Last week, my sister and I visited a little mountain ski village known for its mineral springs and frozen waterfalls. After dark, we piled on sweaters and set out in search of something warm to eat. "Soup," she said. I responded with a hungry caveman grunt of approval. That night, after a 13-hour drive, we wanted something hearty, fortifying and uncomplicated. At our first stop, an ambitious little gastropub, we were told that the day's special of cheeseburger soup had run out. Somewhat relieved, we moved on to the café next door, where the only available soup was a creamy fish chowder that smelled like a lobsterman's locker room (we were 1,600 kilometres from any coast). Across the street, a vegetarian bistro's signature dish of fully-loaded baked potato soup, suffocating beneath a mantle of melting butter, sour cream and snipped chives, tasted more like flavoured butter than soup. We ate our dinner, had a good time in spite of it, then trudged uphill to our inn. That night, I fantasised that my pillow was a billowing cloud of steam rising from a bowl of fragrant, fiery Vietnamese pho.
Almost every restaurant menu features a soup or two. This is partly because the profit margin for soups is pretty high; they can be made in advance and served with minimal stress on an active kitchen line, and they're a great way to recycle scraps and leftover ingredients. The word "restaurant" was first used in 16th-century France to describe an inexpensive, concentrated soup touted as a cure for physical exhaustion and sold by street vendors. A Parisian businessman opened a shop specialising in restorative soups in 1765, and the modern word "restaurant" (from "restorative") was devised as a name for such shops. Besides their economic efficiency, soups are menu items that diners have come to expect. And like salads, soups are notoriously hit or miss. Take French onion soup, loved by so many people (including Julia Child, who waxed on about it enthusiastically for years and had it as her very last meal); it is as ubiquitous as Caesar salad, as transcendental when made correctly - and just as elusive.
In Ramadan, it's common to break fast with a bowl of soup. In our home, this was usually a clear chicken broth with small, lightly-seasoned lamb meatballs; plain, warming and easy on the stomach. The Prophet Mohammed is said to have broken his daily prescribed fast with dates, water, and a barley broth called talbina or tirbiyali. Soup is nourishing and nutritious to the weary body and the weary soul. Because it's very hard to make one serving of soup from scratch (instant ramen doesn't count), it's communal by nature. And because it spills, is often served piping hot, and frequently requires two hands and a spoon or a set of chopsticks, you've got to slow down in order to eat it.
Moroccans break fast on aromatic harira, a lemony, spicy lamb and vegetable soup, while in neighbouring Algeria and Tunisia, the soup of choice at iftar is commonly jary (a hearty vegetarian wheat and green herb soup with lemon). But it's lentil soup that is the staple of most households throughout the Arab world, and there are countless versions of it to be attempted. My favourite is a curried red lentil soup with coconut milk and autumnal spices, garnished with garlic and saffron yoghurt, red chilli butter, crisp-fried onions, chopped mint and a squeeze of lemon. In Turkey, yayla corbasi is a buttery, velvety yoghurt and rice soup flecked with dill; other regional yoghurt soups include cold Iranian dhoog or Armenian spass or tarkhannan. I favour the Lebanese version, shish barak, which contains tender, moist meat dumplings.
"Do you have a kinder, more adaptable friend in the food world than soup?," wrote Miss Manners (the American newspaper columnist Judith Martin). "Who soothes you when you are ill? Who refuses to leave you when you are impoverished and stretches its resources to give you a hearty sustenance and cheer? Who warms you in the winter and cools you in the summer? Yet who also is capable of doing honour to your richest table and impressing your most demanding guests? Soup does its loyal best, no matter what undignified conditions are imposed upon it. You don't catch steak hanging around when you're poor and sick, do you?"
There is a dizzying amount of international etiquette around soup consumption. I disregard the fine print in order to stay sane and keep my cupboards free of clutter, choosing bowls over flat plates, round spoons over oval, unrimmed bowls to rimmed ones. I don't pass judgment for bread-dunking or cracker-crumbling, nor do I admonish blowing or slurping in times of need. Sometimes I tip my bowl, sometimes I inadvertently draw my spoon toward myself, and when I travel, I adapt my personal codes of conduct so as not to appear a total rube. What's acceptable in one community is often rejected in others.
When it comes to homemade soups, my greatest loyalty lies with gazpacho. I adore cold soups and will never forget my first encounter with real gazpacho at a Spanish-Emirati household. When I had regular access to it in Spain, my passion grew into an obsession. Most versions of gazpacho are weak, tasting like tinned tomatoes or jarred salsa. This Moorish version is a rich, tangy sunset-colored purée, best poured from a chilly pitcher into tall glasses and sipped while awaiting the main course. Alternately, you could serve it in bowls and garnish with chopped cucumber, bell pepper, olives, croutons and hard-boiled egg. Many recipes call for the addition of crustless bread but I prefer it without, when the flavours are vegetal, bright and addictive like nothing else.