For the love of soup

Wednesday, Feb 7 2001

Photo by Anne Fishbein

DIONYSUS: Have you ever felt a sudden lust for soup?

HERACLES: Soup! Zeus-a-mercy, yes. Ten thousand times.

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—Aristophanes, The Frogs (405 B.C.)

The word restaurant comes from a sign above the door of the first European eating establishment, which declared, “Boulanger vends les restaurants magiques,” that is “Boulanger [the proprietor’s name] sells magic restoratives.” Opened in Paris (of course) in 1765, the establishment had only one item on the menu, which, by government decree, was soup. With this sign, the lowly curative took its place as a pioneer of the dining-out experience.

At elaborate meals of many courses, soup serves as the greeter: These are the flavors you might expect; this is the degree of spiciness; these are the leftovers of meats and vegetables you may encounter in the main dish, or within the sides. Soup can also provide a way to understand the people who have prepared it. Is it a multilayered concoction based on a long-simmered stock, or a quick, low-fat vegetable purée? Are the vegetables fresh from the garden, imported or frozen?

For many who grew up in my generation, the message conveyed when soup was served was one of convenience. Just open a can. Sure, I had one of those Old World grandmothers who made everything from scratch. But as circumstance would have it, I spent a much greater portion of my childhood with my other grandmother, the one who embraced Hamburger Helper and Shake ’n’ Bake, as well as reconstituted Tomato Bisque, Scotch Broth or Bean with Bacon and a side of Saltines. Good, in a red-and-white label kind of way, but too salty, too tinny, to sustain much long-term appeal.

And for a long time, that is what I thought of soup. It wasn’t until I started reconsidering my own way of cooking — collecting cookbooks, seeking out hard-to-find ingredients that I used just a bit of and then shoved the rest to the back of the fridge, or put away in the cabinet only to rot — that I decided to give soup another chance. “Real” cooks I knew made good use of all that stuff. All those chicken carcasses and beet greens, all that fish sauce and tomato paste, were pure gold waiting for the alchemy of the soup pot.

Soup is perhaps most satisfying on those gray afternoons when it, itself, is the meal. A little rice, a warm tortilla or a couple slices of bread, and soup. No distractions. There are plenty of places in L.A. to find such soup. Here are a few.

At Joan & Sisters, a storefront dive serving up Belizean specialties at Western Avenue near 37th Street, the hand-scrawled menu on the wall promises a variety of different soups on different days — though they may not actually be available. After trying and failing to get conch soup on several of the days it was supposed to be offered, I simply asked, “What soup do you have?” “Cow foot” was the reply. I ordered up a bowl.

Golf-ball size hunks of bone and flesh don’t so much float in a beef stock as displace it. Set amidst elbow noodles and scraps of potato, the cow gives the stock a sharp muskiness akin to aged cheese. There is so much bone in this soup that when refrigerated, it turns to jelly. Diners can pump up the spiciness of the soup with a habanero-infused cup of vinegar and chopped white onions, then cool down with several strips of fried plantains set atop a mound of coconut rice.

Over the sushi bar at Hama Sushi in Little Tokyo hangs an ink print of an enormous red snapper — 95.5 centimeters long and 14.5 kilograms, to be exact — caught near one of the islands off mainland Japan. At my request, the waitress squints at the accompanying Japanese characters and offers an approximate translation: She’s pretty sure it says, “The fish is 1,000 years old,” but it might say, “You only catch a fish like this once every thousand years.”

As it happened, the specials one night included red-snapper-head soup. Inspired by the wall hanging, I ordered some. The soup arrived in a large red lacquer bowl, â offsetting the red speckled fish head floating inside. I paused to consider its quivering, milky eyeball for just a moment before dipping in. At the slightest touch, the head broke into a dozen tender chunks — I don’t know how they managed to get it into the bowl in one piece. The clear broth had an appealing smoky flavor brightened by a scattering of scallions.

Hama’s red-snapper-head soup is significantly more substantial than a diminutive bowl of miso, but there’s still room for a few pieces of yellowtail, albacore or toro sushi, or a soft-shell crab, which most of the time is frozen and is just okay, but for a few weeks in the spring comes in fresh and is soft, moist and even lighter than tempura.

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