The Story of Soup From Siberia to Japan
She coaxes food from the earth. Digging for roots and tubers, picking berries and catching fish. Wizened, old and highly skilled she places the pot, made with her own hands from the clay surrounding her village, close to the fire near the hottest coals. Adding water she waits. When the water is hot she drops in the bounty from her days gathering along with some dried salmon from previous hunts. She stirs it all with a large thick twig she cleaned and whittled for just such a purpose. She pauses in her cooking to gaze upstream toward the mountains where the salmon and bear make their home. She believes that the Bear have a body and soul. The Ainu have a body and soul. The bear eat fish and eat berries. The Ainu eat fish and eat berries. For the old woman and the Ainu, her people, this is an interspecies relationship that has been respected since the end of the last ice age when the Ainu moved from Siberia to settle in Japan.
Traveling by way of land bridges; walking, hunting, gathering, living, loving and surviving some of the coldest conditions on the planet they finally settled, as did the brown bear, on Hokkaido near the Mu river where the salmon swim. In this place the Ainu made and used cookware, which means it’s also possible that this migration of strong intelligent humans sparked the creation of one of the first soups. We can see them in our minds eye, the wizened old woman comfortable in her culture, celebrating with her people as they danced and sang around the fire while she made soup and told stories of Ainu Mosir, their floating world that rested on the back of a fish.
When scientists discovered the pottery made by the Ainu, their discoveries were published in the Journal Nature, in this they show that by studying the residue in the pots, they found over 100 substances. Many of the substances were vegetable matter but fish was the most prominent. This discovery not only showcased one of the first forms of pottery made by humans but also the first forms of cookery used by humans. Soup. Fish and vegetable soup.
The reasons for humans creating pottery to cook with are still not well understood, yet one can surmise that hot soup was a huge event in the lives of the Ainu during this period of long winters. Imagine coming back to the cave from a long day of hunting and gathering in what was still a mostly frozen landscape and getting warmed from the fire and the soup cooked on it. Since hunting was harder and took more energy than gathering, plants were a large part of the early human’s soup pot. It’s hard to say exactly which plants they used but it is known that tubers, roots, and seaweed would have been tossed into the pot along with the fish for a truly homemade soup.
It’s easy to embark on your own journey of homemade soup. Select a cooking pot and a serving pot. Add water or broth to the cooking pot. Make it interesting with aromatics. Something the wizened old Ainu woman may have also had in her repertoire. In many home kitchens across the globe aromatics start the soup pot. These are regional vegetables, herbs and spices that have flavor and aromas that make the foundation of a good soup. There is a combination or trinity of these soup beginnings for every type of cuisine. Start a German soup with the Suppengrün of carrots, celeriac (celery root) and leeks or perhaps a Spanish Sofrito using onions, garlic and tomatoes, try the Soffritto an Italian variety, using a lusty combination of onions, a slick of olive oil, a handful of chopped basil and lots of garlic. There is the traditional French mirepoix; a mist urge of carrots, celery and onion and the all American Holy Trinity consisting of onions, celery and green pepper, the beginnings of great Cajun cuisine. You may decide to creat your own trinity; garlic and ginger, a Serrano chili tossed with a couple of kafir lime leaves or perhaps a bay leaf, sweet spring onions with garlic chives and fresh oregano.
Your soup can be hot or cold, spicy or mild, sweet or savory. What is added to the pot will imbue the soup with a particular flavor and add texture. The order you add them to the pot will depend on their cooking time. Carrots take a little longer than potatoes, green beans longer than summer squash and fruits don’t need much time on the heat at all. Soup can be chunky or creamy, a clear or cloudy broth or almost a stew. Soup never wastes food as the ends and pieces of the vegetables and herbs used for a finished soup can be tossed into a pot of boiling water, cooked until soft, then strained for broth for the next batch of soup.
The most versatile and healthiest soup to make is vegetable soup and it’s also the easiest and quickest. Vegetables don’t need the long cooking time that meat soups require or the de-boning and skimming. They are far healthier, for you and the planet. Simply adding your aromatics and vegetables to a pot with water or broth, salt, additional herbs and spices then cooking for about 20 minutes is all it takes to make a great soup. Soup in summer is actually a cooling food too. Just ask people in hot climates why they eat so much hot and spicy food. It’s because the receptors we have, tell our brain to cool our body down when the hot and spicy foods touch our tongue. Chemistry.
We all seem to have hometown appetites, and soup has a way of bringing us home.
First you take a leek and split it down the middle and separate the layers of the stalk. Tiny bits of sand and grit will be hiding between the layers. Rinse these well. Chop into chunks or thin slices, the green part too. Drop into your soup pot along with two quarts of water and 1 teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil then reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes or until the leeks are tender. Note that no oil or sautéing is happening here, no need to add any fats until the very end and even then it’s by choice. Trust that the aromatics will eliminate the need for too much fat. From here, start adding the firmer vegetables, cooking after each addition for about 5 minutes at a full simmer. Start with chunks of carrot then some peppers, then a potato or two. Add the summer squash, some green beans, garlic. Add any other soft vegetables along with chopped fresh herbs such as chives, thyme and sage, just before serving. Season again with salt and pepper. The soup is finished when all of the vegetables and herbs have had a chance to soften. If you like your soup chunky, serve it right from the serving pot. If you like it creamy, puree with a hand blender or push through a food mill. Finish with a dollop of plant butter or a slick of olive oil, swirl in some plant milk, toss on some freshly chopped herbs. Experiment with some additions of diced jalapeño, red peppers or a diced fennel bulb or follow the first human’s recipe and add some dried seaweed at the same time that you add the herbs. Simmer some more until the aroma has brought you home again. All soups pair well with a tossed green or fruit salad and crusty bread to sop up the broth.
Keep it simple, make it your own.