Let’s talk…SOUP! (by Ben Tansel)
It’s interesting to see that soup can have so many variations and carry so much meaning with different people and different cultures. From matzo ball soup that can cure almost anything to a hearty potato and ham hock soup that warms to the core and energizes a working man. Even the tomato soup served in school cafeterias can hold some sort of importance – a memory, a feeling. Thick, thin, spicy, sweet, meaty the list goes on and on. Some are meant to nourish and some are just meant to scratch that itch that only a hot bowl of soup can scratch. Much has been written on soup from cookbooks to peer reviewed articles pontificating its history. One may see it referenced in every vain of pop culture from movies to sitcoms, even song lyrics. It’s staggering how often soup is referenced when attention is paid. Seinfeld is one such show that made reference in many episodes. Everyone remembers the Soup Nazi! Personally, soup has always been a desired meal and I wonder sometimes if there are any people out that that down right dislike it.
Early in my culinary career I worked for a Bulgarian man in a Bulgarian Bistro. Every day this chef wanted no less than six soups on the menu. It was crazy to me that such a small restaurant was running that many different kinds of soup. Not only were there six at one time, but the repertoire he drew from was so diverse. He explained to me that soup in his country was common at every meal of the day and had to change from season to season. I think it was here, working for this man, that my real love for soup bloomed.
I am fairly confident that in this melange of soups, most of the herbs we used were illegal. Not because it was pot or mind altering in any way. Rather, they were illegal because his spice shelf was full of hand picked herbs and spices brought to the states by friends and family. Tasting each of the different spices on his shelf was exciting and unfamiliar to me then and honestly, I don’t think I have seen them since.
His soup and cooking drew Bulgarian natives from all over the region. There was always someone visiting that came through his doors to say hello. They would get into drunken food laden conversations for hours and hours on end. On their arrival they always brought two things: Rakija, which is essentially brandy, and some dried plant materials in unmarked bags. His eyes would light up when he saw the new spice or herb. Immediately he asked “do you know what we can do with this?” No, was my usual response, I couldn’t possibly know where to start, but I knew it was going to be a soup!
These soups we never a quick process. Some were quick and easy to prep, but the simmering and extracting of flavor took hours and hours. Others were laborious and time consuming. Making sure each component was added at just the right moment. Making hundreds and hundreds of tiny meatballs to be added gently into the stock so they wouldn’t stick together and lose their perfectly round shape. It was the process, the development, the struggle that made me really fond making soups. It was also this struggle that made me fall in love and allowed me to understand why.
– Ben Tansel