Soup: a warming staple the world over – but who knew there were so many fine flavours? The ten below are our picks for the finest soups to slurp worldwide.
1. Pho, Hanoi, Vietnam
Beef noodle soup for breakfast? Once youʼve tasted a good pho, youʼll crave it for lunch and dinner, too. Pho is the moreish national dish of Vietnam, though its genesis is relatively recent. In the early 20th century the colonising French introduced beef stock to local cooks, who then threw in some chillies, fish sauce, spices and rice noodles to give it a local twist. The dish originates from the countryʼs north and, though now widespread, Hanoi is still the phocal point. Every morning, street-side stands and no-frills restaurants go into beef-slicing, broth-boiling overdrive, producing bowl after bowl of Asian ambrosia for the passing crowds.
Vietnamʼs rainy season runs from May to September; visit from November to April for drier, cooler weather.
2. Locro de Papas, Andean Highlands, Ecuador
You need something to warm your cockles in the Ecuadorian Andes: villages teeter at breath-stealing altitudes, and nights can be cold indeed. Given this land is the home of the potato, itʼs no surprise the traditional hot belly-filler in these parts is hearty locro de papas – potato soup. The Spanish conquistadores first came across it in the 1560s, and its popularity hasnʼt waned since. Variants exist (thereʼs always garlic and hot peppers, often cheese and avocado, and sometimes beef or guinea pig), but after a day hiking up volcanoes or across parámo, a generous dollop of any kind is more than welcome.
3. Borscht, Ukraine
The first rule of botany states that the country with the most variants of a particular species is probably where that species originated. Translate this to cuisine and Ukraine is the top contender for the homeland of borscht. Although the eye-poppingly purple beetroot soup is slurped across Eastern Europe – filling tummies in Poland, Russia, Lithuania and beyond – itʼs in Ukraine that youʼll find the greatest glut of recipes, which differ from Kiev to Lviv to Odessa. It always looks utterly fabulous, though the girlie colouring is offset by a manly accompaniment of pampushky (fried doughnuts), which turn this shrinking violet into a real meal.
Trains are the best way of getting around Ukraine; a few words of Russian will help when booking tickets.
4. Obe Ata, Nigeria
Locals call it a pick-me-up, a medicinal dish to reinvigorate those feeling under the weather. The uninitiated might call it hell-in-a-ladle. It doesnʼt necessarily taste bad; itʼs just like eating Satanʼs pitchfork, fresh from the furnace. Essentially Nigeriaʼs national dish, obe ata (pepper soup) is a fiery beast, especially if Scotch bonnet chillies are in the mix. It can also have some unusual ingredients, including tripe, dried fish and the whole head of a goat. But if you can brave a bowl on the streets of Lagos, know that youʼre experiencing the real taste of West Africa.
Temperatures in Nigeria are hot year-round, though October to January is a little cooler. Check security advice before travelling.
5. Waterzooi, Ghent, Belgium
Thereʼs something fishy going on in Ghent. Inventor of the Flemish seafood-soup, waterzooi, this river-port city now seems to be using chicken in the dish… This preference for poultry allegedly occurred when Ghentʼs waterways became polluted, killing off the recipeʼs main ingredient. Thankfully, today you can still find the original fish version (often made with pike, carp or bass) in the narrow medieval streets of the Patershol quarter. Here restaurants cook up the soup with various veggies and thicken it with egg yolks and cream. Hunks of bread are provided for dunking, and a Belgian beer is near-obligatory for washing it down.
Ghent is 30 minutes by train from Brussels. Visit in July for the Gentse Feesten music and theatre festival.
6. Cullen Skink, Morayshire, Scotland
If you saw it on a menu, you’d just have to try it, wouldnʼt you? First cooked up on Scotlandʼs northeast coast, in the comely village of Cullen, this irresistibly named soup used to sustain the sailors of the Moray Firth – back when fish were both abundant and a fair bit cheaper than the traditional beef base. Its ingredients are simple yet simply superb: the finest locally smoked Finnan haddock, the best Buchan tatties, plus onions and cream. And though the dish has spread beyond Cullenʼs harbour, for a taste of skink at its most authentic, try it at the 18th-century Seafield Hotel.
Cullen is a 2½-hour bus ride from Aberdeen. The Seafield is at 17-19 Seafield St.
7. Callaloo, Trinidad
Trinidad itself is a bit of a soup. Here, African, Indian, Spanish, French, Chinese and Native American influences are stirred together, and simmered under the hot Caribbean sun to make a tasty, addictive treat of an island, best washed down with a slug of Black Label rum. But one dish prevails out of this cultural cook-up: callaloo. A rich green gloop made from fresh dasheen leaves and pureed okra, perhaps with coconut and delicious with chunks of crab, its flavours are as zingy as a Trinidadian street party. Hunt out a simple eatery, order callaloo and foo-foo (pounded plantains), and melt into the mix.
Trinidadʼs Carnival, the regionʼs biggest, will take place on 20–21 February 2012.
8. Clam Chowder, New England, USA
In the kitchens of New England, clam chowder (or chowda, in Bostonian) is a very serious business. So serious, in fact, that a law was almost passed in the 1930s to ban tomatoes from its mollusc mix. You see, tomatoes mean Manhattan chowder – a newfangled New Yorker fad and literally a different kettle of fish. Threaten this seafood soup with fruit in New England and you might as well declare your support for the Yankees. No, from Massachusetts to Maine, chowder is made with cream. Period. Very good it can be, too. And if it's not, just don't ask for ketchup…
9. Gazpacho, Andalucía, Spain
Itʼs a poor manʼs supper – but it tastes so good. For the hard-up labourers toiling in the fields, gazpacho was a way to make something of almost nothing: a stale crust of bread softened by garlic, vinegar and a slosh of olive oil. But from its humble roots, gazpacho (perhaps drawn from the Arabic ʻcaspaʼ, meaning fragments) has become a dish of kings. During the stultifying Andalucían summer, when the tomatoes and peppers are at their very ripest, and when all you can face eating is something refreshing and cool, gazpacho is just the dish to tantalise torpid tastebuds.
In July and August, temperatures in Andalucía soar over 40°C. April to June is best for mild weather and lush countryside.
10. Ajiaco, Bogotá, Colombia
Soup is traditionally a starter, right? But begin your dinner with a bowl of ajiaco santafereño and you wonʼt be eating again for a while. This dense Colombian super-fuel food combines three different types of potato – yellow papas criollas for thickening, plus waxy red sabaneras and squishier white pastusa – infused with handfuls of gausca, an aromatic herb. And thatʼs just how the native Chibcha people left it. Subsequently the Spanish rocked up, liked what they tasted but added some protein (chicken) and a side of cream to concoct the belly-warmer now beloved across Bogotá and beyond.
In Bogotá try the Sopas de Mamá y Postres de la Abuela (Soups of Mum and Grandmother’s Desserts) restaurant chain.
What regional soups would you add to the list?
This article was updated in Jan 2012.