Serve the soup!
Recently, News Hour programs in Turkey have been swept with the news of a soup list. The breaking news was that a widely popular Turkish soup was entitled to be in the list of “20 of the World’s Best Soups” which was compiled by CNN Travel. The proud winner soup from Turkey was Yayla Çorbası, literally Highland Soup, a yoghurt-based soup with rice seasoned with crushed dried mint. Many speculated whether it was the right one to enter the list, as a recent twitter debate rivalled the ubiquitous lentil soup and tarhana soup against each other. Both are comfort foods, the first is the most common of all, served almost every single eatery, the latter is more of a home fare, a fermented-dried soup mix, lovingly prepared at homes as a winter provision, cooked within minutes for a homely family dinner. Both soups are very popular, the debate was almost a tie, but the lentil soup won by a neck, with a mere 1 percent vote.
Coming back to “Yayla Çorbası,” it could be the third soup, if the debate included three choices.
The soup is also simply known as yoghurt soup, “yoğurt çorbası” in Turkish, but its rightfully tagged nickname “highland” is the one that is more widespread now. No one seems to remember when this name was first nailed, but it is probable that the name pays an attribution to the highland mountain pastures of the Yörük nomads, who are great producers and consumers of yogurt. The abundant use of strained thick yoghurt gives the soup a salty tang, almost like a sea breeze, cooling and refreshing. The addition of crushed mint is the essential final touch to the soup, adding another level of cooling effect. Those, who are not familiar with the yoghurt-based hot dishes of Turkish cookery, would probably presume that the soup would be served cold, but on the contrary the soup is served piping hot, usually with a generous drizzling of melted sizzling butter tinted dark green with mint. This final buttery-minty touch adds to the hot and cool duality of the soup, making it irresistibly satisfying, cuddling homely warm with butter, and refreshing as a forest mist with mint. Unusual and intriguing, I believe, it was the just right entry to the list.
When I was asked to comment on the list by NTV radio, I wanted to check the list, and to my surprise, there was a reference to the book of a food writer colleague of mine, Janet Clarkson. I’m proud to say that I have my pinch of salt in the book titled “Soup: A Global History” by Reaktion Publications, where I contributed on “Tarhana,” dried soups of Turkey as the acknowledgement states. I remember she was searching for an interesting soup yet to be discovered by the culinary world, and our beloved tarhana soup was one food candidate to add to the book. I now regret that I did not push for our yoghurt-based soups as well, but now with this list, at least “Yayla Çorbası” has a worldwide recognition, and it can be replicated anywhere in the world, in any kitchen, of course if you get hold of a food thick yoghurt, or make your own. The only hard to find ingredient could be the dried mint, alas anyone who has some fresh mint can easily dry a batch in a few days, and believe me the fresh is not a substitute, simply not the same! The list features a picture of the soup without the mint tinted butter, but a red pepper spiked butter, I would say this is not acceptable as the authentic original, but a rather later development in the long path of yoghurt soups in the history of Turkish cookery.
CNN gives several references to the book: Soup is one of the world’s oldest and most universal food, Clarkson says, there is no food quite as comforting as soup. That is so true, we attribute restorative powers to soup; especially chicken soup is a universally accepted cure for cold. In Turkey, a bowl of tarhana soup stands for homeliness, it is like a cuddly soft blanket on a snowy night, lentil soup is our belly-filling class-equator comfort where we find common ground.
Clarkson argues that soup is the only truly universal dish and every culture in the world has an emblematic soup dish. Naturally, it is not easy to come with a universally acceptable description of when a dish is called soup, whether it is potage or broth, or even a stew which seems to be more substantial having a thicker texture. Finally, she settles on a generously broad take. “Just some stuff cooked in water,” she writes, “with the flavored water becoming a crucial part of the dish.” That is really a broad description, any spoonable or drinkable dish that has a liquid part can fall into the category. When we check the 20 best soups list, we see that there are several soups, especially the Asian ones, topped with boiled or fried eggs, whole shrimps, mussels or other seafood, sliced cooked chicken or meat pieces, noodles and vegetables swimming some broth. By Turkish standards none is eligible as soup, Turkish soups tend to be smooth, or slightly textured, or sometimes with miniscule pieces of chunky food or fine noodles like orzo or vermicelli, but never with big morsels of food bathed in broth. In Turkish, the word for soup is “Çorba,” a word that travels in various forms from the Balkans to deeper in Asia, from the Middle East to North Africa. Smooth soups are considered to be finer as in the case of strained lentil soup, they are velvety satin-like liners to the stomach, whetting the appetite for the main course. Suffice to say, soup is universal, but “çorba” for us is the gratification of serving and sharing, offering a bowl of soup to a guest is a symbol of Turkish hospitality, and though I believe that “tarhana” also should have been on the list, “yayla” will be a revelation to the soup lovers across the globe!
BOOK of the Week:
One mention of Turkish Tarhana soup appeared in the recent book of Sandor Katz, which I like to call as the “King of Fermentation”, and The New York Times calls him as, “one of the unlikely rock stars of the American food scene.”. The book titled “Sandor Katz’s Fermentation Journeys” features recipes, techniques and traditions from around the world, all in relation with fermentation. I am overly proud to say that I have my pinch salt in this book too, Katz chose Tarhana as the fermented food from Turkey, following my presentation on at the 2020 edition of the Dublin Gastronomy Symposium. He quotes a sentence from the symposium article, “It is a hearty, umami-rich, nutritious winter soup full of the goodness and bounty of summer months”, and provides his version of a recipe on how to make the basic tarhana mix. I remember our mail correspondence, when he was experimenting on making his own version, he was wondering whether he was on the right track asking me about how it should smell. I would really like to taste the end-result, and also invite him to Turkey to have a tarhana-safari across the country.