What Is Soup?
We’ve all had soup. We all can tell each other if we’re eating or looking at soup. But when you really sit down and think about it, it’s not unlike a sandwich. Ergo, everyone probably has a slightly different definition for what soup is. Everyone has had the “are hot dogs sandwiches” argument at some point because on some level, the definition is a little bit nebulous.
So before we look into technical definitions, let’s break soup down into its component parts. There’s a base, and it’s going to be liquid. In that liquid, you’re going to put some things in there, and then you eat it with a spoon.
Except then that would technically make milk and cereal a soup and that’s probably an uncomfortable idea to a lot of people.
But Merriam-Webster tells us soups are liquid foods with some kind of stock (vegetables, meat, etc.) often containing solid food. It also tells us that soup is anything that has qualities or the consistency of soup. Which is 100% meaningless and now we’re going to have to go deeper.
Further reading: What Is a Sandwich?
If we trace the etymology of the word “soup” all the way back, to very early language, we end up with Germanic roots. Soup then made its way over to Latin as “suppa,” then to French as “soupe.” For those wondering, the same roots also spawned the word “sop,” which is the piece of bread you might soak into your soups and stews for consumption. As such, the original Latin “suppa” also refers to what we now call “sop.” It’s a bit of a tangle.
For the origin of the actual dish, the earliest consumption of soup goes very far back. To preface, soup can by definition be served cold, so at face value it might not seem very impressive that soup goes so far back, considering that throwing some plants you dug up into water isn’t hard and qualifies as “soup.”
But no, here we mean boiled soup. Served hot. In fact, it’s possible that the origins of hot soup go back to when Neanderthals walked the Earth with us. We can safely say that soup goes back at a good minimum of 25,000 years.
Turns out, the French have a lot of subcategories for soup that (generally) made their way over to English. They broke things down into clear and thick soups, where your clear varieties are bouillons and consommé. Thick soups are broken down by what was used to thicken the base, a purée is thickened with starch, while a bisque is thickened with cream thickened vegetables or puréed fish (bisques have a little inception going on).
There’s some more fun stuff with soup now that it has been widely commercialized too (this happened around the 19th Century with the widespread ability to can things).
You have canned soups, which are those Campbell’s cans you can buy at the local grocery store that you can heat up and just eat as is. But there’s also dry soup, which everyone likely recognizes, but might not have ever called dry soup given that soup is traditionally wet. These are your bouillon cubes and insta-ramen flavor packs that you shove into some hot water (and then pretend you “cooked” dinner when your friends asked what your meal plan was). Granted, you do consume dry soup wet, so they’re technically not dry by the time it’s time for dinner. We digress.
But What about Stews?
It’d be understandable to think that soups and stews are synonymous. After all, they have a liquid broth/stock base put together with some solids. Too bad the origins of the words are completely different and stews are something else.
By definition, a stew has far more solid than a liquid soup. To simplify, a soup’s defining feature is the liquid, where a stew’s is not.
For those curious, the origins of “stew” are a little spicier than the simple translations up through Germanic linguistic family. The word was originally a colloquial term for public steam baths. That’s not too far off base, given that “stew” as a verb referred to steaming before it referred to cooking. Once stew made the leap to also mean cooking, it didn’t take long for “stew” to become a dish.
Oh, and there’s one thing we didn’t tell you. Because of the word’s origins referring to public bathhouses, the word did refer to brothels as well. Enjoy that next time you have some beef stroganoff.
In the mood for more things soup? We can’t send you any, but you can look at some pictures with this quiz.