Split pea soup is nutritious, cheap, hearty, and wholesome, but it’s not typically the world’s most exciting soup. Cooked with Indian Spices, however, pea soup really becomes something intensely flavorful and astounding. This Indian Spiced Split Pea Soup is the best pea soup I’ve ever tasted. Not kidding even a little bit. It’s really good!
Traditional European Split Pea Soups
Split pea soup is pretty common to Northern European culinary traditions. I suspect it has to do with the fact that dried split peas store well in frozen climates without suffering any discernible damage. You can store a sack of split peas outside during a frozen winter and they’ll fare just fine.
Split pea soup is a popular traditional dish in Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, and in Scandinavian countries. It’s traditional with Britons too, as evidenced by the English language nursery rhyme “Pease Porridge hot. Pease porridge cold. Pease porridge in the pot nine days old” (I’ll take the first of those three options, thank you). It’s also popular in northern parts of the United States and throughout Canada. Again with the cold winter thing.
There is a basic family resemblance to split pea soup across all of these culinary traditions. They’re all flavored with some kind of pork product: bacon, sausages, ham, salt pork. And that makes sense. Dried split peas are kind of, um….boring. Alone the flavor is sort of neutral and muddy. Not bad, but not very exciting. Consequently, in these pea soups most of the flavor is contributed by the seasoned pork. And it works. This is hearty good stuff.
I have both Finnish and Swedish ancestry, so I’ve eaten more than my share of split pea soup in my day. The version I grew up with is made with a leftover ham bone that still has some meat on the bone. I’ve loved that soup since I was a small child.
Indian Spiced Split Pea Soup
I was talking about comfort food at work a few weeks ago with my friend and colleague Nicole, and somehow we ended up taking about split pea soup. And she mentioned that her husband makes it with Indian spices, that it’s so wonderful, and comforting, and delicious. And that was a revelation for me. It made perfect sense. I knew I had to try it.
The humble pea is a pulse. In India and other South Asian cultures pulses are called dal. Dals include lentils, beans, and yes, peas. And that’s the only association I needed. What you do is you make an Indian dal soup, only you use split peas instead of red (or yellow) lentils. And that, as they say, is that.
As I noted earlier, split peas are a little boring, so the European strategy of seasoning them with cured pork makes a lot of sense. But the aggressiveness of Indian spices? Wow! I never imagined I could be all that excited by split pea soup, but this stuff is amazing! Onions and garlic and ginger, and lots of cumin. Mustard seed. Warming anti-oxidant turmeric. Some cayenne for a bit of heat, and just a dash of cardamom. Bliss! Those spices are tailor made for a neutral flavored food like split peas.
As a garnish I simply thinned some plain yogurt with fresh squeezed lime juice. The cooling, sour counterpoint works really well with the spicy soup. I also added a bit of chopped Indian lime pickle for its salty-sour punch (I have a recipe for it here). Finally, the pomegranate provides some texture and a flash of contrasting color. It’s a good looking soup. And did I mention the 13 grams of fiber in a serving? 13. Grams. Of. Fiber. Pow!
You make this soup and people are going to be wowed. Seriously.
P.S., If you’re South Asian and you’re thinking to yourself, “Duh! What’s the big deal? We’ve been eating pea soup this way in my culture for centuries!” You’re way ahead of me. To an American guy like me this is a revelation.
- 1 Pound Split Peas
- 3 Cups Vegetable Stock
- 3-4 Cups Water
- 1 Teaspoon Kosher Salt
- ⅓ Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 Medium Yellow Onion, peeled and finely diced
- ¾ Teaspoon Freshly Ground Cardamom
- 2 Tablespoons Freshly Minced Garlic
- 2 Tablespoons Freshly Minced Ginger
- 2 Tablespoons Mustard Seeds
- 1 Tablespoon Cumin Seeds
- 1 Teaspoon Ground Turmeric
- ½ Teaspoon Ground Cayenne Pepper
- Plain Yogurt
- Fresh Squeezed Lime Juice
- Pomegranate Arils
- Lime Pickle
- Pick through the split peas to remove any stones or debris.
- Place the stock, 3 cups of water, and the salt in a large stock pot and bring to a low simmer.
- Meanwhile, saute the onion in two tablespoons of the olive oil on medium low heat until they become very soft and translucent. Add the ground cardamom and cook a few minutes more. Add the onion-cardamom mixture to the stock pot.
- In the same skillet, saute the garlic and ginger in the remaining olive oil on medium low heat, taking care not to brown or burn the garlic. After a few minutes, add the mustard, cumin, turmeric, and cayenne. Turn up the heat and cook until the mustard seeds start popping and crackling. Add this mixture to the stock pot as well.
- Add the split peas to the stock pot and simmer, covered, until the peas are cooked (about 30 minutes). Add additional water as needed if soup becomes too thick.
- Mix some fresh squeezed lime juice into some plain yogurt. Drizzle the mixture on top of each bowl of soup.
- Garnish with pomegranate arils and, if you have any, some minced lime pickle.