Jewish tradition of chilled soups

Why Cold Soups Are Actually Really Jewish

Beyond borscht, Jews all over the world have a tradition of seasonal chilled soups for summer.

When my 7-year-old son and I traveled to Budapest in 2002, we arrived at my friend Katalin’s non-air-conditioned flat at 11 a.m. It was already over 90 degrees F. We could barely make it up the five flights to her place after some 30 hours of travel, but of course we were also hungry. Katalin, the daughter of Holocaust survivors who returned to Budapest after the war, had anticipated what our condition would be and prepared something I had never had before — a totally refreshing cold cherry soup, spiced with cinnamon and cloves and thickened with sour cream. I was hooked.

Since then, every summer I make my own, much less labor-intensive version of cold cherry soup. Unlike Katalin, who stood for hours pitting the deeply scarlet fresh sour cherries (for which I am still grateful), I use a mix of frozen and jarred pitted sour cherries in syrup. Since the jars are imported from Hungary, I feel somehow connected to the traditional recipe.

You might not know this, but Jews have a long tradition of cold summer soups. Central Europeans, especially Hungarians and Romanians, are known for fruit soups cooked, then chilled, like the cherry soup. Think compotes of summer stone fruits like peaches, cherries, and plums, sometimes apples or pears, sweetened with just enough sugar to enhance the fruit. The pareve soups are flavored with various combinations of cinnamon, cloves, vanilla, and lemon juice, and thinned with water or wine. Once chilled, sour cream is often added before serving the refreshing dish as an appetizer or the meal itself with some good bread.

Russian Jews, who favor more savory cold soups, are known for beet borscht and schav, a soup made from sorrel. Also called sour grass, sorrel is a tangy herb with leaves that look like spinach. Its sour taste comes from oxalic acid, which also gives rhubarb its tartness. Sorrel was used to brighten the taste of heavy foods in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Later the French planted it to use for flavor as well as medicinally, as it aids digestion and treats liver problems, among other healing qualities.

Sorrel grows wild in Eastern Europe from April through June and can be found in the U.S., thriving in all kinds of conditions. Although you can forage for it, most of us head to farmers markets to find some sold in bunches. Poor Russian Jewish peasants usually added potatoes and sour cream to their schav for a hearty meal served with dark bread. If there was an egg to spare, it went in, too. Today, schav recipes mostly include eggs and lemons as well as sour cream. Many leave out the potatoes for a lighter dish.

And then there’s the famous — or infamous, depending on your point of view — borscht. Beets, like potatoes, are a root vegetable that thrives even in imperfect growing conditions, and both keep well in cellars over long, cold winters. Borscht is traditionally made with just beets and onions and perhaps some dill from the garden. In order to serve both borscht and schav with sour cream, the Jewish version was made vegetarian while non-Jewish neighbors added meat.

You can make a flavorful version of borscht (nothing at all like the one found in jars on grocery store shelves) by adding a carrot, a clove of fresh garlic, some fresh or dried dill, and a pinch of sugar to a pot with a few peeled beets and an onion, all cut into chunks. Cover with water, cook until soft, and then puree the mixture. Serve it very cold with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt and some chopped chives or fresh dill. Just don’t call it borscht. If you call it chilled summer beet soup, those at your table will have a more open mind and find the soup surprisingly good.

The Jewish tradition of cold soups is not just an Ashkenazi thing. Chilled yogurt and cucumber soups have been eaten as long as remembered in Syria, Persia/Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and most countries of the Middle East, each adding variations to the basic yogurt-cucumber-garlic mixture, diluted with a little milk or water. As Poopa Dweck says in her wonderful Aromas of Aleppo, the ”silky texture… and delightfully cool sensation on the gums” make it a favorite of everyone from teething babies to the elderly.

An Egyptian version of the soup is cooked with onion, spinach, and rice before mixing in yogurt, cucumber, and mint. Other variations added to the cold soup include seedless grapes, raisins, pickled cucumbers, scallions, or ground nuts with the amount and types of herbs and garlic depending on availability and personal preference.

A long-time fan of cold soups, I serve them often, joining a long and delicious Jewish warm-weather tradition.

A few chilled soup recipes to try:

Traditional Sour Cherry Soup



Hungarian Fruit Soup

Chilled Cucumber Soup

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