Soups were once served as healthy restoratives to invalids with poor appetites who needed some warming, nourishing goodness.
They were also a useful way for frugal cooks to extract as much goodness as possible out of ingredients – leftover bones and vegetable trimmings were boiled in water to extract their flavour and nourishment so that nothing went to waste. With a few simple ingredients added they were appetite-stimulating first courses, or with some heartier additions (often leftover bread or other inexpensive carbohydrates such as pasta, rice or noodles) they became a more filling one-dish meal.
Today soups are popular in virtually every cuisine and a number of traditional ones feature seafood. French seafood soups range from simple prawn bisque, with the flavour extracted from prawn shells, to the elaborate bouillabaisse of southern France, a variation of the seafood soups popular all over the Mediterranean, traditionally made by fishermen cooking whatever they couldn’t sell from their daily catch.
Asian seafood soups include light crab and sweetcorn soup, popular as a first course in Chinese restaurants, to the substantial noodle laksas of Singapore and Malaysia, which are a meal in themselves. Soup is an integral part of Thai cuisine, where it is sipped throughout the meal. Hot and sour soup (tom yum) is a popular Thai soup which often contains seafood. ‘Tom’ means to boil and ‘yum’ to toss together, and these soups can be as basic or as complex as the cook wishes, but will always be flavoured with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves and seasoned with chilli for heat, lime juice for sourness and fish sauce for saltiness.
Clam chowder, a hearty seafood soup from the northeast coast of North America, likely derives its name from the cast-iron cooking cauldrons, called ‘chaudières’, used by early French settlers in Canada. It’s now most commonly associated with New England and its long, cold Atlantic shoreline perfect for gathering clams. It didn’t take the early American settlers long to realise that clams too large and tough to be eaten whole could be chopped up, mixed with potato, onion, and a little salt pork, and the dish enriched with milk, to create a hearty, filling main course dish halfway between a soup and a stew.