The Curious Cook

Don’t be shellfish, this soup is for sharing

Photo: Justus Wagener

It has been raining solidly for  days and after a difficult year of water restrictions here in the Western Cape of South Africa, we are reveling in an abundance of water.

The almost four year-long drought hasn’t broken yet, but as I write this our dams are just a hair’s breadth away from being filled to 50% capacity so we are whooping with joy and relief. This means that because we managed to adequately save water, and must keep doing so, the pall of Day Zero is no longer an impending reality.

But the cold has been pernicious and I have been shivering at my desk, eking out a feeble flow of words before retreating back to the only real warmth I can find, my bed, also known as the Fortress of Down. With Edward Gorey and Stefan Zweig by my side, we will see this winter out.

I was in raptures this afternoon while drinking a large mug of spiced hot chocolate (you can find the recipe in my previous post Cocoa de Loco) which warmed and revivified me right down to my toes. Another little oasis of warmth was the spicy and delicious creamy mussel soup I made last night which surprised me with its depth of flavour. I wait with baited breath to see if such alchemy can be repeated so dearest readers, do try it and let me know how it works out.

The ‘secret’ and unusual ingredient of this soup is to use a generous quantity of the brine from a jar of pickled herring, but not the type that contains any artificial sweetener, which alas, many do. Because of this rather strange addition, if you taste the soup halfway through the cooking time, it may taste a little sour but the brine adds an unexpectedly deep bass note which turns out to be essential. If you simmer it a little longer, the brine joins the others to create a truly satisfying soup experience. I have also made the soup without the brine and it is almost just as good.

Another important note is to make sure the frozen mussels are at least partially thawed, otherwise they will shrink in the heat and don’t become lusciously plump and able to release their delicious liquor. I wouldn’t normally recommend using frozen instead of fresh mussels but in this case, using fresh mussels would be a mistake as they are too delicate to withstand this carefully built up layer of flavours.

This recipe is gluten and dairy free and serves four generously.

Spicy mussel soup


1 large orange sweet potato, peeled and diced into small cubes

100g green beans, tailed and sliced into thin rounds

1 onion, diced finely

350g shelled frozen mussels, partially thawed

2 sticks celery, diced finely

1 T cold pressed coconut oil

1 sachet concentrated beef or chicken stock, or 300ml fresh stock

½ cup of brine from a jar of pickled herring

¼ tin of peeled, diced tomatoes

Half a tin of coconut milk

1 heaped teaspoon tomato paste

2 T coconut cream powder

2 T red wine vinegar

Fresh coriander or flat leafed parsley, roughly chopped- to taste


1/2 tsp fish sauce

½ tsp smoked paprika

1/2 tsp sriracha sauce

1tsp fresh ginger, grated

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 tsp red curry paste

¼ tsp ground allspice

1 tsp ground turmeric

¼ tsp Chinese five spice

½ tsp black pepper, freshly ground


Begin by making sure you at least partially thaw the mussels, which only takes about three hours or so, so if you remember to take them out of the freezer by lunchtime this works perfectly.

Dice the onion and celery and sauté in coconut oil in a large sturdy pot. Grate the ginger and keep on frying. Crush the garlic and add with the red curry paste, stirring all the while until fragant. When the onion starts to catch at the bottom of the pot, add a good glug of red wine vinegar to reduce.

Then add the diced sweet potato, crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, sriracha sauce and stock and about 300ml of water as well as the brine. Stir and add the fish sauce and all the spices except the black pepper. Cover and simmer for a few minutes.

Next add the coconut milk and coconut cream powder and cover and simmer further until the sweet potatoes are half cooked.

Then add the mussels and diced green beans and the black pepper. Gently simmer, uncovered, for 10-15 minutes. Taste and if you have a rich, deep spicy flavour the soup is ready. If too sour to your taste, add a dash of coconut milk and cook uncovered for a further few minutes.

Garnish with roughly chopped coriander or flat leafed parsley.

Serve as is or with garlic bread if you’re feeling bold and enjoy while the rain pelts down on the roof.

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