As soon as our ancestors figured out how to make fireproof pots, by some estimates more than 25,000 years ago, they started combining whatever ingredients they had on hand with water, bringing everything to a boil. In prehistoric times, soup was practical, allowing cooks to use bones that would otherwise go to waste. Vegetables, grains and seeds that are inedible when raw could be softened during boiling. How else were hungry hunter-gatherers going to eat acorns when there was nothing else available?
As humankind advanced, traveling across continents, their soup ingredients varied depending on location. And soup, while always a means of survival and sustenance, became enjoyable. A glance at soup traditions around the world will make you hungry for a bowl of nourishing ingredients immersed in flavorful broth. Asian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Eastern European varieties demonstrate soup’s versatility. Luckily, many soups are as easy to make as boiling water. If the Neanderthals could do it, so can you.
China: Egg drop soup
Egg drop soup is perhaps one of the few authentically Chinese dishes on the menu at Chinese-American restaurants across America.
4 cups homemade chicken stock (see recipe) or low-sodium canned broth
1⁄2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut into 4 pieces
Salt or soy sauce
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch, divided
4 large eggs
4 scallions, white and light green parts, finely chopped
1. In a medium pot, combine the stock and ginger and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove the ginger. Season with salt or soy sauce to taste.
2. Transfer 1⁄4 cup of the stock to a small bowl and whisk together with 1 tablespoon cornstarch. Whisk this mixture back into the pot, simmering for a minute or two until it thickens just slightly. Adjust the heat to maintain a bare simmer.
3. In a spouted measuring cup, whisk together the eggs and remaining teaspoon cornstarch.
4. Slowly pour the egg mixture into the soup, gently whisking as you pour. Let the soup stand for a few seconds to finish cooking the eggs. Ladle into bowls, sprinkle with scallions, and serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.
Spain: Sopa de ajo
This traditional Spanish recipe was supposedly developed by frugal shepherds as a way of using day-old bread.
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 ounces stale country bread, crusts removed, cut into 1⁄2-inch cubes
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon Spanish smoked paprika
1⁄2 cup dry white wine
4 cups homemade chicken stock (see recipe) or low-sodium canned chicken broth
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley
1. In a medium pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high. Add the bread and cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and paprika and continue to cook, stirring, another 2 to 3 minutes.
2. Add the wine and cook until absorbed, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the stock to the pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
3. While the soup is simmering, poach the eggs.
4. Season soup with salt, ladle into bowls and top each serving with an egg and some parsley. Serve immediately. Makes 4 servings.
Portugal: Caldo verde
This Portuguese soup contains a green vegetable, a starch and sausage, and is one of the simplest one-bowl meals you can prepare.
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus more for drizzling
1⁄2 pound linguica or kielbasa sausage, cut into 1⁄2-inch rounds
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 large russet potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
6 cups homemade chicken stock (see recipe), low-sodium canned chicken broth, or water
1 bunch kale, leaves stripped from stems and thinly sliced
Hot sauce for serving
1. In a medium pot, heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat. Add the sausage and cook, stirring often, until it begins to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl.
2. Add 2 tablespoons oil to the pot along with the onion and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until softened, 3 to 5 minutes.
3. Add the potatoes, water and 1 teaspoon salt, bring to a boil, lower heat, cover and simmer until the potatoes are soft, 10 to 15 minutes
4. Mash some of the potatoes to thicken the soup. Add the kale and simmer, uncovered, until softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Season with salt, ladle soup into bowls, add some sausage to each portion and serve with additional olive oil and hot sauce on the side. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
This beautiful and nutritious hot-pink soup from Poland is good as an accompaniment to brisket or other braised meat dishes.
4 medium beets with leafy tops
4 small Persian cucumbers or 1 small English cucumber
1 quart full- or low-fat buttermilk
1 cup full-fat sour cream
1⁄2 cup brine from kosher dill pickles
8 scallions, white and light green parts, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1⁄4 cup finely chopped fresh dill
3 hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped
1. Trim the leaves from the beet roots. Wash leaves and scrub beet roots well. Bring a large pot of water to boil and add 3 roots along with the leaves. Reduce heat, cover and simmer until beets are tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Drain and let cool.
2. Separate cooked roots and leaves. Coarsely chop the greens and set aside. Peel the cooked beets and dice.
3. Grate the radishes and cucumbers on the large holes of a box grater.
4. In a large bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, sour cream, pickle brine and 2 teaspoons salt. Stir in the greens, chopped beets, radishes, cucumbers, scallions and garlic. Grate the remaining raw beet and stir into soup. Season with additional salt and pickle brine as necessary. Refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight before ladling into bowls and garnishing each serving with some dill and egg. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
This tasty Tunisian chickpea soup gets some spicy flavor from harissa. Temper its heat by garnishing with yogurt.
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for serving
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tablespoon harissa
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 (15-ounce) cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
5 cups water
1 1⁄2 teaspoons salt, or more to taste
1⁄4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
Full-fat yogurt (optional)
Sliced radishes (optional)
Pitted and chopped olives (optional)
Chopped Marcona almonds (optional)
1. In a large saucepan, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, harissa and cumin and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the lemon juice and stir to release any brown bits from the bottom of the pan.
2. Add the chickpeas, water and salt, bring to a boil, lower heat, cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.
3. Puree the soup in batches in a blender and transfer to a new pot. Stir in the parsley and season with salt and black pepper to taste. Ladle into bowls and serve with yogurt, capers, radishes, olives and almonds on the side, if desired. Makes 4 servings.
Homemade Chicken Stock
It takes a few hours to make your own stock, but it requires little work. And if you make a lot, you can freeze it to have on hand for making a variety of soups.
Just combine 2 carrots, 2 onions, 2 ribs of celery, a bunch of parsley and 6 to 7 pounds of chicken parts (buy whatever is cheapest — legs, wings, backs, necks), 1 ½ gallons of water in a large stock pot. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat to a simmer, skimming off any gray foam as it rises to the top. Then cover the pot and continue to simmer until you’ve extracted all the flavor from the chicken, about 4 hours.
Pour the soup through a fine strainer and into a smaller stockpot. Cool just to room temperature and then divide into 1- or 2-quart airtight containers and freeze for up to 3 months.