Thursday, March 1, 2012

Pea Soup

image from Unox
It's pretty impossible to live in the Netherlands and not take notice of what can be considered a national dish.  I think there is a soft spot in the collective Dutch soul for pea soup (erwtensoep or snert in Dutch).  It's inevitable, every winter  up go the ads for Unox (a brand falling under that behemoth known as Unilever) pea soup.  Unox also produces the most popular brand of rookworst (sausage) in the Netherlands.  As you can see in the ad above, Unox marries the two products quite well to one another.  While its quite evident that pea soup is beloved here, it's not entirely clear to me why it's this soup in particular that can be thought of as Dutch. 
While digging around the internet, this site explained that pea soup was used during lent in the Netherlands as a substitute for meat-based stews and bouillons.  I'm no food historian, so I can't say whether that was the case in other parts of Europe, but it would certainly make sense to create a nutrient dense and plant-based food during that all important season of abstention.  It makes me think of the Starkbiere festival in Bavaria, historically created to add extra calories to diets lacking in meat during a time of year when there was very little in the way of non-animal foodstuffs.  Why don't Americans have fun late winter traditions like this?  Who wouldn't want to get crazy drunk with a bunch of friends while wearing Lederhosen and listening to polka music?  Too many Protestants?  I'm digressing, and besides, the Netherlands has had plenty of somber Calvinists who don't pay attention to Lent.  Furthermore, do you see the amount of pork in that bowl of soup?  Nothing meat free about it.  While some form of the dish may have had its roots in days of yore, the current variation is heavy on the pig.
I love this drawing from an internment camp in Indonesia during WWII.  In it women are serving, among other things, pea soup to the camp inhabitants.  That such a heavy, winter dish had its place in what was most likely a hot and humid camp.  Then again, I think they took what they could get and most certainly would not have been dissatisfied.
image from Het Geheugen van Nederland
I'm actually surprised at myself for not making pea soup sooner.  When I was a kid, I remember my mom making it.  I don't remember why, but one time we had a ham bone at home, and she used that to make the soup.  Here, too, traditional recipes call for a ham bone or pigs feet.  If I knew a good butcher, I might have made the effort to find the pigs feet, but I honestly didn't want to go to the trouble.  Instead, I went the vegetarian route.  Thanks, 101 Cookbooks blog
Besides, pea soup is typically served with a very dense rye bread and a fatty cut of cured pork known as katenspek.  It's a great accompaniment to the somewhat sweet flavor of the peas.  I can't imagine having the meat on the side plus worst in the soup.  I'm Episcopalian, after all--the vegetarian soup with a side of meat feels like a good compromise for Lent.


  1. "Lederhosen" is leather pants. "Liederhosen" would be song pants - which I'd like to see! Just proving I still know German, if my Dutch is gone.

    My father's mother and then my mother used to make pea soup that was actually solid. You could mold it in your hands like dough; I thought that was the best use for it - I was the only one who didn't like it. And, being the only cook in the brood, the recipe's been lost. For meat, they used pork neck if available, otherwise chicken necks (I can't imagine where one would buy those today).

    1. Oh my God, I can't believe I made such an embarrassing mistake. I'm fixing my misspelled word right now. To think there was a time in my life I could write essays on German literature in German! Song pants, indeed.

      Pork neck would be tough to come by, I think. I really do need to find a good butcher here. It would make cooking so much easier. I liked our pea soup, but I wouldn't add it to my list of favorite foods. There's only so much mushy pea flavor I can handle.