“Why?” asked Strike heavily.
“Why what?” said Robin, looking up at him.
“Why do people do this?”
“Blog, you mean? I don’t know…didn’t someone once say that the unexamined life isn’t worth living?”
“Yeah, Plato,” said Strike, “but this isn’t examining a life, it’s exhibiting it.” –The Silkworm (Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling)
When I read these lines in The Silkworm a few weeks ago, I felt a flash of recognition. Strike’s question is one I’ve asked myself a thousand times, maybe even more. Although I like blogging, I long ago realized that I’m the kind of person who is going to question the why of things–the driving impulse behind certain behaviors, the attachment to authors and hobbies, rather than be satisfied with the status quo and merrily prance along (you can take the girl out of the Russian major, but not the Russian major out of the girl, I suppose).
Truth be told, I haven’t entirely felt all that inspired by this space lately, or maybe a better way of putting it is to say that I haven’t felt compelled to be here in the same way that I often was in the past. I’m sure that this feeling partly stems from my more limited free time (it’s true that a Ph.D., even during the dissertation years, affords a certain freedom that doesn’t exist in the “Real World”), but if I go beyond the changes that have taken place in my life over the past several months, I know that there’s more to it than that. For a long time now, I’ve been noticing that the internet has been undergoing a transformation and has increasingly started to resemble a virtual shopping mall. No matter where you turn, something is being sold; you’re bombarded by advertisements, book promotions, pictures of products you can’t possibly live without! While I recognize that a lot of people make their livings off of these books, products and advertising campaigns, it’s still a lot to swallow, especially when you think that people first came online to escape these very things.
Maybe this is why the internet’s atmosphere has begun to feel different, too–at least in the world of food blogging (technically, this is a food blog, but sometimes I’m not so sure). It now seems that everything is about buying and branding, instead of about real people, real food and real conditions of daily life. Whereas once food blogs, at least to me, were about weekend baking projects and the eternal question of “what to have for dinner?”, what currently appears to exist is a world of endless hashtagging, constant (self-)promotion and styled images. It can all become a little daunting, especially considering that in this world both the image and “curated” experience reign supreme. As somebody who puts more stock in words and stories than in images (substance over style, if you will), there’s something truly off-putting about the rise of Pinterest and styling food until it almost looks too pretty to eat. While my grandma always told me that food should look appetizing and should appeal to the eyes, I think maybe the internet has taken it all a bit too far. Never forget that behind every beautiful shot of a platter of vegetables or a perfectly frosted cake lurks a stack of dirty dishes and a whole lot of effort.
Having said all of that, I think it’s only fair to address why I keep blogging. The simple truth is that I like the challenge of turning the pristine whiteness that each post begins as into an organized mess of words. There’s also something to be said for the discipline of writing–of having a space to think through your experiences and to keep track of your life through different flavors, cultures and scents. And, when we get down to the heart of the matter, this is also where I get the chance to keep my researching teeth sharp. I’ve always enjoyed the hunt for information, the “excavation” of facts or moments of cross-cultural exchange found in old books that could potentially be lost. It’s both the search for and promise of new–really, old–recipes that keeps me coming back.
The recipe that I’m about to share, Persian Cream of Barley Soup (Soop-e Jo), is a fine example of this. When I first found it in Margaret Shaida’s The Legendary Cuisine of Persia (1992), I was drawn not only to the short list of ingredients (which included a whole grain), but also to its back story. In her headnote, Shaida, a Brit who married an Iranian and lived in Iran for 25 years, wrote that she “…suspect[ed] that this soup entered Iran in the early part of the this century, along with the White Russians fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution. It’s Persian name soop implies an alien background.”
Considering the ingredients (pearl barley, leeks, onions, carrots and lemon juice), I couldn’t quite figure out which Russian soup this could be, but I was determined to try it and see if its taste would trigger memories of my time in St. Petersburg. My host mother wasn’t a person who enjoyed cooking, but even so, she took pride in her soups. She knew they were hearty, soothing and essential on cold winter days. While I found the steady diet of meat patties, hot dogs and fried pasta to be more than a little depressing, I always welcomed the first course, a soup, which I knew would be the best part of the meal.
When I finally made this soup one day last fall and took my first bite, I expected not to know what it was. But, thanks to its bright and tangy flavor from an ample amount of lemon juice, my recognition was instantaneous. I could have been sitting at my host mother’s tiny red-checked table in Petersburg as I exclaimed to the Greek that this must be a Persian adaptation of Russia’s national soup, shchi (as the saying goes, “Shchi da kasha, pishcha nasha” [Shchi and kasha are our food]). For those of you who have never had this soup, shchi is traditionally made with cabbage or sauerkraut (the kind made with sauerkraut is often called kislye, which means sour), although, according to Anya von Bremzen, an authority on Russian cuisine, shchi has historically been made with a range of ingredients, from fish to sorrel. I immediately imagined that this must have been the recipe that a beautiful White Russian lady in her one remaining fur coat came up with when she found herself far from home and in search of its familiar taste.
As a friend and fellow Slavist pointed out to me, how hard could it have been for this lady to have found some cabbage in Iran? It’s a thought that I myself had had, but it turns out that the answer to our question could also be found in Shaida’s book. Shaida explains that, “Cabbage does not have a long history in Iran” and that white cabbage (“Turkish cabbage”) is more common in Iran than green cabbage (when you consider that, in Russian, white cabbage literally translates to cauliflower, the soup’s adaptation to Iranian ingredients begins to make more sense). I suppose this shows that what is ubiquitous and taken for granted in one culture is completely alien in another.
Although I love Russian shchi with its sour and rich cabbage flavor, I also find that the Persian take on this recipe, perhaps because it features the always subtle yet elegant leek, is just as good and equally comforting. Both soups are sharp and acidic, but in a way that is pleasant and not at all bracing. I would suggest that, if you’ve never tried either of these soups, you rectify this culinary mistake immediately. Believe me when I say that you’re missing out on something unique. It’s discoveries like these that still make me, despite all of my misgivings, want to blog.
Cream of Barley Soup (Persian Shchi or Soop-e Jo)
Adapted from Margaret Shaida’s The Legendary Cuisine of Persia
Yields about 6-8 servings
When you first look at the recipe as written by Shaida, you worry that you might never get to eat dinner. She first asks that you soak the barley for thirty minutes, which is easy enough since, while the barley is soaking, you can wash and chop all of the vegetables. But then things get a little more complicated: Shaida says that you should let the soup simmer gently for two hours; on a weeknight, this is next to impossible and, on a weekend, less so, but only with careful planning. If this seems as daunting to you as it initially did to me, let me assure you that the soup can be ready–the barley tender and the broth flavorful–in an hour and 15 minutes; I often let the barley soak for 45 minutes, sometimes even for an hour, which I find helps it to cook faster.
Also, while Shaida recommends using a good chicken stock for this soup, I’ve used vegetable stock (both homemade and Better than Bouillon) several times and haven’t been at all disappointed with the final product. The same can be said for the ingredients; although the combination of leeks, onions and carrots make for a fine soup, all leek and carrot is just as good. That said, I wouldn’t recommend sacrificing the leeks for an all onion soup; the leeks provide a nice textural balance to the mix.
The measurements I’ve provided below are rough estimates; a little more or a little less won’t hurt. Such is the beauty and simplicity of soup.
189 grams/6 ounces pearl barley
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium or large onion (7.5 ounces/213 grams)
2 medium leeks (260 grams/9.2 ounces)
salt and pepper, to taste
6 cups (3 pints/1 1/2 liters) vegetable stock
2 small or 1 large carrot (123 grams/4.3 ounces
juice of two lemons (about 1/3 to 1/2 cup)
sour cream or Greek yogurt, for serving
chopped parsley or dill, for serving
-Rinse the barley and let soak soak in a small bowl for 30-45 minutes.
-Cut the dark green parts from the leeks, remove their outer layer and wash well, submerging in a bowl of water if particularly dirty. Once clean, dry and chop finely. Then, set aside.
-Roughly chop the onion, then heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot (I prefer a Dutch oven) and add the chopped onion, frying for about 10 minutes, or until soft and golden.
-Add salt (at this stage, about 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt) and pepper (1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon) and stir.
-Drain the barley, then add it and the leeks to the pot. Stir until coated with oil, then add the stock and stir.
-Cover, bring back to a boil and then simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for about 1 hour, or until the barley has softened.
-Grate the carrot and add to the soup with half of the lemon juice. Continue simmering until the carrot has softened, about 10-15 minutes more. .
-Stir in the remaining lemon juice, making sure to adjust the sourness to your palate.
-Ladle into bowls, stir in a tablespoon of sour cream or Greek yogurt and garnish with parsley or dill.