Saturday mornings always meant soup during the winters of my childhood. Mum would get the pot boiling early, using bowls of split peas that had been soaking overnight, huge pumpkins that practically required an axe to split and tear-inducing onions that misted up her glasses. She always made an enormous pot of soup which, bulked out with bread and scones, would feed our family of six for the whole weekend and sometimes longer.
My favourite soup was Scotch Broth, deeply flavoured with mutton bones and thick with barley. I also loved Mum’s Pumpkin Soup (a staple option), a pale Choko and Potato Soup (made very rarely), and a delicious smoked fish soup made with tomatoes and potato which appeared once or twice each year. Stick or immersion blenders weren’t available back then, so Mum used a large mouli (hand mill) whenever she wanted to make a smooth, blended soup.
The best Saturdays were those in the deep of winter when it was cold and wet. We would be shut up inside to avoid the damp, with the simmering soup fogging up the kitchen windows and a couple of lights on against the darkness. Fresh, hot soup on such a day has to be one my greatest culinary memories; a ritual cemented by years of weekly repetition.
Here in Brisbane it is slowly, vaguely, finally getting cooler. Last Saturday I attempted a little witchcraft, trying to coax winter closer by making my own giant pot of soup. It was pumpkin, which was only right, and boldly spiced with Thai flavours including bright lemongrass, salty fish sauce, sour tamarind and hot chilli, all mellowed by cooling coconut milk. It was comforting and head-clearing all at once. True to tradition, we ate it for days.
A few notes for the cook: there is a long list of ingredients in this soup, but you can get away with fewer. The kaffir lime leaves are optional and the lemongrass too (if you must), but don’t try to skip the lime. A teaspoon of powdered turmeric is fine if you can’t get fresh, and the tamarind is also optional provided that you amp up the lime juice to add a sour note. The soup easily becomes vegan if you substitute vegetable stock for chicken and tamari for fish sauce.
The most tedious part of this recipe is preparing the ingredients. Once that’s done, the soup comes together very quickly, so it is worth having everything washed, chopped and ready to be thrown into the pot at exactly the right time.
And finally, fresh coriander is often quite gritty so I wash it thoroughly by filling a large bowl with water and swishing the leaves gently about. The grit quickly falls to the bottom of the bowl and a second rinse with clean water will remove any final particles. Spread the washed coriander on a clean tea towel to air dry before roughly chopping. And leftovers will store in a sealed container in the fridge for a couple of days.
Thai Pumpkin Soup
2 Tbsp coconut oil
2 onions, diced
2 stalks lemongrass, cut in thirds
2-3 long red chillis, deseeded and sliced
1 bunch fresh coriander, stalks removed and diced; leaves reserved
2cm piece fresh ginger root, peeled and finely diced
2cm piece turmeric root, peeled and finely diced (or 1 1/2 tsp ground turmeric)
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
1.5kg pumpkin, peeled and cut into 2-3cm pieces
4 kaffir lime leaves
Peel from 1 fresh lime, removed in large strips
4 Tbsp fish sauce (or tamari)
2 tsp tamarind puree
2 litres chicken stock (or vegetable stock)
1 can (400ml) coconut milk or cream (reserve 50ml to serve)
Fresh lime juice and chopped fresh coriander leaves to serve
Once your ingredients are washed and chopped as directed, heat the coconut oil in a large saucepan over a medium-high heat. When the oil has melted and starts to shimmer, add the onions to the pan and sauté for 3-4 minutes until lightly softened (do not brown). Add the lemongrass, chilli, coriander stalks, ginger, turmeric and garlic to the pot, and sauté for another 3-4 minutes.
Add the pumpkin, kaffir lime leaves, lime peel, fish sauce, tamarind puree and chicken stock to the pot. Cover with a lid and bring to the boil. Turn the heat down and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the pumpkin is soft.
Using tongs, remove the lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and lime peel from the soup. Puree the soup until smooth, using a stick blender, regular blender or mouli, then add the coconut milk or cream. Taste, and adjust the flavours. I typically add extra fish sauce, extra tamarind puree and sometimes extra chilli (in the form of Tabasco Sauce) until the flavours are just right. Serve the soup with wedges of lime, a ripple of coconut milk and fistfuls of fresh coriander leaves.