It’s cold here in Riyadh. Well, not Missouri cold, but Saudi Arabia cold, definitely. The low today was 37 degrees Fahrenheit, and the high today is supposed to be 59 degrees. Which, for a country that hits 120 degrees on a regular basis in the summer, is cold, man. Cold.
Plus, the weather here in Riyadh is different. In Missouri, there’s still some moisture to the air, even in the cold. Here, it’s dry, dry, dry. (And I thought my skin hated Missouri winters!) So when it’s windy, the cold feels like it’s seeping into your bones.
So on this chilly day in the desert, I thought it would be a good idea to whip up some hot Quaker soup for myself (and Simsim, natch) for lunch.
I was first introduced to the concept of Quaker soup during the fall of 2008. It was Saleh’s first Ramadan outside of Saudi Arabia. Soup (or shorba in Arabic), especially Quaker soup, is mostly a Saudi Ramadan specialty, so he couldn’t imagine not having Quaker soup during Ramadan. And although he’d never made it himself, he was determined to try. (This is also how he figured out how to make kabsa. I am pretty sure that many a young Saudi man has gone abroad to study and come back a pretty decent cook, due to so many homesickness-induced evenings spent attempting to emulate their mommas’ cooking in their own kitchens. So girls who’ve managed to fall in love with Saudis abroad, I have this advice for you: don’t cook for him. At least not right away. Let him figure out some of his own cooking skills. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.)
I admit that when Saleh first asked me if I knew where we could “buy Quaker,” I was confused. (Frankly, it sounded like some kind of drug euphemism. “Hey, dude, do you know a good Quaker dealer here?”) He tried to explain: “You know, it has a the guy with white hair and a funny hat?” When I finally figured out that he meant oatmeal, I was a bit grossed out. I mean, I’m American–we eat oatmeal in the morning for breakfast, in all its thick, sludgy glory, preferably with lots of butter, sugar, cinnamon, and just a teensy bit of milk to cool it down (well, at least, that’s how my momma makes it). The thought of eating oatmeal in the evening, in a soup, was kinda icky.
Nevertheless, we went to the grocery store, and I steered him toward the breakfast aisle. I picked up a canister of Quaker quick oats and said, “Is this what you mean?”
Saleh got excited. “Yes! That’s him!”
So we bought a box of Quaker and took it back to his kitchen. I studied while he got busy cooking. By the time it was maghrib, I was starving enough to try Quaker soup. (I wasn’t Muslim yet then, but I was fasting with Saleh so he wouldn’t feel quite so sad and lonely.)
That Quaker “soup” was pretty much exactly what I expected it to be: tomatoey oatmeal. It was thick and sludgy and not at all soupy. But much to my surprise, it wasn’t that bad. Probably not something I’d ever want to eat again, and I certainly didn’t understand why Saleh had such a craving for the stuff (although he admitted, “Well, it’s not like my mom’s at all”). But still, it wasn’t terrible. Despite the promising start, though, he never tried to make Quaker soup again.
Then I got to Saudi Arabia, and I ate about a ton of my mother-in-law’s Quaker soup over the course of my first Ramadan here. Wow. I understood. Incredible.
I watched her make her Quaker soup a few times, and I jotted down some basic notes. Then one day a few months ago, Saleh called me from work and said, “Honey, I don’t feel good. I’m coming home from work early. Can you make me some Quaker soup?”
Put me in, Coach! I consulted my notes and tweaked the recipe a bit. When I put the bowl of soup in front of Saleh, I said, “Try it.” Then…(in Squints’ from The Sandlot voice) he did. And he liked it! A lot!
So I’m proud of myself because Quaker soup is the first Saudi recipe that I have truly mastered. I don’t need a book, and I don’t need to call my mother-in-law to ask her questions. I can just whip it right up, and I know it will be good.
Truth be told, it’s really easy.
Quick cooking Quaker oats, a can (or box, as is more common here) of tomato paste, water, milk, olive oil, whole cloves (ground cloves will work if that’s all you have), an onion, a couple limes, a garlic clove, a cube of chicken stock, and cardamom pods (again, the ground version will work). Lots of people put meat (chicken, lamb, etc.) in their Quaker soup; I don’t. It would take longer to cook, and plus, why mess with a good thing? It would be really easy to make this a vegetarian soup by substituting the chicken stock cube for a veggie stock cube. And it could be made vegan by substituting the milk with more water (although the soup will be slightly less creamy).
The small onion piece on the right is all the onion you need. Chopped up, it was probably about a quarter of a cup. I used the small part and the rest went into a zip baggie in the refrigerator. (And no, contrary to a popular Facebook story circulating right now, eating leftover onions will not kill you.) While you’re chopping on the cutting board, peel the garlic clove.
Next, put a little olive oil in the bottom of a small pot (just enough to cover the bottom of the pot), and mash the peeled garlic clove into the oil. (I suppose you could finely chop the garlic clove, if you don’t have a garlic smasher. And yes, I’m sure there is a more technical term for that tool, and no, I don’t know what it is. But I can safely say that in my Saudi kitchen, my garlic smasher and my lime squeezer are my two must-have kitchen gadgets.)
Add the chopped onion, about five cardamom pods, and about five whole cloves. Then put the pot on medium heat. When the onions and garlic are light brown, add water. You see the little cup measurement markings on the side of the pot? I fill the pot up with water until it hits two cups. Then I add milk until the liquid level hits three cups. After you add the milk, drop in the chicken stock cube (however, if you’re making this in the States, I would suggest using two cubes. The Knorr stock cubes that I use here are about twice the size of those Wyler ones that come in a jar).
Next, it’s time for the tomato paste! I usually use about half a box of tomato paste; I think that would be around four tablespoons or so. You can add more or less, depending on how tomatoey you like things. Finally, add the Quaker oats! You can add anywhere from a quarter of a cup to a half cup. I like my soups to be a little thicker, so I usually go for closer to a half. But don’t overdo it on the Quaker. Even with a half a cup, it may seem like there’s hardly any oats in it at all. But the oats will expand as they cook, and if you put too much oats in the soup, you’ll just get tomato oatmeal.
Yeah, it looks kinda gross now, but it won’t when it’s done. Cover it and let it simmer on low heat for about 20 minutes.
Once the Quaker cooks and has expanded, voila! You have Quaker soup. Garnish with cilantro (because let’s face it, everything looks better with cilantro) and if you like, squeeze fresh limes into the soup. (I think the number one rule in Saudi cooking is, everything tastes better with limes. Well, actually, maybe that’s the number two rule. The number one rule is probably, everything tastes better with hot sauce. Many Saudis go for Crystal; Saleh prefers good ol’ Tabasco. But in any case, I squeeze limes on pretty much everything now. They’re so versatile and make everything so delicious!)
So, yeah. That’s my version of Quaker soup. This recipe will make about two bowls of soup, so if you’re looking to feed a family, double (or triple) up! If you’re American and you’ve never tried oatmeal outside of breakfast and cookies, I really suggest you give it a try! It’s simple and fast, and it’s an amazing cold weather soup. It’s totally something I’d cook on a snow day, if we had those here!
Postscript (added January 17, 2013): A good friend of mine who is vegan suggested that non-flavored almond milk would be a good substitute for the milk in this recipe. So if you’re keen on making Quaker soup the vegan way and want to maintain that creamy consistency, you might give that a try. Thanks, Sarah!