A steaming bowl can be your ticket to some faraway places

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Campbell’s was right, soup is good food.

Alright, maybe not the kind that comes from a can, but the warming, sustaining meals-in-a-bowl available locally that take you far away from the chilly gray streets of Brooklyn, and return you, invigorated, with a new appreciation for this multi-ethnic borough.

Start near the bridges at Brawta, a Boerum Hill cafe where you can enjoy the distinct, exotic flavors of authentic Jamaican food in a hip, candlelit dining room. Brawta owner Jennefier Ewers points out the merging of Spanish and African influences in the typically Jamaican red pea soup ($4).

The fragrant soup is crowded with red peas (beans), lima beans, regular and sweet potatoes, pumpkin, peppers and coconut milk. In addition to the lightly sweet flavor of coconut there’s a savory sweetness from scallions and the woodsy note of thyme. A dense dumpling of flour and cornmeal guarantees that this jam-packed soup will stick to your ribs.

On the other end of the spectrum is congee, a Chinese rice porridge that can be as simple as rice and water. Head to Sunset Park’s Chinatown, where pork and preserved egg congee is dished out from stands on the street during lunch, and other varieties are served all day at Yat Sik Ka Tea House. The creamy porridge is as soothing as mother’s milk, and a garnish of bright ginger and crisp scallion provides the perfect contrast.

Congee additions include a choice of lettuce, fish, beef, chicken, frog, or - though I don’t know anyone who’s tried it - pork blood. Despite my distrust of comfort food with little bones, I love the sliced fish congee ($2.50). The white slices of rich, firm-fleshed fish become silken in the soup.

Surprisingly, fish is not an ingredient in two of the borough’s best beach soups. In Brighton Beach, the warmest place to enjoy the view is from Volna Cafe on the boardwalk, over bowls of either mushroom soup or borsht ($4 each). Watch the parade of fur hats and coats on the boardwalk as you relish the Russian soups.

Mushroom soup is salty and hearty, full of barley, carrots, celery, white beans and mushrooms and flavored with dill. Mix in a dollop of sour cream and dunk rye bread in the broth for a rich savory meal. Or opt for the sweeter side of soup with vibrant beet-and-tomato borsht, thick with potatoes and cabbage, also floating with dill and sour cream. And if you’re inspired by all that ocean, smoked and pickled fish makes an appropriate accompaniment.

To really feel like you’re on a trip, drive along Hamilton Avenue toward the entrance to the Battery Tunnel. At the last moment, turn right onto Columbia Street and enter the world of The Tunnel Cafe in the Columbia Street Waterfront District. When traveling in Turkey I made many a midnight meal of lentil soup at roadside restaurants. Eating lentil soup ($3) at this Middle Eastern cafe brings me right back.

Monday through Saturday, until 1 am, several tables are occupied by tea-sipping men smoking water pipes or talking on cell phones. Sure the creamy lentil soup is superb at Park Slope’s three branches of the Olive Vine Restaurant, and it even comes with freshly made pita, but I’ll settle for store-bought bread in exchange for the strange, phantom tollbooth setting and calm, warm, yet impenetrable ambiance of The Tunnel Cafe. The soup is the same as it was in Turkey, its smoothly leguminous flavor imbued with the dusky scent of cumin, sweetened with caramelized onions and offset by a squeeze of lemon juice.

Sitting down to a lunch of soup can be transporting at the same time that it is nourishing. There are soups right here in Brooklyn that will make you feel like sending postcards home: ’Darling, am slurping noodles at the counter of a steam-filled lunch spot. There must be 20 ducks hanging in the window. Wish you were here.’

Sure, the soups you know and love are comfort food, but soup can also be intrepid - and cheap! - making it a low-risk way to explore the flavors of an unfamiliar cuisine. Sampling some unusual soups is like touring the kitchens of Brooklyn’s grandmothers. While a bowl of soup may be strikingly different from one restaurant to the next, the sense of wellbeing it offers is the same. And on a miserable rainy day, there is nothing more cheering.


Call in advance to be sure a specific soup will be available. Brawta Caribbean Cafe, 347 Atlantic Ave. at Hoyt Street, (718) 855-5515; Yat Sik Ka Tea House, 5414 Eighth Ave. between 54th and 55th streets, (718) 972-4971; Volna Cafe & Restaurant, 3145 Brighton Fourth St. at the boardwalk, (718) 332-0341; The Tunnel Cafe, 323 Columbia St. at Hamilton Avenue, (718) 694-9205; and Olive Vine Restaurants, 131 Sixth Ave. at Park Place, (718) 636-4333, 441 Seventh Ave. at 15th Street, (718) 499-0555, and 81 Seventh Ave. at Union Steet, (718) 622-2626.

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