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By Ann M. Sato
Special to The Advertiser
Contrary to the stereotype of soup as a cold-weather food, soups have long been a favorite of Islanders.
The Japanese brought miso soup, of course, as well as noodle soups that became perhaps the most popular comfort food in Hawaii, saimin. The Chinese contributed oxtail soup and won ton soup in all their many versions.
The Portuguese signature soup caldo verde, a green soup made with kale and potatoes, somehow morphed into the beloved Portuguese bean soup, made most often with cabbage, red beans and linguisa or ham hocks.
All of these dishes have been altered, in some cases almost unrecognizably, from their roots, made into something particularly Island in flavor and ingredients.
Lina Medeiros, a Big Island homemaker who has long been known for her soups, said her research in old cookbooks and talking to k¬puna on the Hilo side where she lives indicates that soups were popular in plantation times for lots of good reasons:
They were inexpensive.
They aided homemakers in using up leftovers or less-desirable ingredients (those old potatoes with the "eyes" growing out of them, that slab of salt pork just about to "turn").
They could cook slowly while Mama was doing other things and accommodated themselves to everything from kerosene stoves to todays electric ranges.
They were hearty and readily satisfied the large appetites of working men.
And they didnt have to be put on the table at any particular time, a boon in households where family members worked different shifts at the mill or on the plantation.
"My father was a farmer and he would come home for lunch, but he didnt come home the same time every day it depended on what he was doing," Medeiros recalled.
"He insisted on a hot lunch, the way they did in those days, but Mama didnt want to hang around waiting for him to come home. She ended up making soup most days, because she could leave it warm on the stove and go about her business. When he came home, he just served himself. He wasnt willing to do much in the kitchen, but hed do that," she recalled with a laugh.
She recalled that field workers would take soup with them in tin cans or even jars wrapped in towels or rags to keep the soup warm. "I dont know why they didnt get sick because nowadays who would risk letting hot food sit out? but they did," she said.
Medeiros said shes been struck by how many cultures that came to Hawaii had soup eaters: "The traditional Japanese and Chinese meals always start with soup. Portuguese love soup; we tended to have big families, and soup could go a long way with a little more water added to the broth.
"The New England missionaries came from a culture that used a lot of soups, too. You look in these old cookbooks from the 30s and 40s, and all the haoles were making cream soups and chowders and like that," she said.
"As far as I know, Hawaiians didnt make soup, because they didnt have leak-proof vessels that could be placed over a fire," said Medeiros, who is both Hawaiian and Portuguese "with a little bit of Chinese thrown in," and who likes to make the soups of all her cultures. But, as with other food traditions, soup-making was eagerly adapted as soon as metal and clay pots became available.
Medeiros said the secret to a good soup is and this will sound like heresy not cooking it too much.
"People think they can just throw everything together and let it boil for hours but, after that, you dont have soup, you have mush. I like to make a good broth and cook it down, so its really full of flavor. Then I put my cut-up ingredients in just for the amount of time it takes to cook them through and let the flavors mix, and I serve the soup right away.
"I make gallons of broth, but I dont make gallons of soup, because I dont want my macaroni all mushy or my vegetables turning into a mess. I make just the amount of soup were going to eat," she said. "The broth or the base is what needs the long, slow cooking, not the soup."
She also notes that, when Grandma was cooking soup on a wood stove or atop the forno (masonry oven), the temperatures were relatively low. "She wasnt boiling it, she was simmering it gently," Medeiros said.
If shes using ingredients that need long cooking, such as dried beans, barley or very hard vegetables, Medeiros might even parboil them separately until theyre just tender, then add them to the broth with other ingredients to finish cooking. "I like everything to retain its taste and texture," she said.
In making Portuguese soup, for example, she uses soup bones, salt pork and ham hocks to produce a rich, meaty broth. She doesnt add the sliced linguisa until the end of the cooking. "Otherwise, its all stringy and dry and the flavor is gone," she said. "Or if I want linguisa flavor in the soup, I add a whole ring cut up in large pieces and I fish them out and throw them away once the flavor is all gone into the broth."
Actually, she admits, the family dog gets those goodies.
For Asian soups, such as oxtail, saimin and egg drop soup, Medeiros doesnt use packaged mixes. She starts with the real thing bonito flakes for dashi, bones for chicken broth. "Those packaged things are too salty. You dont taste anything," she said.
Whats her favorite soup?
"Oh, I could never choose one, but I guess I like any soup that starts with really fresh ingredients. When we get fresh corn, a thin corn chowder is my favorite soup. When my husband brings in lots of vegetables from the garden, vegetable soup is my favorite.
"When I can get good tomatoes, I make a Portuguese tomato soup thats really simple but delicious! So my favorites change."
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