Name That Soup

October 25, 2018

Ever wonder who put the “strone” in “minestrone”? The “owder” in “chowder”? The “ho” in “pho”? (Careful, there, soup boy! This is a family soup book!) Then sit thee down at the Table of Label—and read all about the name origins of several well-known soups. . (This article was first published in our 31st annual edition, Uncle John’s Actual and Factual Bathroom Reader.)


Minestrone originated in simple vegetable and bean-based soups and stews made by the people who inhabited the area around Rome more than 2,000 years ago. Those early soups evolved as new ingredients became available—notably tomatoes, which were introduced into Europe from South America during the Age of Exploration— eventually becoming the thick vegetable, bean, and pasta (and sometimes rice) soup we know today. The name “minestrone” derives from minestra, the Italian word for “soup.” The -one ending makes it mean something along the lines of “big soup.” The word entered the English language in the 1870s. (Note: minestra is “soup,” but it literally means “that which is served,” from the Italian verb minestrare, meaning “to serve,” which in turn comes from the Latin minister, meaning “servant.” Which explains why “minestrone” has the same etymological origins as the word “minister.”)


Borscht is the name used for a wide variety of sour soups of eastern European/Slavic origin. There are many varieties, including red and white borschts, some of them served hot, but the best known is the red, beet-based, served-cold borscht whose origins are Ukrainian. The English word “borscht” dates to the 1880s, and comes from the Yiddish name for the soup. That, in turn, is derived from borshch, the Russian name for the common hogweed plant (also known as “cow parsnip”). The pickled flowers, stems, and leaves of the common hogweed were once the basis of this soup, which was how it got its sour taste.


Pho, pronounced “fuh,” is a brothy Vietnamese soup made with rice noodles, herbs, and usually with thin slices of beef or chicken. It is hugely popular in Vietnam, and is sold by street vendors and in restaurants nationwide. Most common time to eat pho: breakfast, although it is also eaten for lunch or dinner. And it’s a relatively young dish, believed to have originated in the early 20th century, in the country’s north, not far from Hanoi. There are two main theories as to the origin of the name of this soup—and neither are Vietnamese. The first is that “pho” was derived from the French word feu,  meaning “fire,” or more accurately from pot de feu,  literally “pot on the fire,” the name of a thick French beef stew. Vietnam was a French colony at the time pho was developed, and because the French are credited with making beef popular in the country, this is the version most etymologists support. The second theory is that “pho” was derived from the Cantonese word phan,  meaning “noodles.” Either way, it came to English as the name of this tasty soup in 1931.


Bisque is a smooth and creamy crustacean-based soup of French origin. (It is most famously made from lobster, but can also be made from crab, crayfish, or shrimp.) The name “bisque” was probably derived from the name of the region where the soup was first made: the area around the Bay of Biscay, in southwestern France and northern Spain. Some historians believe the word came from bis cuites , meaning “twice cooked,” referring to the fact that the crustaceans involved are first cooked separately, then again with the other ingredients—butter, flour, carrots, celery, onion, wine, and brandy. If this is true, then bisque  has the same origin as biscuit , which is known to have been named for its original two-part cooking method. Still another possible origin of the term: “bisque” was derived from bisco , a word in the French Provençal language meaning “small, beveled pieces,” referring to the crustacean pieces in thesoup. Wherever this name came from, it first arrived in English in around the 1640s. (Bonus fact: The original French use of “bisque” referred to soup made from the meat game birds. It only got the crabby  meaning in the 17th century.)

Uncle John's Actual and Factual Bathroom Reader


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