THE FEATURE – Super Bowls: Des Moines’ Favorite Soups

By Jim Duncan

Soup was likely discovered about 20,000 years ago, soon after the invention of waterproof clay pots. Because liquids were being boiled, bacteria were killed, and soups were considered medicinal. In 16th century Paris, street vendors sold “restaurants” — cheap soups advertised for restoring one’s health. When one such vendor moved into a storefront, the word started meaning a place to go to eat. Etymologically, all restaurants are soup kitchens.Relish Winter 2015 17

Medicinal wonders are still associated with soups. Chinese herbalists invariably prescribe a concoction of things that should be boiled and drunk for particular maladies. Bone broths in general, and chicken stocks in particular, have mythic reputations for restoring body and soul. In “Soup Can Make You Thin,” Fiona Kirk asserts that eating soups alone will help one lose weight because the liquids are filling, more so than when solid foods are eaten with glasses of water. This month, renowned chef Marco Canora introduced Brodo, New York City’s first take-out window devoted to stocks in coffee cups.

Mexican cuisine’s most famous soups are considered to be cures for hangovers. Menudo, found at some cafés and taquerias around town on weekends, is made with cow stomach in a red chile broth, usually with lime, onions, cilantro and oregano. It is so revered south of the border that Mexico is the world’s leading importer of cow stomach. Pozole is made with raw hominy, meat, chilies, lime and cabbage. There are dozens of variations, mostly regionalized within Mexico. Pozole is also mostly considered a weekend special here. Some versions in Des Moines are made with cow’s hooves.

America’s most popular creations — clam chowder and chili con carne — are just as complex. Most people are familiar with two distinctly different types of clam chowder: creamy Boston (or New England) style and tomato-based Manhattan style (which James Beard pillaged as “vegetable soup into which clams had accidentally fallen”). But food writer Susannah Chen has discovered at least seven additional regional styles in the U.S.

Great China’s shark’s fin soup is made with maw.

Great China’s shark’s fin soup is made with maw.

Most derive from the Scottish stew Cullen skink, which, like clam chowder, employs milk, onions, potatoes and herbs. However, it stars sold smoked haddock instead of clams. Most Des Moines chefs make Boston-style chowder, usually with bacon in a creamy base with clam broth, potatoes, onions and clams. It is often served with hexagon-shaped oyster crackers, which are sometimes used as a thickener instead of roux. The chowder served at places like Waterfront Seafood Bar & Grill, Splash, Wellman’s Pub, Raccoon River Brewing Company, Gateway Market, Skip’s, Nick’s and Chef’s Kitchen all comply to this type. Waterfront used to offer Manhattan-style, but no one bought it.

The three soup option at Trellis.

The three soup option at Trellis.

Other versions identified by Chen include Maine-style, which highlights fresh shellfish, potatoes, salt pork, onions, milk or cream and pepper without herbs or thickeners. Rhode Island red-style (also known as South County-style) has a clear broth base and is flavored by the largest of clams, quahogs. Rocky Point — or Crescent Park chowder — also from Rhode Island, is similar to Manhattan clam chowder without tomatoes. Hatteras Island-style, from North Carolina, is also made with clear broth, lots of cracked pepper and a slice of white bread as thickener. Minorcan-style, a hot tomato-based product made with datil — a fruity, habanero-like pepper — is found around St. Augustine, Florida. Boston-based Legal Seafood offers several different styles in their many restaurants and mail order service.

Chili con carne is purely American. It was most likely invented for cattle drives that originated in south Texas, out of necessity. Originally made with dried beef, dried chilies, dried beans, dried spices and suet, it was portable and far more palatable than freshly slaughtered (unaged) beef. The street vendor “chile queens” of San Antonio popularized the dish in the early 20th century.

Joe Tripp coaxes amazing flavors out of his squash soup.

Joe Tripp coaxes amazing flavors out of his squash soup.

Today, fights break out during arguments about how chili should be made. In 1999, the Chili Appreciation Society International forebode the use of beans in competitions. Tomatoes are another ingredient that people argue about. Des Moines’ old-style Greek American chili parlors — like George the Chili King and Ted’s Coney Island — use neither tomatoes nor beans. Most other places use both. Chili verde, popular in most Mexican restaurants in town, uses tomatillos, garlic, roasted green chilies and slow-cooked pork shoulder (sometimes chicken) instead of beef. The spiciness of this chili is adjusted with use of poblano, jalapeño, serrano and even habanero peppers. White chili is made with white beans and usually turkey or chicken breast.

Des Moines’ soup culture reflects the city’s ethnic and culinary character. Some of the most reliably excellent

The sumo ramen at Akebono 555.

The sumo ramen at Akebono 555.

soups in town are found in Asian cafés. Vietnamese places like Pho 888, H’s Pho & Restaurant, TNT, Café Lily, Rolling Wok, A Dong, Fuzion, Aroy-Dee, Fawn’s, Nut Pob, Saigon Café, Pho Saigon, Pho 515, H Pho, Pho Café in C Fresh Market (a hangout for several of the best chefs in town), Golden Triangle and Pho All Seasons all make beef stock from bones, usually a 12-hour process that produces a nutritional broth that some anthropologists credit for turning Neanderthals into humans. A bowl of pho also includes scallions, onions, bean sprouts, fresh basil, cilantro, chopped chilies and lime. One chooses among rare beef round roast, lean or fatty briskets, meatballs, tendon, tripe, flank steak, tofu, chicken and seafood for toppings. This feast in a bowl is economical, usually $6–$9 depending on size of bowl. At Café Lily, Salween Thai and H’s Pho, pork bone stock is also served in the same mode, a variation more popular in Laos than Vietnam. Some places (Salween, Rolling Wok, etc.) offer the option of a spoonful of blood in their soups.

Soups at local Thai restaurants are based on chicken stock cooked with lemongrass, basil and kaffir lime leaves. Napa cabbage and mushrooms are added along with a choice of meats, though chicken is most popular. Tom kha versions add coconut milk, tom yums do not. King & I, Thai Flavors, Lemongrass, Nut Pob, Blu, Cool Basil, Salween Thai and Zuzap all offer superb Thai soups. A similar soup is featured at Baru at the Des Moines Art Center.

Sam Auen won “most creative dish” at Battledish for this miso-based dish with homemade ramen. Coming soon to Krunkwich.

Sam Auen won “most creative dish” at Battledish for this
miso-based dish with homemade ramen. Coming soon to
Krunkwich.

Most Indian and Pakistani cafés in town serve a version of mulligatawny soup. That was an invention of the British in India, who needed to eat soup as a first course and added meats and poultry to Tamil “pepper water” and vegetables. Both concepts were unheard of in South India at the time. Japanese cafés offer the subtlest of vegetarian soups, based around soybean, seaweed and bonito (fish) stocks.

Some of the world’s most luxurious soups are Chinese. Bird’s nest soup is rarely seen in Des Moines, but shark’s fin is. At Great China, chef Cheng’s version is made French Laundry style, duplicating the texture of shark’s fin (which has no taste) without consuming any part of an endangered species. He substitutes fish maw, which, like shark’s fin, is a member of the “Big Four” luxury foods of Chinese tradition. These are individually ladled tableside. Rich chicken stock is topped with a meringue of egg whites. Scallions are sliced into tiny needles.

The most luxurious European style soups are made with veal stocks and glaces. Ankeny’s New Horizon is one of America’s premier makers of glaces and demiglaces, which are reduced and concentrated bone stocks. I have seen their frozen products at Whole Foods and in some of the town’s best restaurant pantries. Using them at home, I cannot tell the difference between them and my homemade bone stocks. That’s not the case with inferior bouillons and canned “stocks.” French onion soup is the pho of Europe. Superb versions are served at Baru 66, Bistro Montage and Django. They use various combinations of veal and beef stock with caramelized onions, sherry or brandy. They are finished with croutons and cheese on top and placed under a broiler.

Pho, like this version from Pho All Seasons, is the French onion soup of Asia.

Pho, like this version from Pho All Seasons, is the French onion soup of Asia.

Iowa also has some history with soups famous for their economy. Chicken and noodles (or dumplings) was popularized during the Great Depression, touted by President Herbert Hoover and his wife Lou as a way to stretch food dollars. Probably the most famous chicken and noodles in Des Moines are made, as a special, at Tursi’s Latin King. HoQ makes an excellent version with free-range chickens. Also during the Depression, the U.S. Senate ordered that navy bean soup be served every day in the Congressional dining room. That mandate remains in effect. Whole Foods, Django and the Culver’s chain all make excellent versions of this soup with ham.

The most Iowan of soups has to be squash. The state is the source of several heirloom squashes, including the mother of the acorn squash. David Baruthio (Baru 66) and Joe Tripp (Alba) coax amazing flavors out of squash soups and soups in general. Superb vegetarian soups are found at Fresh Market Café and Trellis in the Des Moines Botanical Center. Trellis’ Lisa LaValle specializes in vegetable stocks of complexity, and her café offers two and three soup lunch specials, so one need not choose among temptations. RELISH

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