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Stocks Around the World

A slurp-worthy survey of global broths

Rachael Mamane

September 17, 2018

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Photo: Marian Vejcik/ iStock/ Getty Images

It can be easy to overlook soups, stocks, and broths, relegating them to the realm of elegant appetizers or a parent's sworn cure-all for myriad ailments. But soup's everyday status belies its culinary importance—take a look at cuisines across the globe, and you'll find these rich liquids at the heart of cultures from China to Mexico. Cookbook author Rachael Mamane dives deep into the history and heritage of these foundational dishes in her comprehensive guide, Mastering Stocks and Broths, a 2018 James Beard Book Award nominee. Below, Mamane explores a handful of iconic stocks and broths that have helped to define both the cuisines that have grown around them, and the author's personal cooking, and provides a recipe for the Chinese "master stock."

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Cultures around the world have their own interpretation of stocks and broths—rich bowls of compound liquids that speak to origin and environment, independent of influence from the French or British. My historical exploration tells only part of the story. And yet to survey the global history of stocks and broths—country by country—would provide enough content for another book. For now, we’ll acknowledge a few formative foundations specific to cultural identities around the world, admittedly these are what inform my personal kitchen experience.

China: Master Stock 

In China, there exists the legend of stocks that have survived for hundreds of years, passed down through generations and nurtured as you would a bread culture. Called a master stock, this compound base begins with an aromatic broth—commonly spiced with soy sauce, rice wine, star anise, cassia bark, and more—and is used to poach or braise meats. The stock that results from this process is chilled or frozen for reuse, intended to develop a complexity of flavor with each subsequent simmer. In Southern China, the Cantonese term lou mei refers to any dish that is made by simmering meat, offal, tofu, or kelp in a master stock. 

Japan: Dashi

Dashi is a simple yet elegant broth that serves as the foundation of Japanese cuisine. This broth is made by quickly and gently simmering kombu, a type of edible seaweed, with katsuobushi, fermented and dried skipjack tuna, to extract intense flavor into the liquid. Umami flavor owes its identity to the glutamic acid found in dashi. This early twentieth century discovery came when Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda was sipping a dashi that was more intense than usual; curiosity led him to isolate the natural glutamates in kombu and later to patent an extraction process for monosodium glutamate. Similarly, katsuobushi is rich in sodium inosinate, also a source of umami. 

Italy: Pestat di Fagnana

From the Roman blend of stracciatella, the world’s first egg drop soup, to minestra maritata, a marriage not of vows but of vegetables in broth, Italy is rich with cultural references to soup built from stock. Yet, like many culinary discoveries in Italy, regional nuance reveals the best that local terra has to offer. One such instance exists in a small hilly region in Friuli, where agriculture dictates activity: butchers preserve the autumn pig harvest in a soup base called pestat di fagnana. Pork fat is combined with a small dice of vegetables and a healthy addition of herbs and spices, stuffed in natural casings and ripened in a cool cellar, alongside salami and other fermented meats. Once cured, the casing is removed to release a dressing which is packed in jars for use in the winter months. A dollop of pestat in a medium-hot pan yields rendered fat and slightly caramelized vegetables, ready for liquid to be added—a preserved bouillon that speaks of seasons past.

Korea: Ox Bone Soup

In Korea, soup is often served as an entrée instead of an appetizer. Soups are categorized by type: guk, a thinner soup often eaten at home, and tang, a concentrated soup commonly found in restaurants. A popular restaurant dish, seolleongtang, is made by boiling meaty ox bones in water until the liquid turns cloudy and appears milky white—a technique that varies from most instruction in this book. This broth is served in a large bowl with steamed rice, seasoned with sea salt and scallions at the table, and often accompanied by kimchi and other flavorful ferments. Aside from being delicious, seolleongtang has a legendary history associated with the harvest sacrifices—known as sŏnnongje or “venerated farmer”—of the Joseon dynasty. It was King Sŏngjong who visited a sacrifice and decreed upon the people to develop dishes that would extend the food supply, among which was this bone soup.  

Mexico: Sopa de Lima

The staple crops of Mayan culture—corn, squash, beans, and chilies—remain prevalent in Mexican cuisine; a historical success story of how complementary cultivars can feed entire cultures. The Yucatan’s sopa de lima incorporates two of the four—corn and chilies—with the wild turkeys and bitter limes introduced by Spanish conquistadors, to create the region’s most popular soup. The key to the soup is bitter lime, a citrus fruit that grows with ease in the Yucatan, and adds a tang to an otherwise salty foundation. Over time, this soup has developed a strong association with the warmth of a grandmother’s kitchen; a recipe handed down to youth through participation, rarely accompanied by weights and ratios of ingredients, and often served as a cure-all for the common cold, akin to the chicken soup of Jewish culture. 

Southeast Asia: Fish Sauce

Though fish sauce serves largely as a condiment in modern cookery, its prevalence in classic Roman cooking, appearing in majority of recipes in the world’s first documented recipe collection from the first century CE, lands it firmly in the class of culinary foundation. Perhaps passed from Europe to Asia along trade routes, fish sauce is now a staple ingredient in many Southeast Asian cultures, including Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Thailand, predominantly made from preserved anchovies and often used in place of salt. In Thai cooking, fish sauce is used sparingly to enhance many fish-based dishes, such as Tom Yum Soup, adding an undeniable pungency that concentrates some flavors and heightens others within the dish. The magic of fish sauce is that it can guide a dish, akin to a culinary stock, or blend into the framework, as would a balanced broth.

Vietnam: Pho

The political climate of Vietnam shaped the origins of pho, its most widely known soup dish. Less than a century old, pho evolved alongside French unification with Vietnam. With the political and culinary influence of the French, the Vietnamese began to harvest cows otherwise used for land management, and with the introduction of meat, the French pot au feu, or “fire in the pot,” evolved into Vietnamese pho. When the country split many years later, so did the varieties of the soup: pho nam became the dish of the South, where food was abundant, and pho bac became the counterpart of the North. Pho nam is known to be lavish—a heavily spiced broth, rich with a variety of meats, fish sauce and fresh herbs. Yet it was the impoverished North that is credited with popularizing the dish, using the meat and bones not wanted by their French captors to create the simple beef, broth, and noodle bowl that is prevalent today. 

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Text adapted from Rachael Mamane's book Mastering Stocks and Broths: A Comprehensive Culinary Approach Using Traditional Techniques and No-Waste Methods (Chelsea Green, 2017) and is printed with permission from the publisher.

Photo: Marian Vejcik/ iStock/ Getty Images