SOUP. A soup is a broth that is infused with flavor. It may be thin and crystal clear like a consommé, voluptuously smooth and creamy like a creamed soup, or so chunky with meat, fish, grains, and/or vegetables that it is just this side of a stew. A soup may be the first of several courses, intended just to whet the appetite; it may be one of many dishes served at the same time; or it may be a hearty meal in a bowl. The bottom line is that in order to be a soup, it must be enough of a liquid preparation that eventually one gets around to sipping it, or eating it with a spoon.
Soup is an important mainstay in the everyday diet of most cultures. It was probably one of the earliest cooked preparations because it could be made with just about anything (including leftovers from the day before) and could be extended greatly simply by adding more liquid. Where food is scarce, soup is a staple: The moral of the "Stone Soup" fable is that soup can be made from nothing at all but stones, water, and generosity.
Although classic French cuisine developed as a result of the availability of many types of food and involves many courses, it has also given soup a place of singular importance. According to the eighteenth-century French gastronome Grimod de la Reynière (1758–1838), "It [soup] is to dinner what a portico or a peristyle is to a building; that is to say, it is not only the first part of it, but it must be devised in such a manner as to set the tone of the whole banquet, in the same way as the overture of an opera announces the subject of the work." In other words, soup should inspire, set the stage, for the rest of the meal.
Classic French cuisine divides soups into two broad categories: clear soups and thick soups. These classifications are made on the basis of a Western, and specifically French, way of thinking about food that is essentially one of theme and variation. All soups in the "clear" category are prepared using a fundamental technique; variations on and additions to this technique create derivative soups. Once the cook has mastered the basic technique, he or she can make all derivations. One should not assume that other cultures think about food in the same way—in fact, the opposite can be assumed. But since soups from non-Western cultures fall well within this kind of classification system, it nonetheless seems a reasonable way to approach the topic. Such a system can also be adjusted to embrace ethnic as well as Western cuisines by redefining the categories this way: broth-based soups and thick soups.
Broth-based soups are soups made by simmering flavorful ingredients (meats, poultry, seafood, legumes, vegetables, herbs and/or spices) in water or stock to make a thin broth. The broth may then be garnished and seasoned in a variety of ways at the whim of the cook (e.g., with fresh meats and vegetables, herbs, grains or pastas), so that although the broth of such a soup is thin, the soup itself may also be hearty. Stocks are a kind of soup as well: water is simmered with bones, vegetables, and other flavoring agents such as herbs, to infuse the water with their flavor. (In the case of the Japanese stock, dashi, the vegetable is seaweed and the flavoring agent dried tuna.) Unlike soups, stocks are not intended to be eaten on their own. They are a base or ingredient from which to build something more complex—a sauce, a stew, or a soup.
The most famous broth-based soup in the world must be chicken soup, made by cooking chicken in stock or water. Once the chicken is cooked, it may be boned and returned to the soup or eaten separately; then vegetables, rice, noodles, or matzoh balls are added to the soup, depending on the preference of the cook. If the chicken is cooked whole in stock with vegetables, and the resulting broth is served as a first-course soup, followed by the chicken and vegetables, it is called a poule au pot —which means "chicken in a pot" and is a meal in itself. If egg and lemon are whisked into the simmering broth until the egg "strings," and then rice is stirred in, it is the Greek avgolemono. Wonton soup (a soup traditionally served at the end of a Chinese meal although a formal dinner may include more than one soup) is made by poaching wontons in a ginger-scented chicken broth; when the broth is seasoned with fragrant lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves (the mildly lemon-tasting and highly fragrant leaves of the kaffir lime), and galangal (a root that tastes something like lavender) and enriched with coconut milk, it becomes the Thai soup tome kha gai. An Indonesian chicken soup may be flavored with lemongrass too, saffron or turmeric, and a cooked paste of shallots, garlic, kemiri nuts (a local nut that resembles a macadamia nut), shrimp paste, ginger, and coriander seeds. And if the broth is flavored with a purée of onion, garlic, and tomato, then garnished with crisp, fried strips of fresh tortilla and grated cheese, it becomes the Mexican sopa de tortilla.
There are just as many soups based on a beef broth, which may be made from the bones alone, or from an inexpensive cut of beef such as short ribs (which are usually served with the soup) or shin (usually discarded after cooking). French onion soup is one such soup, in which the broth is simmered with well-browned onions until it is sweetened and enriched with their flavor, then poured over thick slices of bread, and covered with a layer of broiled cheese. Onion soup belongs to a genre of bread soups—also broth-based soups—in which broth is poured over bread; the starch from the bread thickens the soup and makes a meal out of it. Bread soups are typically poor man's food and are likely to be made with water rather than stock. In Catalan Cuisine, Colman Andrews mentions a vegetable bread soup made with onions, garlic, sweet pepper, and tomato cooked in a liberal amount of olive oil, and poured over bread. Ribollita is another traditional bread soup, from Tuscany, chunky with cabbage and vegetables.
Vietnamese pho bac is a noodle soup based on a rich beef broth, spiced with ginger, anise, cinnamon, and chilies and seasoned with fish sauce (a pungent, salty liquid made from fermented anchovy) that is poured over thin slices of raw beef, rice noodles, sliced onion, bean sprouts, and fresh chilies, and garnished with fresh mint and cilantro. According to Nicole Routhier, pho is a traditional breakfast soup. (Throughout much of Southeast Asia, soup may be eaten at any meal and is served along with all main-course dishes.) Korean cooks make a beef soup with browned short ribs, flavored with toasted sesame seeds, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and scallion; the ribs are then eaten with the soup. Russian borscht and goulash from Hungary are two Eastern European vegetable and meat soups made with beef broth (or probably with water and vegetables alone during lean times). For Japanese shabu-shabu, thin slices of beef, onion, cabbage, daikon, and mushrooms are dropped into a pot of simmering water flavored with a piece of kelp, then eaten with a variety of condiments; the flavorful broth—sometimes extended with noodles—is drunk at the end of the meal.
Thin vegetarian soups, like French pistou, are made the same way, by poaching vegetables in simmering water. Then the flavor of the broth is augmented by a purée of basil, garlic, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, and sometimes tomato. South Indian vegetarian cuisine includes a genre of fiery hot soups called rasams in which the flavor of the broth is derived largely from spices and then balanced with tomato, lemon, lime, and/or tamarind to add a sour taste. Although rasams may be served during the meal, they are also traditionally offered to guests as they enter the house, as a beverage, like tea, in anticipation of the meal to follow.
Seafood soups are almost a category unto themselves because they encompass such a tremendous variety of tastes, textures, and techniques. A simple Western-style seafood soup is made by simmering aromatic vegetables and herbs (and perhaps a bit of cured and/or smoked pork) with water or fish stock, and poaching fish and/or shellfish in the resultant broth. In Japanese Cooking, Shizuo Tsuji lists a soup made by poaching shrimp and seaweed in dashi seasoned with soy sauce. (Tsuji notes that such "clear" soups are traditionally served at the Japanese table at the beginning of the meal, after the appetizer; more luxurious banquets may include a second soup midway through the meal.) Some thin shellfish soups are made by opening the shellfish in simmering wine, water, or broth, perhaps flavored with aromatic herbs and vegetables. Broth-based seafood soups also include hearty concoctions made with a variety of different types of fish and shellfish poached in a broth. The seafood may be served in the broth, or separately, as in a bouillabaisse.
If chicken soup is the most famous broth-based soup, then one of the most elegant (at least in Western culture) must be the consommé. A consommé is made with a stock that is "clarified," which means that the stock is returned to the stove, several egg whites are whisked in, and the whole concoction is brought slowly to a simmer. As the mixture heats, the egg white coagulates into a gray-colored "raft" on top of the stock that traps and filters out the impurities that make the stock cloudy. When the raft is skimmed off, the stock has, almost magically, become perfectly transparent. Finely chopped fresh meat and vegetables are usually added during the clarification process since the egg white seems to rob the stock of flavor along with the impurities. Consommés may be served as is, or embellished with any number of garnishes including, at the simplest level, tiny chopped vegetables or herbs, or more complex preparations such as tiny quenelles—tender, oval-shaped dumplings of chopped fish, poultry, or meat, bound with egg—or royales, tiny, delicate cut-up shapes from a baked egg custard. A consommé may be served hot, chilled, or as an aspic.
Thick soups are soups in which the liquid is thickened—what cooks call "bound"—in one of a variety of ways: by the addition of flour, cream, and/or egg, or by the action of puréeing. Classic French cuisine of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was particularly rich in this type of soup, although puréed soups were certainly common in France much earlier than that: The medieval cookbooks Le Viandier and Le Menagier de Paris include several recipes for puréed soups. An example of a very simple thick soup, achieved by puréeing alone, is a potato-leek soup made by simmering sliced potato and leek in water or chicken broth and then puréeing the mixture—the starch in the potato causes the soup to thicken. Any vegetable soup can be made this way; alternatively, rice, tapioca, pasta, and legumes will also provide thickening when cooked and puréed with the soup.
During the French Revolution, chefs who had made their living cooking for the aristocracy and royalty fled their homeland to other parts of Europe (particularly England) and America, bringing classical French cooking with them. By the late nineteenth century, French chefs were running the kitchens of fine American restaurants, particularly in New York City and Philadelphia, and wealthy Americans were dining in lavish French style. Creamed soups, characterized by a silky smooth texture, made of purées bound with flour and often further enriched with cream and/or egg, belong to this era of luxurious eating. (In 1917 Louis Diat, the French-born chef at the Ritz Carlton hotel in New York City, turned his mother's home-style, puréed leek and potato soup into a new soup, vichyssoise, by puréeing it very finely, enriching it with cream and milk, and then chilling it.) Bisques are a type of intensely flavored creamed soup, typically made with crustaceans such as lobster or crayfish, but also with vegetables, as in tomato bisque. The ingredients are cooked in a broth, then puréed (shell and all, for the seafood, to extract the considerable flavor of the shells), carefully strained, and next creamed. Traditional recipes used bread or rice to thicken the bisque, but that technique is no longer commonly employed.
Finally, chowders and gumbos are another variety of thick, distinctly American, soups. Chowders are soups made with milk or cream; they theoretically contain a starchy vegetable such as corn or potato. Gumbos are regional American soups from Louisiana, thickened either with a very dark roux—a mixture of flour and fat that is cooked to a deep brown color—okra, or file powder (made from dried sassafras leaves).
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Origins of Soup
While soup is firmly imbedded in most cookeries of the world, the historical situation was somewhat different. Light soups were more generally viewed as adjuncts to medicine, easily digestible preparations employed in feeding the sick, the elderly, or small children. In Africa the stock from boiled greens served this purpose. In ancient China turtle stock was viewed as a potent restorative for the feeble or sick. During the Middle Ages the iusculum consummatum was administered in the same manner. Its modern descendant is beef consommé, but in the eighteenth century a concoction of this general class of clear soups was known as a "restaurant" and became fashionable in Paris as a health food. Soon the health food itself lent its name to the place where it was eaten: thus the soup house became the restaurant. During the late 1700s the restaurant quickly evolved from a soup house to an establishment where full meals could be purchased.
English includes several words that provide clues regarding the older meanings of this largely liquid form of food: "soup," "supper," "sip," and "sops," to name four. The Middle English word soupen meant to drink in sips, which is how most soups were consumed by the sick and the elderly. The Old French word souper, obviously a parallel term, meant to take an evening meal. In this context the evening meal was presumed to be light, and soup was in fact one way to create a rechouffé from the remains of midday dinner. However, the soupe itself was the piece of bread placed in the bowl into which broth was poured. In English this piece of bread was once referred to as the sops, and it was universal practice down to the nineteenth century for country people to put bread in soup before eating it. More fashionable recipes called for toast or even chopped bread fried in butter (croutons), but the essential concept was the same: the moist bread thickened the soup. This custom lingers on in only the most traditional types of recipes, such as French onion soup, where toast or croutons help keep the melted cheese from sinking before the soup reaches the table.
The addition of bread to soup was viewed as inelegant by the end of the eighteenth century—"farmish," to use the term of the nineteenth-century American cookbook writer Eliza Leslie. Other types of thickeners, especially roux (flour fried in lard or butter) grew in popularity, but so did purees. Puréed cooked vegetables, such as parsnips, turnips, or potatoes (or all three), often appear in Victorian recipes as more healthful substitutes for roux. Roux is largely banned from haute cuisine, and soups are thickened with a wide array of ingredients. Plastic squeeze bottles with tiny nozzles allow cooks to ornament soups with colorful swirls of coulis or intense-tasting herbal sauces. In spite of the emphasis on garnish and appearance, the universal appeal of soup is not its appearance but how it comforts the body.
William Woys Weaver
soup / soōp/ • n. 1. a liquid dish, typically made by boiling meat, fish, or vegetables, etc., in stock or water: a bowl of tomato soup. ∎ fig. a substance or mixture perceived to resemble soup in appearance or consistency: the waves and the water beyond have become a thick brown soup. 2. inf. nitroglycerine or gelignite, esp. as used for safecracking. 3. inf. the chemicals in which film is developed. PHRASES: from soup to nuts inf. from beginning to end; completely: I know all about that game from soup to nuts. in the soup inf. in trouble.PHRASAL VERBS: soup something up inf. increase the power and efficiency of an engine or other machine. ∎ make something more elaborate or impressive: we had to soup up the show for the new venue. DERIVATIVES: soup·like adj.