The Curious Cook

Soup for the soul


Oxtail mushroom and dumpling soup

In one of my favourite chapters of Alice in Wonderland, Alice meets a decidedly gruff Gryphon and a strangely lugubrious Mock Turtle, which is a bit of an ‘inside joke’ making fun of that Victorian dinner party stalwart – mock turtle soup. Is it real or is it mock? Well no one’s sure as he sings, with a tear in his eye:

“Beautiful Soup so rich, so green,
Waiting in a hot tureen
Who for such dainties would not stoop
Soup of the evening
Beautiful Soup…”

Indeed, what is better than a bowlful of beautiful soup? The options are endless – ramen soup with chilli, garlic and ginger for when you have a cold… creamy carrot soup swirled with toasted cumin seeds and melted butter for a dinner party… minestrone with red kidney beans and kale.

But there is one soup that stands out most vividly in my memory. Well, two soups in fact. One chilly winter in the mid-1980s my mother hosted a dinner party at our house where she served only soup. The pall of the state-of-emergency hanged over our heads and everyone’s nerves were jangling. As secretary of the local branch of the Black Sash, my mother was involved in organising protests and meetings to help empower local black women. The homes of our friends became secret safe houses for black men and women fleeing arrest and torture under the hands of the police. It was time to come together and be fed. So she made a rich brown sugar bean soup with beef shin and a delicate Dutch pea soup with both fresh and dried peas. I remember the journalist Don Pinnock remarking, as he dunked some garlic bread into his bowl: “The pea soup stimulates the palate and the bean soup feeds the belly.”

It was only in thinking back on this simple dinner that I realised that the dishes themselves represent different aspects of South African cultures. Sugar beans, which are used extensively in Xhosa cuisine, were cooked according to an old boerekos recipe, quite literally two cultures merged in one recipe. The pea soup represents the past (with the Dutch occupation of the Cape hundreds of years ago) and the future (my mother’s twist of adding fresh peas with mint).

If I were to serve soup as gesture of reconciliation, I would make curried oxtail soup with herb dumplings. The oxtail doesn’t only represent the continuing symbolic and real-world importance of cattle in Africa but brings us all together as all South African cultures love and make oxtail in one way or another. The spices naturally represent our Indian and Malaysian forebears, who injected flavour and colour to our cuisine, rescuing us from a world of blandness. And the comforting dumplings are equal parts traditional African and English, to the extent that you can’t tell which culture thought of it first. It is when you look at food and how it unites us that you remember that we are a country made up of many people from many different origins and most, if not all of it, is problematic. Yet, like with a good recipe, one can’t separate the skeins of the story any more – all we can do is celebrate each other and acknowledge how far we have come.

Spicy oxtail soup with herb dumplings

3 tbsp olive oil

1.25kg oxtail, trimmed of fat and cut into pieces

1 onion, roughly chopped

1 celery stalk, roughly chopped

1 large carrot, sliced into thick rounds

3 bay leaves

1 clove garlic, chopped

Half a fresh chilli, chopped, seeds removed

8 black peppercorns

1 tsp Woolworths chermoula spice

1 tsp cumin seeds, toasted

1 T apple cider vinegar

2 tsp concentrated tomato paste

300ml red wine

1.5 litres beef stock

1 T plain flour


280 g cake flour, sifted

5 ml salt

2 tsp baking powder

5 ml white sugar

½ tsp salt

2 T finely chopped mixed herbs such as parsley, chervil, thyme or tarragon

½ cup of milk

1 T butter, room temperature


Heat the olive oil in a cast iron pot and, in batches, fry the oxtail on a high heat until browned. Remove and set aside. Add all the vegetables to the pot with the apple cider vinegar and cook for 5 minutes, reducing slightly. Add the wine and reduce a little further. Then add the chilli, garlic, spices and tomato paste and cook for another few minutes.

Preheat the oven to 160 degrees.

Return the oxtail to the pot and pour in the stock. Bring to a gentle boil, then turn down the heat to a simmer. Mix the flour and milk in a small bowl and quickly add to the soup, stirring to avoid any lumps. Cover and place in the oven for 3-5 hours, until the oxtail is really tender and falling off the bone. You can cool the soup before removing the bones but I have found that mostly people prefer it as is as the bones are actually great fun to eat.

While the soup has been simmering in the oven for at least three hours, make the dumplings by stirring together the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl. Cut in the butter until the mixture becomes crumbly. Stir in the herbs and the milk to form a soft dough.

Pinch off small bits of dough, roll into balls and place onto the soup. Replace the lid and simmer for a further 15 minutes or until the dumplings have cooked through.

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