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Soup: tasty, healthy and multicultural

‘Beautiful soup so rich and green, waiting in a hot tureen sings Lewis Carroll’s lugubrious Mock Turtle in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. ‘Beautiful soup! Who cares for fish, Game or any other dish. Who would not give all else for two pennyworth only of beautiful soup?’  he continues in a voice which Carroll tells us is ‘choked with sobs’ The Mock Turtle  is fearful, presumably, that he will end up in the soup in more senses than one.

Soup  is one of the oldest, most digestible  and simple of  cooked dishes and, in some form or other it is known in every culture. It’s often quite  low  in calorific value, which makes it sadly  inadequate food for the poor in famine-stricken countries. But in prosperous  cultures many sorts of soup can be  a  healthy  and tasty meal choice.  Homemade soup  which, obviously, contains no preservatives, artificial  flavourings  and colourings –  is  lightly nourishing because, on the whole, the vitamins in the vegetables  are cooked in, blended  and eaten rather than boiled out and thrown away in the cooking water.

At its most improvisatory basic  ‘soup’,  which can be variously called pottage,  broth or chowder,  just consists of a few cooked vegetables and or grains cooked and mashed  up in a savoury  liquid base.  Traditionally soup is never  quite  the same twice because it was always an economical  mop-up dish cooked in a continuously simmering pot  with left-overs and bits and pieces which happened to be around.

Esau, in the book of Genesis (Genevan Bible Chapter 25) famously sold his birthright for a ‘mess of pottage’  –  a bowl of lentil soup. He was hungry and didn’t recognise the value of  the birthright. Nor, at that stage  did he have the measure of his brother Jacob’s cunning.

But I expect he felt warmly  full once he’d eaten it. Some of the best and most substantially tasty  soups  have been made from pulses –  peas,  beans and other legumes –  for thousands of years.  Almost every country seems to have its national dish of pulse-based soup:  from the spicy  dal soups of India to the fasolada of Greece or the red pea soup of Jamaica.  The Chick pea harira of Morocco is a nourishing soup traditionally  used to break the fast at dusk during the month-long feast of Ramadan.

And bean soup quirkily  appears on the menu in the restaurant of the House of Representatives  in Washington DC  every day. Why? The story is that in 1904, Joseph G (Uncle Joe) Cannon tried  to order bean soup on a very hot day only to be told that there wasn’t any. He made a huge fuss and insisted that it must ALWAYS  be available, rain, sunshine, snow storm or tropical heatwave notwithstanding. His orders are  heeded to this day.

In Western Countries and in China soup is often quite thin and light  most usually eaten as a elegant  first course or starter before  a main course. Elsewhere  denser soups are often eaten with plenty of bread and perhaps with cheese and or salad  as a substantial main course.  It’s worth experimenting with this as a way of eating.

A thick soup seems even more luxurious if you add a swirl of cream or a dash of sherry but these are not necessarily very healthy options. If you want the creamy texture without the calories  of cream, substitute low-fat fromage frais. Ensure that all sherry, or other wine is organically produced. And bear in mind that  freshly squeezed lemon juice will often give the same sort of lift to a soup that wine does.

Many soup recipes call for a base of stock. Alas, few of us now have a bubbling  stock pot permanently on the back of the stove from which we can take a few ladles.

There are two modern solutions. You can make your own stock by boiling for an hour or two the outside leaves of green vegetables and peelings form root vegetable  with some fresh and or dried herbs. It’s best to include a little onion or leek but don’t overdo it or they will over power everything else. Strain off the liquid and there’s your stock, Add a little salt if you wish. Home-made stock will freeze for two or three weeks without much loss of flavour.

The alternative is to use a stock or vegetable bouillon cube. There are quite a range now  available  in health food stores, delicatessens and supermarkets. Shop about until you find one you like. Ideally, stock for soup shouldn’t be too salty.

The following are (mock turtle-free)  soup recipes from around the globe. Each recipe will feed about four people but you may want to increase quantities if you’re serving the soup as a meal in itself. Enjoy!

Dal soup (India)

175g yellow split peas, soaked in plenty of water for a few hours in advance

1 large onion, peeled and chopped

50g sunflower oil

I clove garlic, crushed

10g turmeric

10g ground ginger

1 litre water

1 lemon, squeezed


freshly ground black pepper

Rinse and drain the soaked split peas.  Fry the onion in the oil in a large saucepan for about five minutes. Add garlic turmeric and ginger and fry for a further five minutes. Sir in the split peas with the water. Bring it to the boil  and then let the mixture simmer very gently, pan lid on, for about 30 minutes.

Blend, liquidise or sieve the soup so that it is smooth.  Add  lemon juice and seasoning. Reheat before serving.

Chick pea harira (Morocco)

100g chick peas, soaked in plenty of water overnight and drained

I medium onion, peeled and finely chopped

50g olive oil

small bunch parsley, finely chopped

10g turmeric

10g ground cinnamon

2 litres water


freshly ground black pepper

50g brown rice

40g wholemeal flour

100 ml water

I  free range egg, lightly beaten

I lemon. squeezed

Fry chickpeas with onions and spices in the olive in in a lareg saucepan for  3 or 4 minutes. Add the 2 litres of water and bring to the boil. Simmer, lid on, for about an hour util the chick peas are tender. Add seasoning and rice. Simmer for a further twenty minutes or so until the rice is cooked.

Gradually add 100ml of water to the flour  in a bowl, stirring continously to make a smooth paste.  Add to the soup. Cook it  for about another 15 minutes,  stirring occasionally as it thickens.

Remove from heat. Adjust seasoning and add beaten egg. Add lemon juice and let the soup stand for a few minutes to cook the egg before serving.

Spinach and pine nut soup (Italy)

450g fresh spinach, washed and shredded

40g sunflower margarine

I large onion, peeled and chopped

I clove garlic, crushed

15g wholemeal flour

I litre vegetable stock

50g cream or fromage frais

50g pine nuts


freshly ground balck pepper

freshly grated nutmeg

Cook the spinach in a covered pan with a little seasalt without adding extra water. Chop it finely when it’s tender and set aside.

Cook and onion and garlic in the margarine in a large saucepan until they are transparent. Stir in the flour and cook briefly to make a paste. Add  the  sock bit by bit, stirring al the time. Bring to the boil.

Add the chopped spinach and cook for a few minute so that all the flavours blend. Lower the heat and add the cream or fromage frais with the nuts. Do not re-boil.

Serve with nutmeg.


Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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