The Soup

Dear Reader,

After briefly discussing the importance of soup for the Western civilisation here, let’s now see how the simmering pot of soup has been elevated to the foundation proper of family and community east of Eden too. 

These souvenir soup spoons are examples of hohloma, a peasant craft that emerged in central Russia in the 17th century. Items like these, alongside cups and jars, were commonly displayed as souvenirs in the homes of many Bulgarians during the Communist times. Their colours do remind one of icons, don’t they? Beautiful.

A family not cooking soup every day has no future, an old Russian saying goes. A similar mindset was typical also of Bulgaria in the first half of the 20th century, according to a magnificent book by culture studies scientist Rayna Gavrilova (photo of book cover here). All happy families are alike, and each is unhappy in its own way, Leo Tolstoy has wisely added. Each family does cook soup in its own way but in soup eating all are alike, that’s what I infer. 

A thick minestrone-like soup I had in Tirana, Albania in September.  It was pouring outside and the weather was rather chilly, which made this bowl of warm and well-cooked soup more than welcome.

For Bulgarians, many of the cultural implications of soup have been embodied by a simmering pot of beans that can go from soup to stew quite easily, thereby navigating the two ends on the food for the poor spectrum – soup and porridge or stew – which I’ll cover in my next post. For now let’s just say that as late as the early 20th century, a runny soup thickened with an egg yolk was oftentimes the only dish served at peasant tables in Bulgaria, alongside onions and chili peppers, and as sort of an accompaniment to bread. The relationship between eating together and being a community was emphasised by all family members eating out of a single bowl, with the father starting first and the children last.

Dinner (A Table), 1967, oil on canvas by Zlatyu Boyadzhiev. Source: National Gallery of Art Catalogue. Look, the black cat, a ubiquitous presence in Bulgaria of yore is here too!

Soup is eaten with a spoon, the planet’s most ancient piece of cutlery and one which, unlike the fork, is unable to pick through the various ingredients. As in, the fork discriminates, while the spoon doesn’t, to use the words of Bulgarian culture studies scholar Raycho Pozharliev.  In this way, soup eaten out of a single common bowl at home, or served out of a common pot to all attending a town or religious festivity, levels out social differences among participants. Moreover, it acts as a common denominator marking a community based on equal rights that emanate from the equal value of all members. This value, as we have discussed earlier, is ultimately the value of creations to their Creator, i.e. to God.

A rather entertaining icon of The Last Supper by an Albanian iconographer of the 16th or the 17th century. Found in the Albanian town of Berat, the icon is indicative of the divergences from the icon painting canon that can take place deep in the province and in the lack of a strong Orthodox centre. For example, the apostles are seated around a round table, Ottoman-style, make use of Ottoman ibrik and fish plate, and even use full sets of cutlery!

Our Orthodox faith perceives human life as a constant divine service, i.e. exercise in serving God. The family is the smallest form of church (meaning community), and eating together is liturgy in itself, since the eaters thank God for the food at their table, and then share it. Liturgy is centred on the Eucharist, and the first ever Eucharist took place during the Last Supper, which highlights the theological implications of family eating, making it almost a sacrament. In line with this, the traditional Orthodox morality and the codes of conduct of Orthodox monks strictly forbid secret eating outside the scheduled hours and communal format. I daresay this is an excellent thing to observe even by people otherwise not really into theology. 

This is not a cappuccino, but another excellent soup, like a fricassee, that I had in Tirana. The brown thing on top is melted butter.

In the mid-1940s, Bulgaria’s God-less communist regime purportedly placed the Person, as opposed to the exploitative economic interests of capitalists, at the centre of state politics. Thus, special care was taken to ensure the proper nourishment and development of children who were perceived as steel that had to be tempered the proper way. Consequently, the social order gradually shifted from a patriarchal one where children had to obey their elders and have their frugal meal only after their elders’ permission, to a more liberal one where children’s needs, interests, and fancies gained much higher importance. This is funnily reflected in a dictation, of a soup recipe mind you, that my son did as a first-grader. Grandma Tsenka cooks soup specifically for her grandson, with love and care.

(A single bowl of) soup is family. Artist Nenko Balkanski (1907-1977) is master of such weird angles. Painting is called Family, of 1936. Source: National Gallery of Art Catalogue.

Because of its liquidity, soup is hardly food on the go. It is usually eaten seated at a table, and in company, and has in fact been, or hasn’t quite yet been, the last food to be embraced by the fast food industry. Its hotness also suggests it is slow to consume, which is yet another circumstance enhancing its socialisational aspects. 

Apart from familial warmth, shelter, and coziness, soup may also stand for a life of sadness and poverty. This painting is rather ambiguous and one can’t quite identify who is the giver and who is the receiver out of the two figures depicted. If the child is the giver, one gets a message of purity and hope, whereas if the woman is the giver, one gets a message of dejection, love, and endurance. Pablo Picasso, The Soup, 1902. Source: Click here.

From the perspective of soup, the individualisation of the private sphere that marks the transition from a traditional patriarchal to a modern society, is represented by the substitution of the common soup bowl for the tureen. The tureen is the middle man between the pot where the soup has been cooked, and the individual plate. The tureen is attended to by the housewife or hostess and is a sign of increased formalisation and ritualisation of family mealtimes based on the example of royal courts and noble receptions. Rituals there, however, have emerged to highlight and cement the differences in the social standing of attendants, whereas in the modern home, rituals have been tweaked and introduced to reflect the roles in society of their respective members. Thus, the soup – this non-prestigious, homogenised, basic food, is served by the housewife, hostess – the maternal figure anyway, – whereas the carving and portioning of meat – the more prestigious and selective food – is reserved to the head of the household, the host, or the paternal figure. 

Soup as a bad omen, imagine that. Or perhaps soup and death are the two things mankind has in common? Painting is Two Old Men Eating Soup, 1819-23 by Francisco Goya. Source: I can’t help but admire the comment to this picture that goes like this: “The gender of the subjects appearing out of the darkness is only supposed. They could very well be witches (a common type throughout Goya’s oeuvre). The right figure however, barely there at all with its dark skull-like head, is most likely the apparition of death itself; pointing, along with the other sinister grinning figure, at a spoon, inviting someone – you – to dinner.”

Soup is cheap and simple to make, is filling, keeps warm for a long time, and can be stretched to serve a varying number of eaters. This has influenced the perception of soup as traditional food of the poor. In addition, boiling in a soup was the perfect way for the poor to soften the meat of the older animals they slaughter, in a practice intended to make the most of younger animals for breeding, wool, milk, and agricultural labour.

That’s chicken soup in a coconut, one of the coolest things I had in Malaysia! The experience of eating hot soup in the open in very hot and humid tropical weather was quite memorable too.

In spite of its humble beginnings, the culinary possibilities of the soup have at a certain point attracted the attention of the rich as well, whose in-house cooks started preparing soups with ever finer ingredients, Pozharliev commented. This has contributed to deepening the social and economic division of society with certain strata having access to food unaffordable to others. This situation started emerging with the geographical discoveries after the Renaissance, while quantity rather than quality of food was the common distinguisher among classes during the Middle Ages. 

My Malaysian sojourn was very rich in soups. These are fish balls and rice noodles in fish bouillon.

The soup unites and divides even today, this time along the lines of nutrition, which, as we are all well aware, is the philosopher’s stone of our times. For example, a fairly recent trend among nutritionists, culinary bloggers, and ordinary foodies is bowl food, which The Telegraph describes as healthy, nutritious, comforting to eat, soothing, bolstering, undemanding and sustaining. I’d say atavistic too.

Bowl food! If I remember correctly, this is Assam Laksa, and was mackerel in a hot tamarind bouillon – one of the best soups I had in Kuala Lumpur. I think it is a dish originating from Penang actually, an island in the north of Malaysia, where I think I had a better Assam Laksa but I don’t have a picture.

At the other end of the spectrum is Bulgarian nutritionist Dr. Georgi Gaydurkov, who is by all means not alone here, claiming that soup is an unnatural and hard to digest food as it dilutes gastric juices while introducing a lot of extracted oils that, similarly to the way they do in the soup, float atop the blood in our veins wreaking havoc with our metabolism. Thus, soups containing water and extracted oils should be avoided altogether and replaced by porridge containing only integral oils and liquids. Now with this we do come full circle to the – culinary and cultural – evolution, similarities, and differences between soup and porridge, a pet topic of Raycho Pozharliev which I’ll try to summarise in my next post. 

I can’t really recall the name of this, but I believe it tasted pretty much like ordinary Bulgarian chicken soup.

I believe dr. Gaydurkov is right about many things, one of which is this –

A good coke is halfe a physicyon*, 


PS. This memorable quote belongs to Andrew Boorde, who in 1542 wrote Dyetary of Health, a book which advised that good regime was a household duty to be performed daily in Tudor England. 

Typical Penang food as seen in Kuala Lumpur. Too bad I didn’t keep a record of those names, as now the mind is blank. Anyway, here we have I think pork, two types of noodles, an egg and a thick and spicy bouillon. As you see, I didn’t eat with chopsticks but with an Asian ceramic spoon and a barbarian fork. Many locals did the same by the way, so I was not conspicuous. In line with Dr. Gaydurkov’s recommendations though, most Asians eat the meat, noodles and whatever else there is in the bouillon, leaving the latter in the bowl, so no watering down of their gastric juices. In Turkish, on the other hand, the verb for eating soup is icmek, which means “to drink,” so they might have drunk the bouillon. I had an instinct to drink it too, as leaving the bowl almost full seemed wasteful.