Colonial cooking but that in hospitality as well.”

The taste, the wide availability, and its eventual rise into being the soup of choice not only in different restaurants and hotels, but also commercial brands that turned oodles of tomatoes into concentrate and dehydrated powders transformed tomato soup into the SRK of soups. But what really aced with tomato soup, say the culinary expert, “was the easiness of it thanks to the familiarity of using tomatoes in our tradition cuisine.”

While the chefs insist that there are no wrong or right way of making a tomato soup, the benchmark of a memorable tomato soup, says Chef Seth, “is when you are able to get all the subtle flavours of tomato to the fore.”