When my 7-year-old son and I traveled to Budapest in 2002, we arrived at my friend Katalin’s flat at 11 am. It was already over 90 degrees and there was no air conditioning. We could barely make it up the five flights after some 30 hours of travel, but of course we were hungry.
Katalin, the daughter of Holocaust survivors who returned to Budapest after World War II, had anticipated our condition and prepared something a refreshing cold cherry soup, spiced with cinnamon and cloves and thickened with sour cream. I was hooked.
Since then, every summer I make my own, much less labor-intensive version. Unlike Katalin, who stood for hours pitting fresh sour cherries (for which I am still grateful), I use a mix of frozen and jarred pitted cherries in syrup. Since the jars are imported from Hungary, I feel somehow connected to the traditional recipe.
You might not know this, but Jews have a long tradition of cold summer soups. Central Europeans, especially Hungarians and Romanians, are known for fruit soups cooked, then chilled, like the cherry soup. Think compotes of summer stone fruits like peaches, cherries and plums, sometimes apples or pears, sweetened with just enough sugar to enhance the fruit. The pareve soups are flavored with various combinations of cinnamon, cloves, vanilla and lemon juice, and thinned with water or wine. Once chilled, sour cream is often added before serving the refreshing dish as an appetizer or the meal itself with some good bread.
Russian Jews, who favor more savory soups, are known for beet borscht and schav, a soup made from sorrel. Also called sour grass, sorrel is a tangy herb that looks like spinach. Its sour taste comes from oxalic acid, which also gives rhubarb its tartness. Sorrel was used to brighten heavy foods in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. Later the French used it for flavor as well as medicinally, as it aids digestion and treats liver problems, among other healing qualities.
Sorrel grows wild in Eastern Europe from April through June and can be found in the U.S. thriving in all kinds of conditions. Although you can forage for it, most of us head to farmers markets to find some sold in bunches. Poor Russian Jewish peasants usually added potatoes and sour cream to their schav for a hearty meal served with dark bread. If there was an egg to spare, it went in, too. Today, schav recipes mostly include eggs and lemons as well as sour cream. Many leave out the potatoes for a lighter dish.
And then there’s the famous — or infamous, depending on your point of view — borscht. Beets, like potatoes, are root vegetables that thrive even in imperfect growing conditions, and keep well in cellars over long winters. Borscht is traditionally made with just beets and onions, perhaps some dill from the garden. In order to serve both borscht and schav with sour cream, the Jewish version was made vegetarian while non-Jewish neighbors added meat.
You can make a flavorful version of borscht (nothing at all like the one found in jars on grocery store shelves) by adding a carrot, a clove of fresh garlic, some fresh or dried dill, and a pinch of sugar to a pot with a few peeled beets and an onion, all cut into chunks. Cover with water, cook until soft, then puree. Serve very cold with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt and some chopped chives or fresh dill. If you call it chilled summer beet soup, those at your table will have a more open mind and find it surprisingly good.
The Jewish tradition of cold soups is not just an Ashkenazi thing. Chilled yogurt and cucumber soups have been eaten as long as remembered in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and most countries of the Middle East, each adding variations to the basic yogurt-cucumber-garlic mixture, diluted with a little milk or water. As Poopa Dweck says in her wonderful Aromas of Aleppo, the “silky texture … and delightfully cool sensation on the gums” make it a favorite of everyone from teething babies to the elderly.
An Egyptian version of the soup is cooked with onion, spinach and rice before mixing in yogurt, cucumber and mint. Other variations added to the cold soup include seedless grapes, raisins, pickles, scallions or ground nuts with the amount and types of herbs and garlic depending on availability and personal preference.
A longtime fan of cold soups, I serve them often, joining a long and delicious Jewish warm-weather tradition.