Once upon a time, a lone traveler teached a village about sharing by getting everyone to contribute an ingredient to his soup until the humble dish becomes a delicious dinner for the whole community.
Despite the fairy tale is simply a fairy tale, a real version of a similar soup exists in Oaxaca, a southwestern state of Mexico….and this is actually a stone soup!
A specialty of the Chinantec people who live along the Papaloapan River, caldo de piedra, literally “stone soup”, is a fish-based soup made right on the banks of the river where fishes are caught. Chinanteco is one of Mexico’s few remaining indigenous languages.
Traditionally, fishermen portion the soup’s ingredients, fish or freshwater shrimp, plus water, tomatoes, onions, lime, and cilantro, into bowls made of hollowed dried gourds, named jicaras.
Meanwhile, a cook builds a fire and heats small river rocks for about two hours, until they’re scorching hot. Using long tongs, he then transfers a stone into each bowl.
The intense heat of the rock roils the liquid and cooks the soup in a matter of minutes.
Said to predate the arrival of the conquistadors, caldo de piedra is now famous enough to be found on the menu in white-tablecloth restaurants, but its roots are in the tiny Chinantec town of San Felipe Usila, where it remains a fundamental part of life despite the fact that the world around it has changed.
Approximately a seven-hour drive from the state capital of Oaxaca, the tiny town of San Felipe Usila was long cut off from the rest of the area by legions of rugged mountains. However, food enthusiasts are increasingly heading to the destination to try out its singular specialty.
There people use everything, and all the soup’s ingredients used to be found right by the river.
Some men (until recently, the soup was prepared exclusively by men) would select the stones from the river while others gathered firewood and fished for shrimp and mojarra. Cooks would collect tomatoes, onions, chiles, garlic and herbs from nearby gardens, and not far from the riverbank is even the jicara tree, the bright-green gourds that get turned into bowls hanging heavy from its branches.
Today it’s different, as a dam built around 20 years ago decimated the local mojarra supply and Usileños now have to drive to the next town to buy fish.
Families lug big bottles of purified water to the shore, fearing that the river water is no longer clean enough to cook with and, instead of using a rock to crush the garlic and tomatoes, some cooks now use graters or even electric blenders to get the job done.
But caldo de piedra still plays an essential role in family get-togethers, especially during Semana Santa (Holy Week), when the riverbank is crowded with clusters of people each preparing their version of the beloved dish in what it is again a traditional communal dish.
After all, it’s a group effort to catch the fish, prepare the individual servings, and build the fire.
In fact, early versions of the soup were whole-village affairs.
The ancient Chinantecs carved river boulders into large cauldrons and, inside the stone pots, they would cook great quantities of caldo de piedra to be shared among the village, not entirely unlike the soup in the fairy tale….
It’s identity, it’s harmony, and family, locals says, and It’s their responsibility to teach the kids, so it doesn’t disappear.
Images from web – Google Research