Soup Days of Summer

Pumpkin, Coconut and Rum Soup 


Several years ago, when I was studying Russian in college (a skill that has since vanished into the winds of time, I should add), I came across an interesting cultural tidbit. My Russian teacher, an effusive and slightly eccentric woman from St Petersburg who had a penchant for excess eye makeup and short leather skirts, told us that Russians have an unusual philosophy about food that went completely against the grain of anything and everything I had heard before. She claimed that in Russia the prevailing wisdom is that one should consume foods that echo the temperature outside, since this is far less of a shock to the body’s vital systems. "So consume plenty of hot tea in summer and ice cream in winter," she told us, "and you’ll be healthy and robust until you’re a hundred."

Unfortunately, she didn’t come across as the most credible source on Russian folk wisdom, and I doubt anyone took her much more seriously than I did. Hot things in summer? Cold things in winter? This seemed like the ravings of a lunatic, particularly as my burgeoning culinary interest had exposed me to plenty of sources – cookbooks, magazines and television programs, chiefly – that advocated filling the summer table with ice-cold gazpachos, fresh tomato salads and endless pitchers of frosty drinks to beat the heat, while saving the promotion of hot and hearty dishes for the colder months. How on earth could the Russians think otherwise? Judging by the abysmally low position of Russian cuisine on the global preference scale, I decided to forget this piece of ‘wisdom’ as quickly as I could. And I did, until ten years later when we went to Jamaica.

You might recall how I mentioned in passing that Jamaicans love soup. I think, however, that I failed to stress just how much they love it. I would go so far as to say that soup to Jamaicans is like bread is to the French; in other words, they can’t imagine a meal without it, and treat it not as a luxury or an afterthought, but as a staple. Indeed, on many restaurant menus in Jamaica, we were surprised to find soup listed not with the other appetizers but as a separate course, presumably to assuage any fears that you might be expected to forego your soup should another appetizer look tempting as well. In fancier restaurants these soup offerings could be anything, but were usually sophisticated, smooth and delicate – lobster bisque, puree of this-or-that, and of course the ubiquitous creamy pumpkin – while at humbler places it was pure belly-filler: pepperpot with pork and callaloo, red pea and potato, beef with dumplings. And of course, all of it was hot.

Well, naturally we assumed that no person in his or her right mind would want to eat hot soup in this merciless tropical climate, which is why we spent our first few days deliberately steering clear of that section of the menu. When it became clear that we were seriously handicapping ourselves with our soup avoidance (and there was nary a chilled soup in sight across the entire country, it seemed), I decided I would have to give in – at least once – and ignore my better climatic instincts, since after all, I was there to sample as much Jamaican food as possible. So one night, with some trepidation, I ordered and began to consume a bowl of very delicious but very hot soup – I can’t remember exactly what sort – and before long the most remarkable realization came over me. In spite of all that steaming liquid in my belly, I actually felt cooler!

In an instant I realized why Jamaicans love soup so much, and why Russians drink hot tea in the summer. I don’t know enough about biology to tell you why it works, but it does. Perhaps it all has to do with the temperature of the air suddenly being lower than the temperature in the stomach, or perhaps it is just the result of an explosion in sweat production that causes a skin-cooling surge in moisture evaporation, but whatever the reason for this miracle, I was thrilled to have discovered it, and never lost an opportunity to eat soup in Jamaica again. Which was a good thing too, since a few sweltering nights later, when we were staying at Marblue, Axel offered us a hot soup that turned out to be one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten: silky-sweet pumpkin enriched with the creamy richness of coconut and the haunting perfume of rum, everything set into sharp relief against a backbone of scotch bonnet. It was a soup for the history books – not to mention the permanent recipe file – whose secrets Axel was thankfully willing to share, and which I’ve been enjoying almost continuously for the last few weeks. And luckily, it is every bit as delicious in the altogether more benign warmth of a Scottish summer as it was in the sweltering heat of the tropics.

Before I give myself over completely to the belief that my Russian teacher knew what she was talking about, however, I have one more test to run. I’ll give you a hint: it involves copious amounts of ice cream, and should commence in about five months. Then again, I just may start a little early on this one, since really, just because we embrace new philosophies doesn’t mean we have to completely abandon our old ones.

Pumpkin, Coconut and Rum Soup

Source: adapted from Axel Wichterich at the Marblue Domicil in Treasure Beach, Jamaica
Yield: serves 6-8
Notes: Axel’s secret ‘trick’ with this soup is to let it age for several hours (or even overnight) before serving it, and I have to agree that this really improves the flavor. If you don’t have time for this, rest assured that it will still taste great (just try to save some leftovers so you can see what I mean). My colleagues were pretty blown away when I brought some of the soup in to work last week, although my friend Dharshi, upon hearing the ingredient list, did say "so it’s kind of like a hot pumpkin colada." Pumpkin, coconut, rum – she may have a point there…

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium yellow onions, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 bunch scallions/spring onions (about 10), white and pale green parts only, sliced
about 2 lbs (1 kg) pumpkin flesh, peeled and cut into 2-inch cubes (you can substitute any flavorful winter squash such as butternut, kabocha, hubbard, etc)
2 large carrots, peeled and thickly sliced
1 scotch bonnet pepper, *carefully* stemmed and chopped (wear something on your hands!), or a few dashes scotch bonnet/habanero hot sauce (optional)
5-6 cups (about 1.5l) chicken or vegetable stock
1 can (14oz/400ml) coconut milk
salt and freshly-ground black pepper
2 tablespoons sugar (optional, you might find your squash makes the soup sweet enough)
1/3 cup (80ml) dark rum, or more to taste
additional sliced scallions or chives, for garnish

In a large, heavy-bottomed soup pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until just beginning to caramelize, about 20 minutes. Stir in the garlic and scallions and cook for another minute or two until softened. Add the cubed pumpkin, the carrots, scotch bonnet pepper, stock and coconut milk. Bring to a boil and turn down the heat to medium-low. Simmer, uncovered, for about 35-40 minutes, or until the vegetables are completely soft and the liquid has reduced slightly. Remove from the heat and puree, either in a blender (in batches, and with the lid clamped down tight), or with an immersion (stick) blender. Return to the pot, stir in the sugar, salt and pepper to taste, and the rum. Cove
r and set aside for several hours or overnight (in which case, refrigerate).

Just before serving, reheat the soup to boiling and let boil vigorously for 2-3 minutes. Serve hot with a garnish of thinly-sliced scallions or chives.

39 thoughts on “Soup Days of Summer

  1. Such an intersting read Melissa. I totally agree with your wearing mini-skirt Russian teacher, except that in my eyes, I take it a step further. I think either too hot or too cold is not good. I have always disliked the super iced drinks served in the USA (I know I am starting a war here) and always have to ask my drinks "no ice please" because I think the contrast between iced and our body temp is too strong. Like a bomb in the stomach. To me, it prevents proper food assimilation. But well, this is my theory 🙂 and I shall stop to fill out your comment page.I love this soup! Great photo!

  2. I’m sure you know I’m keeping a list of all your recipes that I want you to make for us when you come home this summer, and this one just jumped to the top of the list. I can’t wait!

  3. I like ice cream in the wintertime and soup in the summertime. And I like the sounds of this recipe. Except, I don’t think I’ll find any pumpkin or winter squash… Hmmm…Paz

  4. Melissa – I am so insulted, you put me in the same box as that crank, your Russian teacher! I think the English have long, long known that there is nothing like a nice cup of tea to cool you down on a rare summers day.I hate ice in my drinks, I always have to request ‘no ice’ over here in the US. I prefer room temperture water and if I am at home I might even warm it a little in the microwave.To me it seems bizarre to want to shock your hot summer body with a jarring iced drink. I guess this is why I am not crazy about ice cream either. Yep, I too proudly declare myself to be a cultural tidbit.(ps there is no way you would get me to eat cold soup in the winter though. Or in the summer. I always prefer my soup hot, year round)

  5. Oh my gosh, this sounds delicious! I am a big fan of soup year round (my foggy neighborhood in San Francisco rarely gets so hot that warm soup is unappealing). When I was growing up my mother always said that hot things cool you down and cold things warm you up (something to do with the difference between body temp and temp of food, perhaps?), but I put that firmly in the pile of cracked up things my mom went on about. I have thought about how some of the hottest climates produce the spiciest cuisine. Your cooky Russian teacher–and my cooky mother–might have been right all along…

  6. When I lived in China for a year, my neighbors said the same thing as your eccentric Russian teacher (and the Jamaicans, Bea, and Sam). And from experience, I found they are all onto something. Like spicy food, hot liquids (tea, soups) do indeed seem to cool you down. In fact, my Chinese friends took this credo one step further. They would leave their windows of their apartments open year round, even when the weather grew bitterly cold, claiming that it kept them more in sync with the weather.

  7. Well, I dislike soup no matter what time of the year it is. Is it a first course? (No, it’s too filling.) Is it a main course? (No, it’s not filling enough.) However yours looks appealing…perhaps it’s the 1/2 cup of rum. I dunno. But I’m feeling the sudden urge to find some pumpkins and crack open a coconut!

  8. This was such fun and potentially helpful (I’ll be checking the hot soup idea out). I’m a little leery about the winter solution but hey it would taste good especiall if it were peppermint.Great picture, I appreciate how difficult it is to take a photo of soup.

  9. hi melissa, just gorgeous!i totally trust your impeccable taste in soups (and spoons, if i may add…what a beauty!) – strangely, it’s reminiscent of this thai vegetarian soup i once had with chunks of roasted pumpkin in a spicy coconut broth…isn’t it funny how divine (if seemingly unlikely) combinations will pop up in all sorts of far flung places?and despite living in sweltering tropical climes, it still never ceases to amaze me when we go to the hawker centre how so many people can happily sit alfresco in the wilting heat heartily slurping steaming bowls of spicy laksa or some such like, chased with hot mugs of condensed milk-sweetened coffee or tea!

  10. I´ve heard that theory before, but never put it to the test. But since it´s so hot, and it can´t really get worse unless I walk over coals, I´ll try it and see.

  11. I myself would be skeptical to believe that it could really cool you down. Sometimes I eat something hot and I just start to sweat and I feel so uncomfortable that no amount of convincing could tell me its actually going to cool me down! But I’ll take your word for it and try it again maybe on a less than scorching day though, just to be safe…

  12. I’d noticed that in general, not just Jamaica, tropical climed countries seem to have the hottest food, temperature and spiciness-wise: Pho in Vietnam, curries in India, etc. I thought it might have something to do with the fact that boiling food serves as a way to sterilize food in a country lacking cool places to store foodstuffs. Also, spices might serve the function of preservatives.

  13. The Chinese say the same thing about drinking hot liquids in summer. I always found it bizarre as well and would never listen to my Grandma. Perhaps I should have!Australian have a deep affinity for pumpkin soup (and pumpkin scones too!) but the addition of coconut and rum adds a whole other delicious dimension!

  14. Lovely post….I agree with the hot weather hot soup thing…one of my most memorable soup experience was a noodle soup in the back streets of swealtering Bangkok…It’s winter here in Oz and it definitely hasn’t slowed down my ice cream consumption…now I have an excuse..thanks

  15. I have never heard that about hot foods in the summer and cold foods in the winter, but it kind of makes sense. By the way, that soup sounds great.

  16. WoW! this sounds so exotic. I’m not too keen on hot soups during the summer, but it still sounds nice.

  17. for my tastbuds, soup has gotta be hot for any season of the year, unless it’s gazpacho! this looks tempting, but i’ll hae to wait for pumkin season this fall……my mom is from india and she swears by a cup of hot broth before every meal. maybe your russian teacher wasn’t as crazy as you thought? or maybe my mom is nuts!

  18. Lovely, lovely soup, I must have some for myself. I am a hot soup in the summer girl from way back. I think it’s in my genes.

  19. Indeed it has everything to do with your digestion. Refrigeration was the worst thing to happen to our digestion, creating unhappy guts (read Sastun by Rosita Arvigo). Also, for those with a summer constitution hot (and spicy) foods and liquids during the heat of summer will cool them down. (read Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford).This soup sounds amazing!

  20. This sounds completely fantastic! I love learning new ways for pumpkin soup, thank you so much for sharing!

  21. Melissa, I don’t know if we subscribe to the same theory here in India but in practice we obviously do.Take Rasam and chai for starters.Even at boiling point temperature outside no one turns down a cup of piping hot tea. Your soup looks delicious and I’m going to give it a try.The rum part is bound to set the tone for the rest of the meal!

  22. I grew up in Moscow and can say with a certain degree of authority that your teacher is was going for the shock value. Ice cream was not even sold in winter! And in the summer, Russians like to make cold soups – okroshka comes to mind. As for the tea – it’s refreshing whatever the temperature is outside – in the winter it warms you up, in the summer it lowers your body temperature (akin to a hot shower after which room temperature feels lower).

  23. I have actually heard that theory before. I have no idea if there is any truth to it, but I was told that the reason that you should take hot things in hot weather and cold things in cold weather, is because your body’s natural reaction would be to normalize your body temperature. So, if you take in something hot, your body will naturally cool itself down to compensate. Same with the cold. Who knows… :)That soup sounds amazing by the way. I love soup 🙂 Very comforting…Speaking of comforting, you posted about your perfected Chai Masala ages ago…I had bookmarked it but only got to try it recently. I loved it! It was luscious! 🙂

  24. The Bedouins do the same: scalding hot mint tea in the Sahara. And nothing is as refreshing and cooling. Give the ubiquitous coca-cola or water a miss and take example from the Blue Men. For a recipe, visit: The Madeleines Project: Madeleine # 8: The Holy Trinity of the Maur

  25. Thanks for the recipe. I love any excuse to eat butternut squash, and the addition of the rum is a good idea. Very unique!Julie

  26. We lived in the Florida Keys for many years and went up to Miami to get our fill of all the wonderful ethnic restaurants. Any Jamaican establishment has soup on the menu and quite tasty I might add.Soup is very high on my list a favorite foods. Your soup looks wonderful and your photos are gorgeous.thanks for the recipe.

  27. This soup looks delicious! Thanks for including the recipe. I can’t wait to try it. Also – have really enjoyed all the other Jamaican-related postings – they bring back great memories of my own trip there a year ago.

  28. This soup sounds fantastic. As the end of summer is drawing near (maybe I’m an optimist when it comes to weather, at least in my own eyes), I really need to try something like this. Hot food in summer? I try to avoid it! But, this sounds amazing. A pumpkin colada, indeed.Also, I like the composition and colors in the photo of the soup.

  29. Very happy to find this post to day, just time for us to find a lot of pumpkins, I love the story and I agree with your russian teacher !! The great thing in your recipe, is to add rhum ! As one of my sons is living in Cuba, I’ve got plenty of old rum [ not as good as the one of Antilles but perfect to cook with ] and I’m going to make your soup as soon as possible! Thank you sincerely

  30. I’ve tried the soup last weekend.Well…For my liking there is too much rum in it. The taste of it was very dominant. Next time I will take fewer – maybe about 20 – max. 30 ml.I love your blog – by the way…Kind regards from Lake Constance (Germany)

  31. I recently discovered your blog and have been working my way through your archives and all but drooling on my keyboard! I don’t even like pumpkin, but when I saw this picture, I had no choice but to make this soup. It is incredible! This is definitely one for my permanent recipe file.

  32. I love soup year round – hot or cold soup, hot or cold weather BUT I have to say your Russian teacher sounds a lot like what I heard growing up in an ethnic area of Cleveland. Many ladies from the "Old Country" subscribed to that thought on foods and outside temps. And now, having lived in Europe, I find a hint of truth to it – the Norwegians eat tons of ice cream year round (best ice cream I’ve ever tasted by the way) and in the Middle East the foods are served hot in many cases. Who knows – but I will be trying your soup this weekend and getting my family’s reaction. Thanks for a great recipe!

  33. Great tasting soups don’t need hot or cold weather, shall it be declared? Specially when it’s mixed with variety of puree, tastes good! I’ll give this recipe a try one of these days.

  34. Dear all,years a go you featured my pumpkin soup,now we areThe culinary destination of the Year 2010(Jamaica Observer food Award)we are very proud and happy,new menu after the summer break(reopen mid October)Thanks a lotaxel &andrea

  35. I know I'm a little late on this train, but I thought I'd comment and say THANK YOU for this recipe. I made it last night for dinner tonight and just had a sample and it is delicious. Great find!

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