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Souper trouper

After suffering endless coughs and colds all winter, and with my youngest daughter back home in need of tlc, I decided it was time to get the pot out and prepare some nourishing soup. Because although it might not elicit much excitement around the dining table, you can find a soup recipe for every occasion, from a simple broth to a steaming bowl of decadent lobster bisque. Soups can be made in minutes or require hours of careful preparation; they can be cheap as chips or cost a king’s ransom.

For me, there’s a world of difference between a readymade soup – reheated as a welcome, quick-fix snack – and the homemade version, bubbling away as you enter the kitchen, its aroma greeting you like a warm hug. The latter offers comfort before you’ve even taken a mouthful: it’s something to be savoured and enjoyed, alone or with company, its healing properties felt for the rest of the day.

Bubbling away, its aroma greets you like a warm hug

There’s an alchemy to the way delicious soup is magicked from leftover kitchen scraps and, given the number of people who’ve been nourished by it over the centuries, it’s not surprising this dish has acquired its own mythology. In the European folk story Stone Soup (which comes in varies guises but always with the same theme), hungry travellers fill a pot with water and a stone and convince locals that what they are cooking over the fire will be perfect if only someone can offer an onion, a carrot, or whatever they have to give. Gradually bits and pieces are added to the pot, culminating in a meal everyone can enjoy. It’s an uplifting moral tale about the value of sharing.

Since soups are easily digestible (so long as the stone is removed), they were prescribed for invalids even in ancient times. If you grew up thinking mother knows best when you’re sick, you may have the Egyptian Jewish philosopher physician Maimonides to thank, as it was he who prescribed chicken broth in the twelfth century as a curative for respiratory illnesses. Chicken contains an amino acid called cysteine, which has been shown to reduce mucous congestion in the lungs. Garlic, which is a must in chicken soup, is a natural antibiotic and antibacterial agent to help your body fight infection and get better quickly.

But here’s the question: do you eat soup or drink it? In Europe in the Middle Ages soup was either drunk from a bowl or mopped up with stale bread. Legend has it spoons became popularised at the Elizabethan court when the fashion for large neck ruffs got in the way, though the round soup spoons we use today weren’t invented until the nineteenth century.

When I was growing up, Sunday night was often soup night, the perfect light supper after a lavish roast. Watercress-and-potato was a firm favourite with us children, but artichoke produced the best reaction, sadly not for its wonderful nutty flavour and silky-smooth consistency but for its wind-inducing properties, which had us in stitches. On holiday we could count on a hot bowl of Heinz Tomato at the picnic table; soup was a treat even in the south of France at the height of summer, because it could still rain and the tent would leak.

As for packet soup, there was an absolute craze for it when I was in sixth form: you made it in a mug with boiling water and then swaggered around to make juniors envious of your perk. We thought ourselves terribly modern and cool but in fact packet soups have been with us since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Known as “pocket soup”, this partially dehydrated broth was long a staple for British seamen, the military, and explorers, since it would keep for up to a year. And in the States canned soups supplied covered wagon trains and cowboy chuck wagons on their long journeys.

There’s still nothing to beat a heartwarming broth when you need a lift. The following recipe comes from a very battered Thai cookbook that I bought travelling in Asia many years ago, and somehow didn’t lose. It is perfect for anyone still suffering winter blues or from too much of a good thing the night before!

Hot and Sour Prawn Soup

Serves 4

1tbsp oil
500g shell-on raw prawns (remove the shells but keep them for the stock)
2 stalks lemon grass
1.2L chicken stock
3 lime leaves
2 large red chillies, one thinly sliced
1/2-1tbsp fish sauce
1 lime
2tbsp coriander leaves
2 spring onions, sliced

Heat the oil in a large pan, add the prawn shells and cook until they turn pink. Add the stock, lemon grass, lime leaves and one chilli.
Bring to the boil and leave to simmer for 20min. Strain the stock and return to the pan, bring back to the boil and add the prawns.
Simmer for 2-3min and season with fish sauce and lime juice.
Pour into hot bowls and garnish with the sliced chilli, coriander leaves and spring onions.

Lydia Brownlow is a former cookery editor at Good Housekeeping magazine and contributor to The Daily Beast. She currently inspires children to cook. More info at lydiabrownlow.com

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Food For Thought, Life, March 2024

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