When I was growing up, one of my very favourite stories in the world was Stone Soup.
If you’re not familiar with the tale, it’s about a poor and tired traveller who convinces a rather cranky old bat to shelter him for the night. She agrees to let him stay, but tells him that she has no food to give him. He offers to feed her instead.
‘You – feed me? With what?’ she scornfully asks. ‘Stone soup,’ says he, and places a stone into a pot of water over the fire. He then proceeds to coax all sorts of things out of her – barley, carrots, celery, a bit of meat, potatoes – by telling her the stone is old, and might need a bit of help with flavour. That night they dine like kings in the little cottage, and in the morning she gives him a good breakfast, coffee and some coins to help him on his way, her crotchety old heart having been touched by the restorative powers of sharing food.
The story always got to the bit about barley and I would shiver – for it seemed, to my young ears, to be the transformative substance that took the water and stone and finally made it a soup. I had no idea what barley was, or even what it looked like. I just knew that it had to be magical.
This soup is a remembrance of how much I loved that story and everything it stands for. It reminds me of my childhood, of somehow feeling but not yet understanding that cooking and sharing a meal with someone can be a deeply healing experience. The heartwarming feeling I get when I make this soup is the same feeling I had when I got to the end of the story.
1/2 cup barley
Yellow rock sugar
Handful gingko nuts
Dried bean curd sticks, roughly broken
Wash the barley and check for any pebbles that might have made it in.
Place the barley in a large pot of water – you’re looking for a ratio of about 1:5, but you can start with a litre of water and add as the soup boils.
Bring to a boil and add a large lump of yellow rock sugar, plus the gingko nuts.
Turn to a low boil and simmer for 1 hour. Barley has a tendency to bubble up, so make sure you’re around to watch or hear the pot. You might need to top up with water as it boils away.
Add the dried bean curd sticks and simmer for an additional 30 minutes. Again, you might need to top up the pot with water as the bean curd rehydrates. You might also need to add additional sugar to taste.
The end result is a light, translucent soup that is sweet and perfectly toothsome, thanks to the barley. It is traditionally served with a boiled egg, which enhances the sweetness.
A small note about gingko nuts: they are funny things. Widely used in Chinese cooking, I hated them when I was young and would pick them out of my soup, piling them in large heaps to be tossed back into the pot – or my parents’ bowls. They seemed to me to have a vaguely oniony taste, and I thought they had no place in my soup.
These days, I appreciate the slight pungent tang they lend the soup; it cuts through the sweetness and adds depth. I am, perhaps, not quite reformed – my parents would possibly use quite a lot more than a handful of nuts to make their soup, but I would never go beyond a handful and occasionally I leave them out altogether.
They are, however, said to be extremely good for you, helping cognitive function, memory and blood flow and fighting free radicals.