Jamaican Food Stories: The perfect Jamaican soup
In Jamaica, mannish water or goat soup are names used interchangeably for this well-loved soup of the masses. This dish may sound strange to people from cultures who don’t enjoy goat meat, but fortunately for me, Jamaica is not numbered among them. We enjoy this soup made from the innards, head, and feet of the Goat. It is a soup enjoyed in Jamaica by the wealthy and poor alike and has always been a favorite of many Jamaican and Caribbean people home and abroad. After hearing the ingredients, it may seem to some that individuals who enjoy food like this have uncultured palates, but be assured I do also enjoy dining at the Ritz-Carlton and I know many of my compatriots do the same, for me good food is just good food.
Goat soup is prepared for the traditional “eatings” that follow a funeral. It is the preferred soup at dances, weddings, Christmastime and for many other family and social gatherings. Great tasting mannish water, or goat soup, is the mark of a good Jamaican backyard cook. Thus preparing the perfect pot of goat soup was always of some importance to me, as the title of “ good backyard cook” may describe the extent of my culinary expertise if not ambition.
My first taste of the perfect goat soup happened in the country, at the “eatings” that followed the funeral of a distant relative, who I had never met. I was a teenager at the time but advanced for my years with an already developed appreciation and appetite for good Jamaican cuisine. Having inquired from a much older cousin what was that delicious waft in the air emanating from an outside kitchen on the hillside. I was delighted to learn that he was partly responsible for this delicious aroma and further invited me to see the source of this splendor. We followed a winding path to an old but clean outside kitchen complete with bamboo benches and the mandatory ﬁreside with a mesh basket above it called a “ creng creng”. Topped with an old zinc roof to keep off most of the rain.
A setup like this was commonplace in a country yard back then and even today. Especially if the house was on a decent sized lot and the occupant family farmed the property. I was invited inside the kitchen by my cousin and his cooking partner, who promptly placed a half ﬁlled cheese pan (the preferred soup bowl for outdoor eating at that time) in my eager hands. Along with a cheerful slap on the back while saying “Drink up, young boy.”Mannish water I proclaimed”, eager to display what limited knowledge I had of all things culinary. No that is goat soup, he corrected “Mannish water is taken directly from the broth when the curried goat meat is cooking down. Goat soup is what you make with the head, belly and foot of the goat”, he told me authoritatively. To this day I am not sure if he was right. I have discussed this business of the name extensively with many an old folk. “He was right” seemed to be the consensus, but you may believe differently. Who knows who is right, but it makes for a lively discussion around a pot of this Soup. Be sure to discuss the name over your next bowl of goat soup.
That goat soup remains to this day the best soup I have ever had. I call it “the perfect goat soup”. It was thick and had green bananas some cut in round slices with a bit of the peel left on. Flour dumplings called spinners, bits of carrot and other ground provision and a lot of meat. A liberal splash of Jamaican white rum which my cousin assured me was their secret ingredient along with just the right amount of scotch bonnet pepper. Cooked on a wood ﬁre in an old outside kitchen. I was not the only person who believed this soup to be good as individuals kept coming back for seconds and thirds, some even hung around close to the kitchen talking and then returning for reﬁlls even though other food was available.
The only soup I remember drinking that could rival that perfect goat soup was a corn and cow-foot soup sold by a plump vendor outside Jamaica’s National Stadium in the mid nineteen eighties. The corn that made this soup was not the sweet corn that we see abundant nowadays. It was field corn that we would roast in an open ﬁre, and our parents would add to their soups. My friends and I would buy soup from that vendor when we went to the National Stadium to watch the Manning Cup schoolboy football (soccer) and cheer on our school. Boy, that soup was nice! We could never buy only one cup. Her soup was deﬁnitely the most popular because this type of was soup was sold by many vendors there, but that vendor always had a long line. I am sure many persons who frequented the stadium at that time will remember that delicious soup.
I have never been able to replicate that perfect goat soup. This admission may come as a surprise to my family and friends, as I am known to cook a good pot of goat soup. I have come close many times and have sampled many cups of the stuff from excellent cooks. That perfect goat soup continues to this day to be elusive, but I will continue to chase the dream of cooking that perfect pot of goat soup.