Comfort soups: nostalgia in a bowl or magic medicine?

Soup

There’s nothing like a warming bowl of soup to pick you up in winter. Here, three cooks stick up for their favourite digestive consolation

There’s a chill in the air, the usual coughs and colds have started to make the rounds, the scarves are out and the idea of salad for lunch is a long-distant memory. Celebrate all ye lovers of the warming and fulfilling lunch: it’s full-blown soup season.

Whether it’s because the weather has turned or because you’re feeling under the weather, a hot bowl of steaming soup can provide solace, and no doubt you have a clear idea of what your own ultimate comfort soup is. At a guess, it’s probably influenced more by what your mum made you when you were little than the potential health benefits.

But some would argue that the soups we turn to for digestive consolation are much more than just nostalgia in a bowl. Instead, perhaps they’re centuries of received wisdom and hedge-medicine distilled into soup form and culturally enshrined.

Is it possible to put your finger on what makes classic winter soups like chicken soup, miso soup and daal so nourishingly good? Mark Ogus, the brains behind Jewish street-food stall Monty’s Deli, Japanese chef Yuki Gomi, who’s worked with Miso Tasty, and Selina Periampillai from the Taste Mauritius supper club each state their case for their favourite.

Mark Ogus – chicken soup

Chicken soup is one of the obvious infusions for the peely-wally. “It’s so good,” says Ogus. “Growing up in a Jewish family, your grandmother’s and your mother’s chicken soup was this mysterious wonderful thing. We love it, although we don’t know why it’s so good.” The secret to good chicken soup is fiercely guarded, and everyone has their own version. Traditionally, it’s a fixture starting Friday night’s dinner in Jewish households. “It has a smell that gives me a hit of nostalgia and makes me feel instantly comforted,” says Ogus. There’s more to it than nostalgia, though. Broths made from bones are a good source of amino acids. “You boil off the impurities to make something delicious, and there’s something satisfying about making things out of bones and gristle.”

Of course, you don’t need to be Jewish to favour chicken soup. “Chicken is a ubiquitous meat that even people who don’t like meat much will eat. You use the carcass, and when everyone’s feeling hard up it feels good that you’re not wasting anything. It’s a very traditional way of getting the most out of your food.”

Yuki Gomi – miso soup

In Japan, a bowl of miso soup is what makes everything better. “It’s mummy food,” says Gomi. “Every time I have miso soup it feels like home. Whether in Japan or away, even the smell of miso soup reminds Japanese people of their mummy.” Miso is a core Japanese ingredient, made from fermented beans and then mixed, depending on the region, with rice, wheat or beans. “Where I’m from in Yamanashi prefecture, near Mount Fuji, our miso is made from a mix of rice and wheat and is quite pale. We use the paste to make hōtō noodle miso soup with thick, handmade wheat noodles, mushrooms and pumpkin, slow-cooked for a long time. You eat it in a big bowl and it’s really good.”

Like lots of fermented foods, miso is rich in amino acids and complex proteins. The fermentation process also means miso contains lots of probiotics, making it easy to digest. “My grandmother’s generation had miso all the time, as much as we drink tea in Britain. I learned how to make it from her and from my mother, but once you’ve got the basics you can use different miso soups as a base and add in whatever you feel like: pork belly for energy and extra-rich flavour; root vegetables for the comfort of carbohydrates. There are no rules.”

Selina Periampillai – daal

“In autumn and winter I make daal at least once a week,” says Periampillai. “It’s a really substantial meal, a warm bowl to have when the weather’s like this. It’s quite like a soup, but more robust than those other, watery soups.”

Daal is a staple in Indian and Mauritian cooking, consisting of lentils of all kinds boiled down into a mush that’s seasoned with spice. “There are so many different types of daal. I like chana daal, yellow split peas flavoured with turmeric and salt, boiled and blended smooth. I cook up onion, garlic, ginger, chilli and curry leaves in olive oil and mix it in afterwards. When the weather is cold outside and I need something warming, it’s great. And it’s healthy.” A lot of the spices used in daal are linked to ayurvedic remedies. “Turmeric is an anti-inflammatory, and garlic, chilli and ginger are all traditionally linked to warding off colds and illnesses.”

Like miso, there are different kinds of daal, and there’s no rules about what you add. “It’s really versatile – at this time of year I add kale, pumpkin and squash, but you can add roast veggies, toasted cumin, spinach or caramelised onions. I sometimes stir in coconut milk to make it feel really indulgent.”

What do you think? Are comfort soups merely nostalgia in a bowl, or is there some nutritional basis in what we choose to eat when we’re under the weather? What do you like to fill a bowl with when you’re wrapped up under blankets at home?

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Johanna Derry, for The Guardian on Thursday 1st January 2015 09.00 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010