The Soup Story

By: Madhulika Dash

Chicken soup or as many would call the food-ification of a mother's comforting hug. Let's face it; there is nothing that one doesn't like about the goop called Soup. It's a comfort food, the tastiest way to get rid of cold and fever, the popular amuse bouche that kicks in the appetite – and just about anyone can make it! But ever wondered about the origin of soup? Who could have thought of creating a dish that's glocal in its appeal, taste and texture?  

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink pegs the origin of soup has been dated at least 3000 to 5000 years ago explaining as "boiling was not a commonly used cooking technique until the invention of waterproof and heatproof containers about five thousand years ago."

Fascinatingly, the theory presented is wrong — by 15,000 years at least!

Soup as many anthropologists have now begun to contemplate predates the beginning of Silk Route era, and could have been the first dish known to mankind – which makes if not literally 20,000 BC old. Most ancient ledgers refer to the soup back then as gruel, which was the staple of most nomadic tribes. It was easy to make: a pot of water with coarsely ground grains (today called Sattu), vegetables and meat thrown into it to cook slowly till meal time.

And was, as a matter of fact, the work meal that nourished the hardworking folks of the village, those who travelled and warriors too. Curiously, the birth of gruel and the clear soup happened simultaneously.

While gruel or what went on to become thick soup was what a prosperous village enjoyed, especially the rich lords, clear soup was curated by the labours and small time workers, who would use leftovers and low quality produce to make a soup-like meal.

In fact, in China, says Zubin D'Souza (Corporate Chef, Waterstones'Hotel), "each soldier and worker in the royal army had a bowl named after him, which was filled with chicken claws, neck, ginger, garlic and leeks and put on this big flat utensils that was filled with water. The broth would simmer for as long as these people would work, and in the evening, each soldier would take out his pot, clear the scum, add noodles or pieces of cured meat if any and eat it."

For travelers and merchants, adds Chef D'Souza, "this goop would be limited to the leftovers, usually boney parts of an animal, skin and herbs that regularly grew on the roadside."

This was the soup that most merchants would prepare for themselves, which would often be seasoned with ginger or garlic – and eventually pepper. It was this broth that travelled on the Silk Road under the Han Dynasty and reached other parts of the world, where eventually the claw gave way to vegetables, herbs, meat pieces and of course spices.

Happily, it wasn't just the soup which travelled that transformed leading to consommés and passed variations, it also got its name. Like in Germany, the soup was made of a root that eventually led to the names like "supper," "sup," and "sop," which originally meant "consume something liquid." In Latin country, where soup became a part of the meal in 6th century and was had with a piece of bread it became "suppa", which then bopped into the French dining, where it started to mean both the broth-soaked bread and the broth itself. However, it was with the English that the word soup finally was coined, when the ancient "pottages" or "broths" became soup, a meal in itself.

But while the British gave the bowl meal, its famous name; it was the French that led to the creation of the Soup menu – which borrowed heavily from the various varieties present at the time. Like the Chinese thin (read clear) and thick soup, the Indian Rasam and Yakhni (clarified soup) and of course the French consommés  and passed soup.   

And the soup, whose major qualification came from whether it was made for the rich or the poor, now had versions that was divided on the basis of technique. Like the clear soup had clarified soup, passed soup and broth.

The difference was not only in the making but also in the way it tasted, adds Chef D’Souza. The Clarified Soup for instance, adds the chef, used mince meat with egg to remove the impurities from the soup, and is popularly known as consommé today. These soups are rich in flavour profile like the Continental Vegetable and Tomato consommé.  Passed soup on the other hand uses a more hands on approach to clear the soup. Like Indian Yakhni or its inspired Smoked Lamb Broth, where after simmer cooking the meat and spices for long hours, the broth us passed through two layers of muslin cloth. This, says Chef D'Souza, "kind of soup was known for its rich texture and often served to the samurai with fried tofu before they set out on their journey."

The broth was of course the oldest soup trick in the book, which even Charak Samhita popularized as the "strength soup" for those recovering from any illness to babies and even as the nutritious meal during monsoons and winters.

The reason for this was plain: while it needed very few ingredients to prepare, it harvested the nutrition of produce – meat or veggies – well, was easily digested and filling. The fewer checkpoints that made a dish popular back then.  

In fact, in 1765, it was the filling, comforting nature of soup that led Monsieur Boulanger to start selling it commercially to people, who called it "restoratifs" meaning "something that restores your strength". Incidentally, Yakhni, tomato shorba, rasam and the lentil soup were among the few things that the rest houses in ancient India too served at its ports and in rest houses that were strewn the trade routes. Back then, soup making was a simple art of setting pots that simmered on fire for a long time cooking everything from vegetable to grains to meat and even offal that would be served to the travel-weary soul with a piece of bread.

And that, ends Chef D’Souza, "is the technique that even today is the secret ingredient behind a great-tasting, comforting soup!"