Cooked or heated papaya may be a challenging concept for many South Africans to wrap their heads around, much like many may not consider eating an unripe green papaya, which is a sought-after delicacy in many other food cultures. This is where what you are used to, or what you grew up with, needs to be challenged sometimes to experience something new and interesting. The problem with warming ripe papaya is that doing so does change its characteristics and it does become more vegetative in taste. This is not a bad thing, since the healthy properties of papaya remain and the papaya can be viewed as a supporting ingredient, much like onions are often included in many dishes. For this recipe, however, it is imperative not to boil the papaya but to add it to the soup right at the end to warm through gently and release a bit more of it sweet fruitiness. Although the soup makes an excellent winter dish, it is equally good served at room temperature, something we should enjoy and embrace more often in our country with its climate so reminiscent of the Mediterranean.
Leeks are not readily and consistently available in South Africa. Northern hemisphere inhabitants can find them for most of the year, often with stems as thick as a baby’s arm, and predominantly white – created by using a forcing technique that reduces sunlight and the production of chlorophyll in the plant, which reduces the green part. In South Africa we get excellent examples of leeks for a short period of the year, when it is a good idea to harness their goodness as much as possible. This recipe requires a large quantity of leeks, but they cook and meld into a soft gentle raft of flavour for the remainder of the ingredients. If you are unable to find large leeks, you could opt for shallots or perhaps smaller leeks (although their taste is a little more sharp). If none of these are available, resort to using normal onions, but rather go for red onions for a softer taste. Should your leeks not have a nice big white section, then by all means cut into the green part which will have a much less softer taste and increase the vegetative robustness of your soup. The charm of using the white part of the leeks is that it offers a gentle, deep, rich taste that will not overpower the other vegetables and papaya.
Ingredients for 800 ml soup:
250 g leeks, very thinly sliced, across the grain of the leek
3 large garlic cloves, crushed or thinly sliced
60 ml olive oil
5 ml (1 teaspoon) fresh thyme, small leaves removed from the stalks
2 fresh red chillies, deseeded and finely sliced
30 ml (2 tablespoons) fresh turmeric root, peeled and finely grated
2 large orange sweet potatoes, peeled and coarsely grated
5 ml (1 teaspoon) freshly ground black pepper
2 chicken bouillon cubes, or 750 ml fresh chicken stock
200 g firm ripe papaya, peeled and grated
More fresh thyme for garnish
Warm the olive oil in a large thick-based pot. Add the leeks and garlic and sauté very gently for a long time, until the leeks are really translucent and almost falling apart. Stir now and again. It may be necessary at some point to cover the pot when the leeks are browning too quickly – the lid will create a little steam that will further soften the leeks.
Add the thyme, chilli, turmeric and cook for a minute on high heat stirring all the time.
Add the stock or bouillon cubes (in which case you’d need to add around 750 ml water).
Bring to a boil, add the sweet potato and pepper and simmer for at least half an hour until soft. Do not cover the pot at this point as one wants the mixture to reduce a little, but also ensure that the soup does not become too thick.
When you are ready to serve, while your soup bowls are warming in the oven, stir in the papaya and warm through slightly (see note above).
Serve immediately with a small piece of fresh thyme as garnish. This is a coarse soup consisting of a light broth containing visible vegetables. If you like soups that are puréed, do so just before serving.