Tuesday 10 June 2008

Split Pea Soup goes Asian

Recently I made a split pea soup to imitate the pea and ham soups that my mum used to make for me. On the weekend I made a split pea soup with an Asian makeover which was equally tasty but worlds away from my childhood.

In fact it made me think about Michael Pollan’s directions not to eat anything your great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food. She wouldn’t recognise this soup, although I know that he is referring to what is edible rather than what is recognizable. But it did make me think. What if I showed her a star anise or a piece of seaweed? Would any of my ancestors think you could eat them? Even within my own modern household, E is wary enough.

I have seen Michael Pollan’s books (The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defence of Food) in the stores and been tempted but it was only when other bloggers mentioned him being in town, that I read this New York Times article online. I like his stuff. He talks about the complexity of food and nutrition and he suggests we have not yet unlocked all the mysteries of the carrot’s soul. He reminds us that we are just part of a larger picture that depends upon the whole food web being healthy for our own survival. His wisdom is quite obvious – such as the reminder that the more a food is promoted as healthy, the less likely it is to be compared to fresh food – but a welcome reminder to think about what we are told by corporations. His refrain is: eat food, mostly plants, not too much.

His ideas reinforced mine. I agree with him that I should use gut instinct rather than in-depth nutritional knowledge to work out what to eat. Admittedly my inclination is partly laziness but I like his suggestion that we treat food as a relationship rather than a medicine. This resonates with my interest in food history. Best of all I am pleased to see him suggesting we eat less meat. I know that the world is not going to turn vegetarian (or at least not overnight) but it disappoints me that there is so little discussion of reducing meat consumption when people talk about green issues. So maybe I will buy one of his books.

But back to my soup. I really do find the star anise an odd object. Most like something you might find on a beach than a food of any sort. Pretty to look at but more ornamental than flavoursome. It is the first time I have used it. So E and I stood in the kitchen marveling at its beauty and smelling its scent. E wasn’t too keen on a liquorice soup.

But the soup was not reeking of liquorice at all. It was tasty, thick and warming with hints of shitake, soy sauce and ginger. The delicate greenery of watercress and spring onions plus the chewy slivers of shitake mushrooms give it a more complex texture than the hearty heaviness of the more traditional split pea soup. Maybe it tasted even better because we waited until my pumpkin bread came out of the oven. An intense and interesting soup with freshly baked bread gives such simple and satisfying pleasure.

I made this soup for Holler and Lisa’s No Croutons Required event. This month Lisa is host and has asked us to make a soup or salad with legumes. For this event I wanted my soup to look as amazing as it tasted and so I used my star anise to garnish it. If you wish to do so, remember it is pretty to look at but not edible so remove before digging your spoon in. Maybe you might say that my great great grandmother would have been right about that. Aren’t they always!

Shitake and Star Anise Split Pea Soup
(from The New Vegan Cookbook by Lorna Sass)
Serves 4

- 1 oz dried shitake mushrooms
- 2 whole small star anise ‘flowers’
- 2 cups boiling water plus 4 cups additional water
- 1 tbsp peanut oil (I used canola oil)
- 5 spring onions chopped, white and green parts kept separate
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 2 tsp crushed garlic
- ¼ cup dry sherry
- 1½ cups split peas, picked over and rinsed
- ½ tsp salt
- Chunk of fresh ginger (2-3 inch was enough for me)
- 2 to 3 cups loosely packed watercress leaves (from 1 average bunch) or spinach
- 1 tbsp Japanese soy sauce
- 1½ tsp toasted sesame oil – optional
- 1 tbsp black sesame seeds for garnish – optional

Place the shitake and star anise in a small bowl or measuring jug and pour 2 cups of boiling water over them and leave for about 10 minutes or until the shitake to soften. If your shitake mushrooms are whole, remove from water and slice thinly. Return to water and set aside.

Heat the oil in a medium-to-large saucepan. Fry the onion, white part of the spring onion and garlic over medium high heat for about 2 minutes or til they start to soften. Add the sherry and cook over high heat for about 30 seconds or til most of the liquid has evaporated.

Add 4 cups water, sherry, split peas, salt and shitake/star anise water that was set aside. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for about 50-60 minutes or til split peas are soft and mushy. Stir occasionally and taste from time to time to check if enough flavour released from star anise. Remove star anise early if required but I just removed them when the peas were cooked.

While the soup is cooking prepare the ginger juice by finely grating the fresh ginger and squeezing it between your fingers til you have made up 1 tbsp. Discard the wad of ginger pulp. The juice made by my ginger was cloudy and amazingly yellow. Set aside.

When the peas are cooked remove star anise and stir the soup to encourage the peas to dissolve and thicken it. About 5 minutes before serving add the watercress (keep a few sprigs aside for garnish if desired), spring onion greens, soy sauce, ginger juice and sesame oil. Cook until greens have wilted. Serve garnished with toasted black sesame seeds and a few sprigs of watercress (and star anise if you are aiming to impress).

On the stereo:
Greatest Irish Bands: Various Artists


  1. What an interesting sounding soup! The first recipe I ever made in my first apartment was ham and pea soup for some weird reason--I think I'd like this version better (though I'm not a fan of anise per se--had no idea it wasn't edible whole!).

    Glad you like Pollan--from what little I've read, I like his views as well. (Grandma would like him, too, I imagine!).

  2. What a pretty-looking soup! I will take inspiration from you to try to make mine look a bit different from each other! I've only ever used star anise in biscotti and a marinade for roasted veggies, so this looks very interesting. Split pea soups are one of my favourites too - except for the one in Moosewood Low Fat Favourites, which unexpectedly blows your head off. I like the sound of an Asian-inspired version very much.

  3. What an interesting take on this calssic soup. I would have never come up with that in a million years! I think you have a real winner here.

    I loved this post so much for so many reasons. I love the soup, I love that you used star anise, something I like to just look at, and your discussion about Pollan. I have not read his books yet either, but hear so much about them that I tend to agree with. I have just put one on reserve at the library.

  4. I do like his ideas and writing. I could be very happy without meat ever again. My husband would not but he has come to appreciate less meat. I try to have most of our meals be veggies (and fruit) are the main amounts and a much smaller amount of meat is a secondary dish but a flavor complement.
    The soup looks excellent.

  5. Wow, that's a lot fancier than the Dutch-style split pea soup I've been making! Looks tasty...

  6. Though my cupboard is overflowing with spices, star anise is not something I have tried. Thanks for this interesting entry Johanna. Lovely pictures and I'm thrilled that it includes mushrooms :)

  7. Right up my alley, this. Stunning. Star anise are the prettiest of spices, I reckon.

    Thing I like about Pollan is that he just makes sense. Eating well diesn't need to be a science.

    Might give this a go on the weekend.

  8. Perfect and interesting and makes it a full meal. I would love for you to send a recipe to my ONE DISH MEAL event. The details for the event are in my site or the link below http://www.archanaskitchen.com/2008/uncategorized/monthly-one-dish-event-meals/

  9. So pretty! And what a great variation on a classic!

  10. Thanks Ricki - I think I like this version better than a more traditional pea soup (but both are great). I did discover that star anise really isn't edible when I nibbled on a little of it that had fallen off when I mistook it for a pumpkin seed (don't ask!)

    thanks Lysy - now that I have started to use star anise I am interested in the idea of it in roasted vegies - is that on your blog? I am sure you would enjoy it in split pea soup and it is such a pretty garnish

    Thanks Jenn - it is an unusual one but so so so good - but I also would never have thought it would work - hurrah for inspiring cook books from the library - I should also see if the pollan books are in my library - thanks for the idea!

    Thanks Tanna - I think many people are less meat these dayseven if they don't do the vegetarian thing and I think that is great. I am sure you are helping your husband have a healthier diet! I do find Michael Pollan's suggestion that meat should just be a flavour an interesting one.

    thanks Lisa - it does feel a little fancy because so unlike my usual split pea soups too but it easy as well as tasty

    thanks Lisa - I was pleasantly surprised by the star anise - am sure you would enjoy it (I bought it because I am hoping to make vietnamese pho soup one of these days and because it looks so pretty)

    thanks Lucy - let me know how it goes if you do try it - hope you love it as much as me - and yes pollan does seem just full of common sense

    thanks Archana - will have a look at your event and have a think about one dish dinners (funny that I often forget about soups when I think of this category)

    thanks Ann - who would have thought split pea soup could look pretty :-)

  11. This sounds wonderful, I love pea/lentil soups and I love Asian flavours. It also has the advantage that I have the vast majority of the ingredients that I am currently trying to use up in my great Store Cupboard Clear Out Challenge.

  12. thanks Hippolyra - always happy to help out a fellow blogger who has store cupboard ingredients to use up!

  13. I saw your recipe from the round up. Sounds delicious.


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