If a steaming bowl of soup strikes you as the ultimate in old-fashioned comfort, you’ve got plenty of company.
Soup is one of the world’s oldest and most universal foods, said Janet Clarkson, author of the book “Soup: A Global History.”
“Every culture has some kind of soup,” she said. “It’s got very ancient roots.” Early people simmered it in everything from turtle shells to lengths of bamboo, she writes in the book, turning out metal soup pots starting in the Bronze Age.
Boiling food made it possible to subsist on stable grains, with herbs and other ingredients added for nourishment or medicinal purposes.
Each time you deliver a pot of soup to a friend with the sniffles, Clarkson said you’re in fact carrying on an age-old tradition. “Separating food and medicine — that’s not how ancient people thought of it,” she said. “I think in every country in the world, historically, some soups were seen as restorative.”
That’s true no matter what you call it. Today, soup leans brothy while stews are more substantial, but the world’s spoonable foods have never fit neatly into the two English-language categories.
While Clarkson dove into centuries of etymology to trace the history of soup, potage and broth, she settled on a generously broad take. “Just some stuff cooked in water,” she wrote, “with the flavored water becoming a crucial part of the dish.”
It’s a definition that leaves room for the world’s tremendous culinary diversity. These are CNN’s nominations for 20 of the best soups around the world:
Bouillabaisse | France
Bouillabaisse is synonymous with Marseille, France.
A fisherman’s stew turned culinary icon, bouillabaisse distills classic Mediterranean flavors into a dish synonymous with the coastal city of Marseille. Saffron, olive oil, fennel, garlic and tomatoes blend with fish fresh from the sea.
At one time, that fish would reflect each day’s catch, but things have gotten a bit stricter.
According to signatories of the 1980 Bouillabaisse Charter — a collective attempt by local chefs to ensure the quality of the French soup — the most authentic recipe must include at least four kinds of seafood chosen from a list that includes monkfish and crab.
Gumbo | United States
Chicken, sausage and shrimp festoon this gumbo.
Tom McCorkle/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Cultures and flavors meld in a hearty soup that’s a star of Louisiana cuisine, influenced by West African, Native Choctaw and French cuisines. Versions made with seafood, chicken and sausage are among the most popular today, but there are myriad ways to make this Southern specialty.
Ground, dried sassafras leaves — called filé and long harvested by the Choctaw people — give many gumbo recipes a distinctive spice. Some cooks thicken their soup with a cooked flour paste called roux, while others swear by sautéed slices of okra.
Every possible version is on display each year at the World Champion Gumbo Cookoff in New Iberia, Louisiana, where cooks battle for some serious soup-master bragging rights.
Banga | Nigeria
Banga is so popular in Nigeria that shops sell ready-mixed packets of spice.
Fruits from the oil palm tree lend both fat and flavor to this soup from the Niger Delta, which also features fresh catfish, beef and dried seafood.
It’s so popular that packets of ready-mixed banga spice are sold in shops. Most blends include African nutmeg, castor seed, orima, jansa and beletete leaves.
The spices infuse a rich, red sauce that’s the soup’s main draw: Soak it up with eba or a ball of starch, two Nigerian staples both made from cassava prepared with different methods.
Beef pho (phở bò) | Vietnam
A bowl of beef pho is sure to cure what ails you.
Leisa Tyler/LightRocket/Getty Images
Broth is simmered for hours with cinnamon, star anise and other warm spices to create a wonderfully aromatic base for this rice noodle soup.
Pho is among Vietnam’s most recognized culinary exports, but the soup is a relatively new food, wrote Andrea Nguyen, author of “The Pho Cookbook.”
And while today’s pho restaurants serve a wide range of flavors, beef is the original. By 1930, Nguyen explained, the soup was served with slices of raw beef cooked gently in the broth.
Today, beef pho remains the most beloved version in Vietnam, with options that include the original raw beef, a mix of raw and cooked beef, brisket and tendon.
Caldo verde | Portugal
This hearty soup hails from Portugal’s wine country.
Thinly sliced greens meld with potatoes and onions in this homey soup from Portugal’s wine-producing Minho region. Now, the soup is a culinary star from upscale cafes to rural kitchens, the definition of down-home comfort food.
In many versions, tender Portuguese chouriço sausage adds an undercurrent of smoky, salty flavor that makes the soup even heartier. Enjoy alongside a glass of Minho’s famed vinho verde wine.
Comfort yourself with these 6 hearty soups
Gazpacho | Spain
Gazpacho is a great way to enjoy a cold treat on a hot day.
Summer in Andalusia brings searing weather, ideal for cooling down with a bowl of this chilled vegetable soup. Today’s most classic version includes tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic and olive oil, with a handful of stale breadcrumbs added for body.
Arabs brought the dish to the Iberian Peninsula centuries before Spaniards tasted tomatoes, a New World ingredient. The original was a blend of bread, garlic and olive oil, pounded in a mortar and seasoned with vinegar.
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Chorba frik | Algeria, Libya and Tunisia
Chorba frik is popular in North Africa after the sun sets during Ramadan.
Durum wheat harvested while green, called freekeh, adds satisfying heft and nourishment to this North African soup, which is especially beloved during the holy time of Ramadan.
The tender grains absorb a tomato broth and aromatic spices, their flavor melding with chickpeas plus stewed chicken, beef, mutton or lamb. Serve with lemon wedges and a hunk of kesra bread.
Chupe de camarones | Peru
Shrimp lovers will want to try the Peruvian soup known as chupe de camarones.
Katherine Frey/The Washington Post/Getty Images
This creamy shrimp chowder is a specialty of Arequipa, a historic city surrounded by towering volcanoes. Cold nights in the mountains are perfect for the hearty dish: Tender shrimp swim alongside chunks of Andean potatoes and corn.
It’s got a kick, too. The addition of ají amarillo, a chili pepper with a lilting, fruity flavor, adds satisfying spice to balance out the rich and creamy ingredients. Maybe that explains the soup’s reputation as a powerful aphrodisiac.
Groundnut soup | West Africa
Sweet potatoes and okra are stars in this particular version of groundnut soup, popular throughout West Africa.
As with so many culinary treats, groundnut soup ignores international boundaries: Meat, fish or chicken simmered into a thick peanut soup is pure comfort food in countries across West Africa. Versions range from Gambian domoda — the national dish — to a Nigerian take cooked with bitter, leafy greens.
No matter the country, such soups and stews are creamy, rich and salty, a satisfying combination that often gets a fiery jolt from the addition of Scotch bonnet peppers.
Borscht | Ukraine
Tender beets are just the start of borscht’s tangy delights.
Chunks of tender beets swim in brilliant red broth for a soup that’s beloved in Ukraine and across Eastern Europe. Often topped with a rich dollop of sour cream, borscht is anything but basic beet soup. It gets a tangy kick from kvass, a lacto-fermented beet juice that’s another regional specialty.
And while the soup is sometimes attributed to Russian cuisine, that claim is hotly contested. Now, Ukrainian chefs are behind a campaign to get their version on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.