Several years ago, when I was studying Russian in college (a skill that has since vanished into the winds of time, I should add), I came across an interesting cultural tidbit. My Russian teacher, an effusive and slightly eccentric woman from St Petersburg who had a penchant for excess eye makeup and short leather skirts, told us that Russians have an unusual philosophy about food that went completely against the grain of anything and everything I had heard before. She claimed that in Russia the prevailing wisdom is that one should consume foods that echo the temperature outside, since this is far less of a shock to the body's vital systems. "So consume plenty of hot tea in summer and ice cream in winter," she told us, "and you'll be healthy and robust until you're a hundred."
Unfortunately, she didn't come across as the most credible source on Russian folk wisdom, and I doubt anyone took her much more seriously than I did. Hot things in summer? Cold things in winter? This seemed like the ravings of a lunatic, particularly as my burgeoning culinary interest had exposed me to plenty of sources - cookbooks, magazines and television programs, chiefly - that advocated filling the summer table with ice-cold gazpachos, fresh tomato salads and endless pitchers of frosty drinks to beat the heat, while saving the promotion of hot and hearty dishes for the colder months. How on earth could the Russians think otherwise? Judging by the abysmally low position of Russian cuisine on the global preference scale, I decided to forget this piece of 'wisdom' as quickly as I could. And I did, until ten years later when we went to Jamaica.
You might recall how I mentioned in passing that Jamaicans love soup. I think, however, that I failed to stress just how much they love it. I would go so far as to say that soup to Jamaicans is like bread is to the French; in other words, they can't imagine a meal without it, and treat it not as a luxury or an afterthought, but as a staple. Indeed, on many restaurant menus in Jamaica, we were surprised to find soup listed not with the other appetizers but as a separate course, presumably to assuage any fears that you might be expected to forego your soup should another appetizer look tempting as well. In fancier restaurants these soup offerings could be anything, but were usually sophisticated, smooth and delicate - lobster bisque, puree of this-or-that, and of course the ubiquitous creamy pumpkin - while at humbler places it was pure belly-filler: pepperpot with pork and callaloo, red pea and potato, beef with dumplings. And of course, all of it was hot.
Well, naturally we assumed that no person in his or her right mind would want to eat hot soup in this merciless tropical climate, which is why we spent our first few days deliberately steering clear of that section of the menu. When it became clear that we were seriously handicapping ourselves with our soup avoidance (and there was nary a chilled soup in sight across the entire country, it seemed), I decided I would have to give in - at least once - and ignore my better climatic instincts, since after all, I was there to sample as much Jamaican food as possible. So one night, with some trepidation, I ordered and began to consume a bowl of very delicious but very hot soup - I can't remember exactly what sort - and before long the most remarkable realization came over me. In spite of all that steaming liquid in my belly, I actually felt cooler!
In an instant I realized why Jamaicans love soup so much, and why Russians drink hot tea in the summer. I don't know enough about biology to tell you why it works, but it does. Perhaps it all has to do with the temperature of the air suddenly being lower than the temperature in the stomach, or perhaps it is just the result of an explosion in sweat production that causes a skin-cooling surge in moisture evaporation, but whatever the reason for this miracle, I was thrilled to have discovered it, and never lost an opportunity to eat soup in Jamaica again. Which was a good thing too, since a few sweltering nights later, when we were staying at Marblue, Axel offered us a hot soup that turned out to be one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten: silky-sweet pumpkin enriched with the creamy richness of coconut and the haunting perfume of rum, everything set into sharp relief against a backbone of scotch bonnet. It was a soup for the history books - not to mention the permanent recipe file - whose secrets Axel was thankfully willing to share, and which I've been enjoying almost continuously for the last few weeks. And luckily, it is every bit as delicious in the altogether more benign warmth of a Scottish summer as it was in the sweltering heat of the tropics.
Before I give myself over completely to the belief that my Russian teacher knew what she was talking about, however, I have one more test to run. I'll give you a hint: it involves copious amounts of ice cream, and should commence in about five months. Then again, I just may start a little early on this one, since really, just because we embrace new philosophies doesn't mean we have to completely abandon our old ones.
Pumpkin, Coconut and Rum Soup
Source: adapted from Axel Wichterich at the Marblue Domicil in Treasure Beach, Jamaica
Yield: serves 6-8
Notes: Axel's secret 'trick' with this soup is to let it age for several hours (or even overnight) before serving it, and I have to agree that this really improves the flavor. If you don't have time for this, rest assured that it will still taste great (just try to save some leftovers so you can see what I mean). My colleagues were pretty blown away when I brought some of the soup in to work last week, although my friend Dharshi, upon hearing the ingredient list, did say "so it's kind of like a hot pumpkin colada." Pumpkin, coconut, rum - she may have a point there...
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium yellow onions, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 bunch scallions/spring onions (about 10), white and pale green parts only, sliced
about 2 lbs (1 kg) pumpkin flesh, peeled and cut into 2-inch cubes (you can substitute any flavorful winter squash such as butternut, kabocha, hubbard, etc)
2 large carrots, peeled and thickly sliced
1 scotch bonnet pepper, *carefully* stemmed and chopped (wear something on your hands!), or a few dashes scotch bonnet/habanero hot sauce (optional)
5-6 cups (about 1.5l) chicken or vegetable stock
1 can (14oz/400ml) coconut milk
salt and freshly-ground black pepper
2 tablespoons sugar (optional, you might find your squash makes the soup sweet enough)
1/3 cup (80ml) dark rum, or more to taste
additional sliced scallions or chives, for garnish
In a large, heavy-bottomed soup pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until just beginning to caramelize, about 20 minutes. Stir in the garlic and scallions and cook for another minute or two until softened. Add the cubed pumpkin, the carrots, scotch bonnet pepper, stock and coconut milk. Bring to a boil and turn down the heat to medium-low. Simmer, uncovered, for about 35-40 minutes, or until the vegetables are completely soft and the liquid has reduced slightly. Remove from the heat and puree, either in a blender (in batches, and with the lid clamped down tight), or with an immersion (stick) blender. Return to the pot, stir in the sugar, salt and pepper to taste, and the rum. Cover and set aside for several hours or overnight (in which case, refrigerate).
Just before serving, reheat the soup to boiling and let boil vigorously for 2-3 minutes. Serve hot with a garnish of thinly-sliced scallions or chives.