Ajiaco soup with chicken, corn, and potatoes
Colombian ajiaco, featured in SOUP, an Irish cookbook of immigrant recipes, is hearty, with chicken, potatoes, corn, and fresh herbs, topped with cream, capers, and avocado.
Soup has its own conversation. It’s never just a bowl of soup, and everyone has a favourite for a reason: a memory, an emotion, a difficult time, a happy time. The comfort foods we ladle into bowls are among the most intimate foods we prepare and consume.
There is no universal definition of what constitutes a soup: ingredients, culture, texture, and flavour all contribute to the creation of a dish that can be creamy and thick, bright and zingy, or hot and brothy. Soup is the language of the home, no matter how it looks or tastes.
Blanca Valencia, Mei Chin, and Dee Laffan are three women from very different backgrounds, countries, and cultures who met in Ireland through their shared love of food. They are the voices behind the award-winning Spice Bags Podcast, hailing from Spain, the United States, and Ireland, respectively. The podcast examines food in Ireland through the eyes of the international communities that live and work there. Valencia, Chin, and Laffan describe the podcast in three flavours: deep-dive explorations of a national cuisine, interviews, and staple chats in which the hosts “banter” about a chosen topic from their own cultural perspective.
It was during one of these regular chats about soup that all three hosts found common ground on which to agree. The idea arose to pitch a book about soup centred on Ireland’s international diaspora. They pitched the idea to Kristin Jensen, the founder of Nine Bean Rows and the creator of the Blasta Books cookbook series, which is shaking up the Irish cookbook publishing scene.
That tidbit of a cookbook idea was published in January 2023. SOUP features 25 recipes from friends, acquaintances, and podcast guests. Each recipe, from Africa to Turkey, China to Scotland – from Mexican sopa de tortilla to a Danish elderberry gazpacho-like soup – represents a person, a culture, and a history. “No one has ever described a soup to me without telling me a story,” Laffan said. “These are personal interpretations laced with food memories and nostalgia. Soup accomplishes this by eliciting emotions and stirring us up in the best possible way.”
Although Ireland is known as the country of a hundred thousand welcomes, Chin and Valencia, as immigrants, desired a platform to have their voices heard. “It was difficult,” Chin admitted, “because no one was listening to us.”
Producing the podcast connected them to Ireland’s larger international community.
“We found all the people we worked with who had interesting perspectives on soup, what it means to them, and their stories,” Valencia explained. “These soups define them, and I don’t think any dish defines people more than soup. They are ambassadors for their country, and they want their food to reflect that.”
Chin went on to say that no other food brings back memories of home like soup. “We wanted to write a book about immigrant Ireland, about how to find comfort when you’re away from home and trying to make a new home somewhere else. Soup is the best way to accomplish this.”
In the case of Valencia, Chin, and Laffan, It was simple to select a favourite recipe from the collection: they chose one that evoked fond memories, a love of potatoes, and an invocation of comfort.
Ajiaco is a Colombian soup made with chicken, corn, and three different kinds of potatoes. It’s a typical Bogotá dish that’s largely unknown outside of Colombia. While living there, Valencia got to know and love it. At the official residence of Colombia’s ambassador to Ireland, HE Mrs Patricia Cortés Ortiz, Laffan and Valencia had the pleasure of dining on freshly made ajiaco.
Valencia told a friend at the Colombian Embassy that she’d like to do something with ajiaco, “thinking she’d say this food was made by the chef,” Valencia recalled. “Instead, she stated that this is the Ambassador’s dish, which she prepares on a regular basis.”
Being cooked for and served in the ambassador’s home added layers of understanding to the dish that the recipe’s words alone couldn’t express, according to Laffan.
“To see how carefully she made the soup and explained the ingredients, how much she enjoys shopping for hard-to-find ingredients – something so many immigrants go through to find a taste of home,” she said. “We sat down to eat with her husband, and there were beautiful Colombian handwoven placemats and traditional Colombian dishes on the table.” It reminded me of soups I’ve made or eaten. Ajiaco contains three different types of potatoes, making it uniquely Irish. This wonderful soup brings us together.”
Valencia had a moment watching Her Excellency cook her soup, proud to share her soup with others, as she made her soup. The ambassador’s mother had passed down the recipe to her, redolent with traditional flavours that reminded her of cooking at home in Colombia. She was able to obtain Colombian potatoes, and Singing Frog Gardens, based near Bantry in West Cork, was growing guascas (a popular herb in Colombia) and sending bunches up to Dublin for her.
“I thought, what a wonderful woman, she’s not afraid to do this, she’s owning her skill and her heritage,” Valencia said. “Then there were the conversations – the same ones we all have over soup, about family memories and how it was cooked for them when they were growing up. Women are behind our best food memories, and we don’t give them enough credit for that, as I discovered while writing SOUP.”
Soup transcends cultures and social classes. It’s the food of home, the language of home, and something we can all gather around regardless of where we’re from or who we are.
Ajiaco is made with three varieties of Columbian potatoes (Papa Criolla, Pastusa, and Sabanero) and guascas, a Colombian herb. Textural balance can be achieved by combining starchy, waxy, and salad potatoes. Guascas can be replaced with thyme or coriander.