Delicious corn chowder soup.
Delicious corn chowder soup.
Image: RF / Brent Hofacker

My great-grandmother was wont to say, "Never start a meal on a lake” — a cautionary comment to anyone considering soup as a first course. How weird, I always thought. For me, whatever the question, soup is always the right answer. As a starter, as the main meal; wherever and whenever.

Ramen bowls and paleo bone broth are huge and have turned every hip foodist into a broth disciple, but apart from these trendy examples, soups are strangely disrespected on local menus these days. When I did a menu-design job for a restaurant recently, I was asked to remove the one soup I’d suggested — a fine, upstanding corn-and-chilli soup, holding both comfort and adventure — because “nobody orders soup”.

Scan most menus, and you’ll see that, indeed, soups — bar the fashionable few — no longer constitute an important part of eating out. It’s plain sad is what it is. If you want soup to be treated with the same dignity as anything else on the menu, your best chance is an Asian-leaning restaurant, though even in this realm there have been casualties — certainly in Joburg.

It’s with pretty big tears in my eyes that I remember the endless bowls of pale, gingery broth I consumed at long-gone Yung Chen Noodle Den on Commissioner Street. I still miss the slap-across-the-face of the perfect hot-and-sour soup that Cranks in Rosebank conjured up. And the best ramen bowls I ever had were decades ago at the elegant Ohsho, when Japanese cuisine had just hit South Africa in the late '80s, and before it got bludgeoned to death by familiarity breeding contempt.

Broths as deeply smokily good as those are hard to find now. Most are mean, unseasoned dishwater.

Anyway, these days I’m crippled by the knowledge that they’re in all likelihood made from industrially farmed meat. Even soup has become complicated.

Soup is that which exacts the most delicate perfection and the strictest attention
Georges-Auguste Escoffier

French chef and writer Georges-Auguste Escoffier thought that of all menu items, “soup is that which exacts the most delicate perfection and the strictest attention”. While I’m with him on taking care, I can’t really see why they’re as tricky as he implies. Soups don’t flop or misbehave in the way that many other dishes do. They require no expensive equipment, and generally no great technical skills. The recipe for a great stock can be taught to anyone, and soup reheats like a dream. They can be tweaked and seasoned into the perfection that Escoffier demands more easily than most things. (An overcooked steak or curdled hollandaise cannot.)

Soups should be the greatest hit on any menu! But no. They are thin on the ground and, mostly, victims of great neglect. This winter I plan to make a silver lining out of that cloud. I will be conjuring an absolute embarrassment of soups at home. Thick chowder, quiet barley soup, amber shiitake broth, mulligatawny, brown-butter cauliflower soup, chicken-noodle. And oh yes, stracciatella! My great-grandmother will be turning in her grave, but our household will be bobbing happily on our lakes of comfort.

Burgener is owner of and chef at The Leopard, 44 Stanley Avenue

From the June edition of Wanted 2019.

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