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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

A bowl of soup and a spot of cultural exchange

Deborah Williams on bone broth soup, globalisation and raising teenage boys

A bowl of soup reminds Deborah Lindsay Williams that the Arab peninsula has always been a place of exchange. Getty Images
A bowl of soup reminds Deborah Lindsay Williams that the Arab peninsula has always been a place of exchange. Getty Images

It’s the eternal question and it strikes dread into the most hardened soul: “what’s for dinner?”

If you are blessed with teenage boys, as I am, that question gets asked with an urgency usually reserved for emergency surgeries or natural disasters. “You don’t understand,” one of my sons said to me. “It’s like there’s a wolf in my stomach, chewing on me. Please, please, what’s going to be for dinner, and when?”

He asked this question an hour after lunch.

But even if you don’t have teenagers at home, or small children, who become feral between the hours of 4 and 8pm, turning that four-hour span into an eternity, the question of what’s for dinner is an endless bother, especially during the week.

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Do you get a delivery and thus ask some poor devil to risk life and limb on a motorbike to satisfy your shawarma needs? Satiate your hunger with yet another toasted cheese sandwich, or perhaps yesterday’s leftover chicken, or simply give up and plunk down on the couch with a tub of ice cream?

I decided the other day that my answer to the inevitable question would be to make soup. My husband had come home earlier in the week with a sloshing bag of “bone broth,” the new foodie sensation that apparently does just about everything short of cure cancer. Granted, your grandmother probably called bone broth just “broth”, (demonstrating yet again that one should always listen to one’s granny), but now bone broth is a big deal and I had a bagful in my fridge. Thus: soup.

I wandered through the vegetable stalls at Lulu’s, marvelling at the way the entire world comes to roost in the supermarket. I scooped up a few carrots from Lebanon, onions from Spain, potatoes from Egypt, a handful of parsley from a farm in Al Ain, and an orange pepper from Holland. I couldn’t resist the sculptural beauty of a giant cauliflower from Iran so I got that too, although I know that my children, no matter how ravenous, won’t eat it. Little do they know what they’re missing: charred cauliflower florets, tossed with smoked paprika, lime and a little bit of labneh, are about the best thing in the world, equally good for lunch or dinner.

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In New York at this time of the year, soup-making is usually accompanied by crisp autumnal air, leaves turning from green to scarlet, and increasingly shorter days. I get my vegetables in the farmers’ market, where all the veggies come from farms within a 200 kilometre radius of Manhattan: a local soup rather than Abu Dhabi’s international mélange. This fall, it’s been almost as warm in New York as it is here, which must be great for strolling in the city, but terrible for the farmers’ growing seasons.

It’s hard to avoid metaphors when you’re making soup, whether your ingredients come from a nearby farm or a faraway country. Probably I should think more about my cooking and less about language, but soup makes it difficult: have I made “stone soup”, pooling together meagre resources into a nourishing whole? Maybe a cosmopolitan soup in which different things float happily alongside one another suspended in a unifying broth? Is soup a better metaphor for a nation than a “gorgeous mosaic” or a “melting pot”? Or is soup a form of liquid caretaking, as in the end of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, when Max in his wolf suit returns from his “wild rumpus” to find a bowl of still-warm soup waiting for him?

This bowl of soup reminds me that the Arabian peninsula has always been a place of exchange, a place where far-flung people came together briefly and then went their separate ways, altered by the exchange.

As if to highlight that fact, consider what I served alongside my soup: tortillas. Hand-made in Ajman. Even the wolves were satisfied.