Archive for the ‘Soups’ Category


In the south of India it is customary to pour a soup called a rasam over your rice toward the end of a large meal. The Tamil community in India resides largely in the very south and they are great drinkers of these soups, which are usually hot and spicy and made slightly tart with tamarind, tomato, lemon, or lime. Not all rasams are made thick, but when they are it is usually through the very gentle disentegration of toor dal, red lentil. Unlike lentils of other hues, red lentils fall apart entirely in tens of minutes of cooking, giving the soup a consistency something between that of broth and that of curry. Like most common soups, a family’s rasam will be some hybrid of a chefs specialty and whatever is on hand that day. Variations can be broad; in a curious cross-cultural adventure, rasam managed to spawn the not-very-similar English mulligatawny soup.

Anyone familiar with the cuisine of India knows that when it comes to spices the cook is spoilt for choice. The rasam that I have choosen to make features three distinct flavourings that are very common to cooking in the south. The first is asafoetida, a plant resin with a yellow colour and (when used sparingly) a sulfurous odor similar to allium. (Be warned that while asafoetida is usually sold ground with rice flour it can be mixed with wheat flour instead, so if it matters, read your labels and choose your brands.) The second spice is slightly bitter brown mustard seed, which is great fun: rather than grinding them, one heats them in a little oil until the seeds go pop, pop, pop! Finally, a handful of dried curry leaves (so hard to describe, nothing else tastes like the gentle warmth of curry leaves) go into the final seasoning. It is for the sake of the curry leaves that I go easy on the souring tamarind in this recipe, as I find that too much sourness somehow cancels-out the curry leaves. If unavailable one could substitute lemon juice for tamarind and add it off-heat at the end, but all of these flavourings can be found in an Indian grocer’s, especially if his or her custom is from the south.

This soup would be plenty tasty served the occidental way, alone in a bowl at noon. For a more traditional approach, serve over rice and perhaps a dab of melted ghee, in the company of the usual suspects: curries, chutneys, yogurts, popadums. We like it with a hard English apple cider (the hotter our meal, the sweeter our cider).

Tamil Red Lentil Soup (Rasam)

40 minutes; serves four

1 cup red lentils, washed
4 cups water
three whole cloves garlic
1/4 tsp asafoetida powder
1/4 tsp tumeric
3 dried bird’s eye chilies
12 black peppercorns
2 tsp whole cumin seeds
2 Tbsp dried coconut
3/4 cup good canned tomatoes
1 Tbsp tamarind paste
1/2 tsp salt
2 Tbsp sunflower or canola oil
1 1/2 tsp whole brown mustard seeds
handful of dried curry leaves (maybe 18 or so)

1. In a large saucepan place the lentils and water and heat to a boil. Skim the scum. Toss in the garlic cloves, asafoetida, and tumeric and simmer until the lentils have fallen apart, about 25 minutes.
2. In the meantime, place the chilies, peppercorns, cumin and coconut in a small heavy frying pan and toast them over low heat with stirring until the coconut turns brown. Remove to let cool.
3. Dice the tomatoes. If your tamarind is still on the stone, soak it off with some agitation (fingers are best) in a little water.
4. Once the lentils have collapsed, fish out the garlic cloves and add the tomatoes, tamarind and salt. Grind the toasted spices in a grinder or a mortar and add them, too. If the soup is too thick for you, add a little water. Too thin, simmer a little longer.
5. In that little frying pan add oil and mustard seeds and heat gently. When the seeds start to pop add the curry leaves and swirl them around for a minute to extract some of their flavour into the oil. Add this final seasoning (it’s called a tarka, by the way) to the soup. Taste for salt.


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egusi.jpgEgusi is the name of both a substantial hot soup from Nigeria and the melon seed with which that soup is thickened. The seeds themselves are small and pale, and with their internal oils they grind to a paste more so than a powder. West-African stores carry shelled melon seeds, and Indian grocers often do as well. Where the packets disclose details, they tend to call the seeds that of the “white” or “red” melon, which I take to be some undisclosed varities of that African native, the watermelon. Sadly, I have not been able to find a package without a shared-equipment warning for nut-allergy sufferers. But where melon seeds cannot be found many recipes recommend the substitution of pumpkin seeds, which one may come across in situ in the month of October. Shelling would take some time, I fear. Perhaps your local Latin American store, or your local hippie healthy food store, carries safely processed pumpkin seeds, or pepitas.

Some Nigerian recipes for egusi soup call for frying the seed paste, presumably to enhance flavour. In my own kitchen I have found that frying decreases thickening ability, much like a brown roux thickens broth less well than a white one, and left me with a creamy but thin broth. Furthermore, I found that what enhancement of flavour frying this mild paste brought was lost amid the heat of the chilies, so frying the paste is a step that I decline, choosing instead to make a soup that is almost a stew. The meat should be carmelized with high heat, and while the traditional oil of choice is high-smoking palm oil, palm oil is unfamiliar to many cooks, and very high in saturated fat. I substitute sunflower or canola oil, recognizing that some authentic flavour will be lost through this concession. I also suggest frying the beef in a cast-iron pan for good browning and then moving to a saucepan to simmer, but I doubt that anyone cooking on a three-legged pot over an open fire would bother with such foolishness. Many egusi soups recipes use some form of seafood for enhanced flavour, and if fishstock or shrimp are in your diet you might like to include them, but this recipe is fish-free. The tomatoes in this soup do not produce a sauce base here (that is the job of the melon seed) but work as a complementary vegetable to the okra, and provide some acid for the palate. Whole okra cooked until just tender is deliciously vegetal and not at all slimy, again the thickening is provided by the seed paste rather than the okra. Choose the smallest fresh okra you can find this season, or substitute tender young spinach leaves stirred-in at the end instead.

Serve with white rice or Nigerian eba. And if you have a sorghum beer in your fridge, this is the food for it!

Nigerian Melon Seed Soup (Egusi)

90 minutes, including one hour simmering; serves four

2 Tbsp sunflower or canola oil (palm oil for purists)
1 lb stewing beef in 1/2″ cubes
1 onion, finely diced
6 stemmed fresh bird’s eye or scotch bonnet chilies (or other very hot chili)
1 tsp salt
1 cup shelled melon seeds (may substitute pumpkin)
7 fl oz canned tomatoes, diced
1 lb whole okra

1. Heat the oil to smoking in a heavy fry pan (like cast iron) while you dry the beef cubes with kitchen towel. Brown the cubes over high heat without letting them burn. Remove the meat to a waiting saucepan and add three cups of water to it.
2. Add the diced onion to the saucepan of soup and bring to a simmer. Dice the chilies with their seeds and add to the soup. Add the salt. Cover and simmer until the beef is tender, about one hour.
3. Grind the melon seeds in a clean coffee grinder until smooth. Add to the broth. Add water if you feel the soup is too thick.
4. Add the diced tomato. Top and tail the okra and add them, too. Replace the cover and simmer ten minutes more. Taste for salt.

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shurpa.jpgA rich and hearty soup of red meat and root vegetables should be very welcome any winter’s day on the Great Steppe. This version of Uzbek shurpa uses beef in place of the more traditional mutton. The fine dice of vegetables makes those meat morsels seem hefty on the spoon. Carmelization is created first on the meat and then the vegetables by searing, a process that requires high heat, a heavy pot, and vigilance on the part of the cook. After the broth has been added the soup needs a long, slow simmer in order to tenderize the flavourful beef stewing cut. Yogurt is not just an attractive garnish, but an integral part of the flavour, as its sourness cuts through the richness of the soup and balances the sweetness of the root vegetables. The yogurt will depress the temperature of the bowl, though, so have the soup piping-hot, and try just a tablespoon or two of yogurt per bowl.

Perhaps start with a salad or two. Serve the soup with green tea or black tea (both traditional), or a chianti.

Beef Shurpa

2 hours,including 90 minutes simmering; serves four

2 Tbsp canola or sunflower, (ie. high smoking point)
1 lb stewing beef, cut into 1/2″ cubes
2 onions, halved and sliced
1 potato, peeled and diced to 1/4″
1 carrot, peeled and diced to 1/4″
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 dried bay leaves
1/4 tsp caraway
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cracked black pepper
7 oz canned tomato, diced and with juice
2 cups beef broth

1. Blot the cubed beef with paper towel and heat the oil over high heat to just smoking in a wide and very heavy pot. Add the meat in one layer and allow it to begin browning. As it browns, turn the pieces so they cannot burn. Remove the meat.
2. Sear the onions in the hot oil until they have begun to brown as well. Add the potato and carrot and fry these for a few minutes as well, until they start to brown.
3. Add the bay, caraway seed, salt, pepper, and garlic and stir for a few seconds. Return the meat.
4. Add the tomato and juice and scrape the pot to remove the carmelized frond.
5. Add the broth, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and leave for ninety minutes.
6. Taste for salt. Serve in dollop of yogurt and a garnish of finely chopped parsley.

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