Friday 11 July 2008

Pumpkin soup and history

When my sister Francesca lived in London in the mid-1990s, we asked for requests for foods from home (Melbourne) when a friend was visiting her. Among other things, she asked for a tin of pumpkin soup because it was so hard to find. I was astounded. Surely pumpkin soup was an everyday food!

Later, when I lived in the UK I learnt that while pumpkin is like mother’s milk to an Australian, it is pig feed in the UK. Pumpkin soup in Australian cafes is often jazzed up with exotic spices but in the UK the very idea of pumpkin soup seems exotic.

Indeed in Europe pumpkins were a curiosity when brought back from the Americas in the 1500s. Perhaps this is why they features in fairy tales (Cinderella) and nursery rhymes (Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater). The name comes from ‘pepon’, a greek word for large melon. Pumpkins are a fruit which are part of the squash family. Not just a fruit but a berry, albeit the only one with such a hard outer shell.

So it should be no surprise to find that it seems to be used like a fruit for cakes and pies in the USA. Pumpkins originated in the Americas. Seeds have been found in Mexico from 7000-5500 BC. The English colonists ate so much of this fruit that the port of Boston was once known as Pumpkinshire. Pumpkin pie, jack o’ lanterns and pumpkin festivals have become part of the way of American life. Apparently 99% of pumpkins are sold for decoration but I think this must be only in America.

In Australia there is so much more to pumpkins than fairytales and festive food. I grew up eating pumpkin mashed or roasted beside my vegies, or in soups, casseroles and curries. We use them when baking scones, bread and biscuits. And I highly recommend them in quiche, burgers, mole, dips, risotto, pasta, cornbread, salads, chutney, pancakes and smoothies. Pumpkins are moist and sweet with a willingness to adapt to any dish. We even have pumpkin kitchen tips such as using pumpkin to thicken a stew or dusting leftover raw pumpkin with pepper to keep it fresh.

Pumpkins are available year round in all shapes. I buy it in large wedges and never see it sold as a puree in tins (as seems to be common in America). You need a good heavy chef’s knife to cut through it and a small knife to scrape out the seeds. Wiki says that most pumpkins have orange or yellow skins but most pumpkins I buy have dark grey or green skin.

When I was young we mostly ate was the large grey/blue-skinned Queensland Blue (photo above) and if we were feeling fancy we might have had a Butternut Pumpkin (which is known as Butternut Squash in other countries). Now Kent and Jap pumpkins (right hand photo) with their bright orange flesh and dark green skin are popular with shoppers, including myself. I took the top photo at a farmers market of heirloom pumpkins, which made me wonder if anyone had considered naming pumpkins after a giraffe.

So this has left me asking the question: where has the Australian love of pumpkins for dinner come from? When so many of our food habits come from America and Britain, why do we treat pumpkins as a regular vegetable rather than as pie fodder or pig feed? Have I discovered something that is uniquely Australian? Not an easy question to answer. It got me searching historic cookbooks, reading One Continuous Picnic and engaged in conversation with booksellers.

Michael Symons’ history of food in Australia, One Continuous Picnic, was the source of greatest insight into Australia’s love affair with pumpkins. The first mention of them in the book is on pp 34-35. In 1830 Alexander Harris describes the bounty of small Hawkesbury farmers. He says that the pumpkins were ‘as big as a large bucket’ and the chief vegetable in most households. It is mentioned again on p 107 in a childhood reminiscence of pumpkins appearing day after day in the 1850s. Then on p 164 there is a mention of pumpkin as one of the vegetables being recommended to be boiled on the side by a 1930s cookbook. It’s not much.

I decided the best way to find out the history of how Australians when pumpkins became popular was to search historic cookbooks. A 1970s history Two Hundred Years of Australian Cooking by Babette Hayes gives a disturbingly fascinating recipe and photo of possum cooked in pumpkin which seems to be from colonial Australia. Philip E Muskett, who wrote The Art of Living in Australia in 1893, gives a recipe for pumpkin soup (but so do British vegetarian cookbooks from the same era so it does not prove it is uniquely Australian). There is no mention of it at all in my Green and Gold Cookbook (c 1940s).

I find that pumpkin often gets paired with marrow. Marrow? Squash? Pumpkin? What is the difference? This is not my area of expertise but I have noticed that often American and Brits say squash where I would say pumpkin (eg butternut) so I think some confusion arises here. Colin Spencer says that pumpkins and marrows are part of the squash family. I always thought marrows and squash was softer than pumpkins.

In the 1950s/1960s Australian Cookery of Today Illustrated which gives recipes for steaming and stuffing marrows or pumpkins as well as jam, scones and tarts made from pumpkin. A Sanitarium recipe book from early 1950s gives recipes for pumpkin scones and pumpkin fritters which are sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon. Strangely enough this recipe is repeated in the Vegetarian section of a 1955 Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union (PMWU) of Victoria cookbook.

Very little mention of pumpkin soup and then on 4 October in 1961 there is an article in the Australian Women’s Weekly with a list of old time favourites that have been passed down the generations. At the top of the list is cream of pumpkin soup. Pumpkin soup also gets a place in The Women’s Weekly Best Ever Recipes (c1980s).

So I don’t really have any answers, but I do have more questions. I’ve had fun searching but I felt I finally had to stop and write. I have a few hunches. Colin Spencer’s comment that marrows (read ‘pumpkins’) are native to temperate and tropical climates suggests the Australian climate was just right for them. I once went to a student house that I had been told had a vegetable garden and it was merely an out of control pumpkin vine. But Denis Cotter describes pumpkin as ‘so damn useful’ and boldly claims that they grow so well in Ireland that they might have become part of the Irish culinary tradition if they had been discovered earlier.

I love Colin Spencer’s description of the colour as the pumpkin’s ‘greatest quality – that’s fiery russet or Van Gogh orange sets the table aflame’. He also says that large pumpkins were a common sight in London’s markets in the Nineteenth Century and that it was used to bulk out bread. Is this possibly where our love of pumpkin scones originated? I also found some fun facts about pumpkins including that they were once believed to cure snake bite and remove freckles, which also could have been quite useful in Australia.

Before I tell you about my recipe, I will lastly just mention the more modern appearances of pumpkins in our culture. The band Smashing Pumpkins, Jack the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town in The Nightmare before Christmas, and The Great Pumpkin who haunts Linus van Pelt in It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Surprisingly Shakespeare mentioned the vegetable with the old spelling in the Merry Wives of Windsor (c1600): ‘Go to, then: we'll use this unwholesome humidity, this gross watery pumpion; we'll teach him to know turtles from jays’. I don’t know what it means but he doesn’t sound like a fan of the stuff.

It seemed obvious that the recipe to post here was pumpkin soup. As I said above, it is something I grew up with. I originally decided I would post a recipe for pumpkin and lentil soup but it was too watery. I decided to go back to a basic recipe. I tried just pureeing pumpkin and onion in stock and it tasted just like pureed pumpkin. Too basic! So I looked for a recipe like we used to eat – no fancy vegies or spices added. The key seemed to be to add some potato. I also added some cream because I had some needing to be used but I found it made it quite rich. The result was delicious and velvety.

In the course of my searching pumpkin soup recipes I came across lots of ideas for flavourings so I thought I would list these to show just how versatile this recipe could be if you fancy something different. But I do recommend this recipe which is just what I suspect my ancestors might have cooked or eaten in a city café.

Pumpkin Soup
(Adapted from Best Recipes and Go for 2&5)
serves 4-6

1 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 clove garlic, roughly chopped
750g Jap pumpkin, peeled and diced
250g potatoes, diced
3½ cups stock (or water)
60 ml thickened cream (or yoghurt or coconut milk)
Salt and Pepper
Nutmeg to serve

- Fry onion in oil (or if you want a low fat version cook in a small amount of water)
- Place remaining ingredients, except cream, in a large saucepan.
- Simmer until vegetables are tender. (Approximately 15-20 minutes)
- Remove from heat.
- Blend with a stick blender until smooth.
- Add cream and stir through (do not boil after adding cream).
- Season to taste.
- Serve with a garnish of freshly grated nutmeg

- Method variations: make a roux to thicken the soup, roast the pumpkin for deeper flavour, mash or leave pumpkin in chunks for more texture
- Liquids: coconut milk, white wine, cream, yoghurt, buttermilk, sour cream, milk
- Flavourings: nutmeg, chives, rosemary, tarragon, cumin, coriander, bacon/facon, cinnamon, ginger, garlic, tahini, tomato paste, chicken noodle soup, lemon grass, chilli, curry powder, nut butters, parsley, sage
- Vegetables/fruits: corn, cauliflower, tomato, apple, sweet potato, potato, leeks
- Textures: lentils, beans, rice, pasta, wild rice, quinoa, walnuts, peanut butter
- Garnishes: chives, parsley, nutmegs, pears coated in maple syrup

And because I feel that our worldview of pumpkin is not know as well outside Australia, I am sending this to Simona from Briciole who is hosting Weekend Herb Blogging this week, the event founded by Kalyn from Kalyn's Kitchen.

See Louise's post for Pumpkin Day on 26 October 2011 for more global information about pumpkins.

On the stereo:
Country Songs for the Aussie Bloke – 30 Tracks and that’s No Crap: Various Artists


  1. 'Tis true - we're not big on pumpkin per se over here, but squash is pretty common in the winter months. Marrow - that's something else altogether. Much more bland and watery.

  2. Very interesting post for WHB! You might want to know that in the U.S. the word "pumpkin" only refers to one specific type of vegetable that's orange and used at Halloween. All the other varieties (like the one in your photo) are called winter squash here, or by specific squash names like butternut squash. I was very confused by this when I first started reading food blogs.

    The soup looks delicious! I haven't had soup like this but I love every type of winter squash!

  3. I love pumpkin and I am lucky that a lot of Italian recipes for pasta, gnocchi and risotto list it as ingredient.
    I have a lovely Dutch recipe that involves an infusion of ginger and vanilla pods in milk, mixed with cooked pumpkin flesh and onions.

  4. what a great post. we, in south india, eat pumpkin (both the pale white and yellow varieties) at least thrice a week. your soup has a glorious colour.

  5. Great post, Johanna. This may seem TOO simple, but as far as I know, the term "pumpkin" is used in North America ONLY for the large, orange type that one cuts eyes and mouths into for Halloween. The flesh is NOT sweet and that's the type we find pureed in cans. Everything else is called squash. The orange-flesh squash (like butternut or acorn) have sweet flesh that cooks up much like sweet potato (yam), and the others--zucchini, yellow squash, etc, are called "summer squash" and are not sweet when cooked. Most places you use "pumpkin" (as in pancakes, etc.) I'd use "squash" or sweet potato. Whatever; the soup looks great!! ;)

  6. Ah ha! You have prepared so many different meals with "pumpkin" I had started to conclude that you were often using what Americans call "squash". The photos are a great help in clearing up the cooking language barrier.

    In your first photo I recognize butternut squash and the smaller yellow ones with the green stripes are what we call delicata squash. The grayish ones sort of resemble acorn squash. We have these three squashes /pumpkins as well as others available year around. My favorite is the delicata.

    You are correct that Americans refer to them all as squash and not pumpkin. We reserve the term pumpkin for those huge orange ones used for decoration in the fall.

    Squash/pumpkin is so delicious and I'm certain your soup is as well!

  7. I absolutely adore the stuff. Pumpkin is big in New England too - even pumpkin ales in the fall. I really like any kind of squash!

  8. Before coming to Australia I'd never eaten pumpkin. I actually don't think I'd ever even seen a pumpkin. Maybe on Charlie Brown, but never in the flesh. We arrived here in 1988, when pumpkin soup was the height of fashion. And I thought what the hell is going on in this strange country?

    Then I tasted roasted pumpkin and got it. My appreciation and love of the pumpkin started from there. It's now a vegetable I buy every week at this time of year. My favourite way of cooking is tossing in heavy-duty spices and then roasting in the oven. This then gets added to salads, made into soup - or just eaten off the baking tray.

    Interesting post Johanna and I love the top picture - what a strange and curious vegetable it is.

  9. I am a big fan of pumpkin, though it's much to hot to think of soup right now, but I'll keep this in mind for the Fall. Your list of variations is tempting indeed.

  10. Very interesting and informative post. In the part of Italy where I grew up, pumpkins were grown to feed pigs. But in other parts of Italy they and other types of winter squash are used for cooking risotto, ravioli, etc. Your soup looks lovely.

  11. What an amazing post! I've learnt lots about pumpkins and squashes - and even marrows, which I had no idea were related. Marrows seem much more British and a classic of vegetable gardens. I remember being served a butternut squash at a college Christmas dinner in about 1995 and never even having heard of it before. I'm not sure I tasted it again until I travelled in South Africa and Australia in 1999. Now you do get it easily here, and I love it! I think we only call the Hallowe'en sort pumpkins too (and sadly I think most of them end up carved up for lanterns here as well), but you can get a much bigger variety of squashes now than you could a few years ago. I saw my first European-grown squash of the season today so I'm keen to try out some of your delicious recipes now!

  12. Thanks to everyone for their comments which have helped put pumpkin in an international context for me

    thanks AForkful - I always found even butternut pumpkin/squash hard to find in the UK - not sure if it has changed or if I expected too much

    thanks Kalyn - I am still trying to get my head around the term 'winter squash' but it is helpful to hear that at least some are pumpkins to me

    thanks Nathalia - I was aware when I was posting this that European and Asian countries seem to eat pumpkin more - I know it is such a great addition to lots of Italian cooking but am not familiar with Dutch dishes.

    thanks Bee - I am always delighted by the colour of pumpkin - and interested to hear just how common it is in South India

    thanks Ricki - it is strange to hear there is only one species called pumpkin in America - feels like there must be a more precise name for it given the amount of names we have for pumpkin here. And weird it is not sweet - maybe I should buy a can if they are still selling them in DJs dept store to try it?

    Thanks Lisa - very useful info - I am amazed that the yellow heirlooms are delicata squash you find quite commonly - I have never seen them before seeing them at the market but did try cooking with some and they were lovely but so yellow (rather than the orange I am used to)

    thanks Jenn - pumpkin ales sounds fascinating

    thanks Kathryn - I am sure roasted pumpkin was a revelation - it is still one of my favourite ways to eat it - glad you are a convert

    thanks Lisa - now your comment makes me wonder what chilled pumpkin soup would be like (that is chilled not chilli!)

    thanks Simona - it's interesting how the same food is used differently in different areas - wonder if it is because different soils produce different tastes???

    thanks Lysy - I will look forward to you posting some recipes with European squash - hope you post some photos of it uncooked to help me get a sense of it. I confess I am still a little confused about where marrows fit - seems even vegetable families have their odd relations :-)

  13. Ooooh, talk about giving me a hankering, I've a powerful desire for pumpkin soup! Reading this post has reminded me that I haven't made it once this winter...good thing I'm not out of time yet!

  14. thanks Ellie - isn't pumpkin soup warming winter food!

  15. Oh how I loved this post!! I've had all the same questions. I'm from the southern US and first had pumpkin (roasted in honey and butter) and then pumpkin soup, when I lived in Australia. Imagine my shock when I discovered where all this goodness came from, when him indoors brought home this huge BLUE thing!! When we cut into it I realized that the difference between the orange US jack-o-lantern pumpkin and ole Blue was more than the outside color . . . ole Blue has MUCH more meat in it! Perhaps that is why the American pumpkin came to be produced in a can and only used for pies - it would be a whole lot of cutting for very little return. So now I use all the things we call "squash" here, but I don't really think it is as tasty as the Blue. I'm thinking the "squashes" are sweeter, but since I don't have a Blue to compare it to, I'll have to leave it up to you to discover. Pumpkin soup that I have had over here is sweet, maybe because that's how the US does it - I just know it doesn't taste the same and I don't like it as much.

    The other pumpkin/squash curiosity in my life is that my grandma (who was from Ohio) used to serve us this orange mashed up stuff that you bought in the freezer section. I loved it and it was called squash. I used to buy it as a side dish in Florida to serve with a casserole she used to make. Well, I now live in New Orleans and I cannot find this stuff in the freezer section in any store that I have been to. So does that mean it is a northern dish only [which of course made its way to Florida, along with all the northerners]? And where did it originate? I don't have the answer.

    It appears we have pumpkin/squash mysteries over here, too. :)

  16. thank you for the history lesson and the pumpkin soup recipe, I thoroughly enjoyed the read.

  17. What size is your serving? I like this recipe. It looks so simple and easy to make! Thankyou for sharing.

    1. I am not sure of your question - do you mean how much volume is each serving - they are quite decent - I often will have it with bread for dinner but I don't measure it.

  18. I meant is it for a main meal, or an appetizer? A large bowl full or a smaller one? You answered my question when you said you have it for dinner!!Thanks!


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