It’s hard to go wrong with soup.
It’s one of the greatest comfort food on a rainy day. Its addition to your order at a Western diner usually makes for a value-for-money set meal. Even bootleg copies of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans impart to any café the illusion of style.
But the usefulness of soup was derailed in the 1990s with the emergence of the Cabbage Soup diet. That fad, which was propagated via the Internet, involved cabbage as a major ingredient and promised weight loss of up to 10 pounds after only slurping on the soup for seven days. While cabbage is certainly a great source of fibre, this infamous soup diet proved detrimental in its ultra-restrictive low-calorie practice. Besides, why stick with only cabbage soup and the hit-and-miss culinary wisdom of the Internet?
Cultures all around the world have been making healthy soups that have stood the test of time. Passing from the age of primitive cauldrons to the time of modern crockpots, here are some highly nourishing soups that have fed generations before you:
Winter Melon Soup
Ingredients: chicken, winter melon, red dates
Traditional Chinese tonic soups can be delicious, and the winter melon soup is highly thought of in TCM. A popular and ‘cooling’ soup to serve in the summer, it dissipates internal heat and aids in digestion. Also known as the ash gourd, the winter melon eliminates phlegm and mucus, and can soothe a sore throat.
The soup is prepared by simmering it under aslow fire for hours, which retains the moisturizing and nourishing properties of its ingredients. The method also draws the nutrients out into the soup for easier absorption by the body.
The role of soup in Chinese cuisine stretches back centuries, but how and when this dish made it to the imperial menu or the kitchens of modern commoners remain a mystery. What we do know is that ‘slow-fire’ tonics come from Guangdong province and are mainstays in Cantonese cuisine.
Ingredients: beetroot, other vegetables
If it’s good enough for generations of Ukrainian peasants, it’s good enough for today’s keyboard warriors. The national dish of Ukraine, borscht’s frightening red hue comes from its main ingredient, the beetroot.
“Beetroots are highly nutritious,” notes Ms Jaclyn Reutens, a dietician at Aptima Nutrition & Sports Consultants in Singapore. “They are great for individuals who have hypertension, want to lose weight, or anyone who wants to have a healthy diet.”
They contain nitrates, which lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease. In the body, nitrates turn into nitrites, which increase blood flow and oxygen to the brain, thus slowing the progress of dementia in older folks.
One theory on borscht’s origin posits that it was initially made from hogweed, known as borshchevik in old Slavic. Over the years, that ingredient was dropped while the name of the broth was shortened. Today, the Russians, Ukrainians and Poles all lay claim to the soup, which only adds to the soup’s murky—and contentious—history.
Ingredients: chicken bone, carrots, onions
Chicken soup is often exalted in the West as an effective home remedy against the flu. It is believed to ease runny noses, clear nasal congestion and sooth sore throats.
“Much of the immune system is in the body’s gut lining,” says Ms Pooja Vig, nutritionist and co-founder of The Nutrition Clinic in Singapore. “The gelatin in the main component of chicken soup, bone broth, protects and heals the lining of the digestive tract and helps in the digestion of nutrients. A 2010 study published in the journal Chest shows that eating chicken soup during a respiratory infection does in fact help to reduce symptoms of a cold.”
Chicken soup works miracles in other areas, too. “Bone broth is naturally rich in glucosamine, which helps repair damaged joints and reduces pain and inflammation. The gelatin and collagen in bone broth is also fantastic for hair, nails and skin,” Pooja adds.
Restorative chicken soup dates back to centuries old Jewish cooking traditions. It was Moses Maimonides, a 12th-century rabbi, physician and leader of the Jewish community in Egypt, who first recommended the soothing broth for respiratory tract symptoms. Today, the soup is nicknamed ‘Jewish penicillin’ because of its supposed curative powers.
Ingredients: miso paste, tofu, spring onions
The Japanese have made miso soup a staple of their meals for centuries.
It is made up of mainly miso paste. An enzyme-rich and probiotic food, miso, or fermented soybean paste, adds a dose of friendly microorganisms to your digestive system and detoxifies the body. Interestingly, the cleansing power of miso soup even extends to washing out smoking pipes during the days of the Edo period in Japan. In addition, antioxidants in the paste, such as Vitamin E and saponins, protect against free radicals and offer an anti-ageing effect.
“While miso soup is low in fat, it is relatively high in sodium, which is not ideal for those who have high blood pressure,” warns Reutens. “Because of its high sodium content, miso soup should be drunk in controlled amounts.”
Due to soy isoflavons, miso is widely claimed to be a preventative cancer food. According to Reutens, these isoflavons can protect against breast cancer and lower cholesterol levels. A 2007 study by Japan’s National Cancer Centre looked at the eating habits of 43,509 men, where miso soup emerged as one of the most popular foods. It found that those who ate more isoflavone-rich foods had a 50% lower risk of developing localised prostate cancer compared to those who ate the least.
While miso certainly has an array of health benefits and may aid in achieving Okinawan levels of longevity, research on miso’s anti-cancer benefits is still ongoing. Its other health benefits, however, make it worth serving at the dinner table regularly.
Despite its reputation as a classic Japanese dish, the origins of miso lie in China. Scholars haven’t been able to pinpoint quite when miso was imported to Japan, but one school of thought believes that seventh-century Buddhist missionaries brought over soy-based foodstuff that eventually developed into the miso that dominates dining tables in the Land of the Rising Sun today.
Photo courtesy of Thinkstock. This article first appeared in NATURA magazine issue No.8. Find NATURA at Eu Yan Sang retail outlets, newsstands and major bookstores in Singapore.