Steeped in soulful flavor, ethnic soups offer intriguing alternatives to chicken noodle.
This article first appeared in the 1 November 2009 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. Visit the R&I website to find out more about the magazine or to search its recipe database.
By Kate Leahy, Senior Associate Editor
Chicken soup still reigns supreme on patient menus at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. It's a different story, however, in the hospital's eight bustling cafeterias for employees and visitors.
There, the classic American feel-better soup's popularity is challenged by the likes of Lebanese Vegetable, Thai Chicken Rice, Italian Pasta e Fagiole and Racy Red Lentil, an Indian-inspired recipe with cumin, fennel, ginger and garlic. The main reason for the global approach: growing consumer interest.
"Our customer base demanded that we become more daring," explains Susan Barraclough, director of nutrition and food services for the hospital. "Six years ago, we wouldn't have had a soup like Racy Red Lentil."
That such recipes don't have to fall far from American comfort zones (Italian wedding soup and Mexican tortilla soup hardly are unfamiliar) is part of their appeal. Yet ethnic soups' allure also stems from their savory broths, which often come fortified with culture-specific ingredients such as Italian Parmesan rinds, Japanese kombu (preserved kelp) and Mexican dried chiles.
Italian soups often rely on components other than broth for flavor. But in some instances, chefs are bringing broth into the foreground.
At San Francisco's SPQR restaurant, Executive Chef Matthew Accarrino turns to classic culinary technique to create a more-polished rendition of stracciatella, Roman egg-drop soup.
"For traditional stracciatella, you simmer a whole chicken and get this broth," Accarrino says. "You pull apart the meat, throw in spinach, and add some pecorino and egg."
Instead, Accarrino makes consommé: He clarifies chicken stock with a raft of chopped chicken bones and meat, carrots, celery, onions, garlic and tomato pulp. To order, the consommé is mixed with a slurry of beaten egg, pecorino cheese and semolina. Lamb's quarters-a leafy green Accarrino likens to a more-flavorful spinach-and grated pecorino are added at the end. "I wanted to keep it soulful but lighten and refine it," he says.
Executive Chef Michael Paley uses a rendition of stracciatella as the base for his Italian wedding soup with dark, curly Tuscan kale and pork meatballs at Proof on Main in Louisville, Ky. The slurry of egg, cheese and semolina "adds body and starchiness" to the brothy soup, Paley says.
Enhanced stocks also provide extra layers of flavor that can help dishes come together. To counter the rich ingredients (egg and cured pork) in Zuppa Carbonara, a soup inspired by pasta carbonara, at Salumeria Rosi Parmacotto in New York City, Executive Chef and partner Cesare Casella simmers the light chicken broth with Parmesan rinds at about a 10% rinds-to-broth ratio. To serve, the soup is topped with a poached egg and prosciutto chips, strips of cured pork dried in a low oven. "The rind has a strong flavor," he says. "The acidity balances out the eggs." The soup is finished with a sprinkling of grated Parmesan, chives and cracked black pepper.
In Japan, the tradition of hot pot is one usually experienced at home. "It's about gathering with family and sharing out of one pot," says Tadashi Ono, executive chef at Matsuri in New York City.
For Matsuri's menu, Ono translates the homey flavors of hot pot to a commercial setting: He serves a pot for one as a main course. Instead of simmering ingredients together at the table, he prepares the pot in the kitchen.
The success of hot pot (whether it's made at home or in a restaurant) depends upon having a flavorful broth. This often means making dashi, a traditional Japanese stock, by steeping kombu in water, removing it and then adding a handful of dried, shaved bonito (tuna) to the kombu-infused liquid. More-involved broths can include additions such as miso paste, soy sauce, or the soaking liquid from reconstituted mushrooms.
At Matsuri, a white-miso broth is used for salmon with cabbage, potatoes and tofu; a richer soy-mirin broth pairs with duck breast, Japanese onions and shiitake mushrooms.
The final key component to hot pot is shime, translated roughly as starch that is added to the pot at the end of the meal to sop up the last bit of broth.
"The soup has an intense flavor," Ono explains. "We capture it by adding [noodles or rice]."
Intense is also a term Tony Joseph uses to describe the Red Curry Soup introduced recently at Toronto-based Teriyaki Experience, a 125-unit quick-service chain with seven U.S. locations.
Compared with the broth-based Asian-noodle options that dominate the chain's soup selections, "We went in a different direction," says Joseph, the U.S. director of operations. "I'm not a soup person generally, but the first time I tried this soup, I had three bowls."
Coconut milk and rice thicken the spicy soup, which is filled with chicken, broccoli, shiitake mushrooms, tomatoes and peppers.
With its bold, novel flavor, Joseph is bullish about the soup's sales potential as a main meal or a side dish. "People always are interested in something unique," he says.
A menu without soup would be out of the question for New York City-based Rosa Mexicano. "Soups embody the soul of a cuisine," says Chief Operating Officer Howard Greenstone.
At the upscale mini-chain's nine locations, plenty of soul permeates tortilla soup, a Mexican staple. Grilled chicken, fried tortilla strips, sliced avocado and cubes of queso fresco garnish the bowls, but most important is ensuring that the broth is complex and earthy, true to its cultural roots. That's why the chicken broth is fortified with a purée of pasilla chiles, broiled tomatoes and garlic.
In Mexico, "Before you even consider combining dried chiles with chicken stock, you roast them," Greenstone says. "Then you rehydrate them and let them release their flavors. This takes time."
The restaurant's attention to detail pays off: Not counting perennially popular guacamole, tortilla soup accounts for 25% of Rosa Mexicano's appetizer sales.
In Austin, Texas, Manuel's Restaurant founder and co-owner Greg Koury also has a following for his tortilla soup. "It's not the usual type of tortilla soup," Koury says. The base of the soup, made by puréeing roasted tomatoes with toasted and reconstituted guajillo, pasilla and ancho chiles in chicken broth, is dense enough to coat the back of a spoon. Koury likens the flavor profile to mole.
For people who appreciate mole, "This is a soup that you crave and come back for," he says. "From a business perspective, it's a driving product on the menu."
Latin flavors also are easily cross-pollinated with other cultures' culinary traditions. At Manuel's, poblano peppers are puréed with cream and butter for a rich American bisque. During the Jewish holiday of Passover, Rosa Mexicano serves Caldo del Pollo con Bolitas, a Mexican take on Matzo Ball Soup in which chicken broth is infused with roasted jalapeÁ±os and matzo balls carry an herbaceous hint of cilantro.
These cultural combinations can work well so long as the soup still delivers warming, savory flavors. "A bowl of soup is the most satisfying dish you can have," Greenstone says.
Globally inspired or American born, soup sells consistently throughout the year, but fall and winter are when the menu category receives the most attention. Here, a hearty roundup of seasonal successes:
- How To Cook A Wolf, Seattle: Pear-and-sunchoke soup with a bacon-porcini mushroom garnish
- Metro Lafayette, Lafayette, Calif.: Roasted-butternut-squash soup with brown-butter crème fraÁ®che
- Two Spoons, Boulder, Colo.: Mushroom barley (a vegan soup)
- Au Bon Pain, Multiple Locations: Potato cheese soup with diced ham, cream cheese and puréed potato
- Crofton On Wells, Chicago: Blue Hubbard squash soup with cider-braised cabbage, tomato gelée and sorrel foam
THE NOVELTY FACTOR
To keep soup sales going strong, operators are going to have to get creative.
According to Technomic's 2009 Soup Consumer Trend Report, one-third of consumers are purchasing soup more often at the grocery store. So when they go out to eat, many seek out soup that they can't find at the store or make easily at home.
This is the case especially among female diners: 60% of women surveyed say they are more likely to order a soup at a restaurant if it's a type they don't often make at home or buy at the grocery store, compared with 48% of men who say the same.