OK, here is one last Coptic feast to celebrate in January!
On January 19th, every year, Copts or Christian Egyptians celebrate Epiphany.
Epiphany is the memory of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan river. Typically, Copts abstain from eating meat and dairy for one day before the feast.
A deep-rooted Coptic tradition mandates that Copts should eat three things on Epiphany Feast: Kolkas (taro) Soup, sugar cane, and oranges.
An interesting analogy is behind the association between Epiphany and Kolkas or taro soup.
In the Coptic narrative, the cooking process of taro soup resembles baptism.
Taro or kolkas (derived from the Latin name Colocasia esculenta) has a dark, stiff, and unattractive skin hiding a white, pristine flesh, which resembles the sinful nature of humans that hides the Christian soul before baptism. To cook it, the taro skin has to be peeled away and the flesh is immersed in hot soup to cook which alludes to baptism. The greens mixed into the soup such as the Swiss chard and cilantro, symbolize the new life of a Christian after baptism.
For almost an entire decade, Shorbet Kolkas or Taro Soup, to me, almost became a remote memory, given the paucity of taro in the cities where I lived, up until I moved to Singapore.
Taro is a starchy, tropical vegetable found in abundance in Asia. In Singapore, it is thinly sliced and deep-fried like potato chips, or steamed and served in a palm sugar sauce as a dessert.
In Egyptian cuisine, the very same vegetable is handled quite differently.
Egyptian Kolkas (taro) soup or stew is a nutritious dish that has a deep, distinct flavor thanks to the cooked chard, and/or spinach and cilantro blended with a rich beef or vegetable broth.
To finish up the soup, a mixture of crushed garlic and ground coriander is fried in brown butter and added to the simmering soup. This mixture is called Taklia (resembles the Indian Tarka) and it takes any dish to a whole new level of deliciousness.
A decadent taro soup calls for:
a. Good quality broth.
b. Fresh greens blended and cooked to perfection.
C. Taro cubes that are slime-free thanks to a sound soaking and rinsing.
For the stock, I personally prefer to use homemade bone broth (find the recipe here). Alternatively, you can either use homemade or low-sodium store-bought vegetable or beef stock. For what it is worth, chicken broth is my least favorite broth to use in this dish.
To cook the greens, blend the green leaves with 1/2 cup of stock in the blender. In a fine-mesh sieve drain the leaves. Add the green liquid to the 2 cups of simmering stock in a heavy bottom pan, and keep the solids to cook them.
The chard and cilantro solids should be cooked on low heat until they become darker in color. This is probably the most laborious step of the recipe, yet the rest is a piece of cake.
To prepare the taro cubes before we add them to the soup, use gloved hands and a sharp knife and don’t wash the taro before peeling it, as it will get too slimy and hard to grab with your hands.
Start with removing the the two ends of the taro (see the photo below) and then peel away the skin in horizontal stripes. When you have peeled it entirely, slice it in thick slices (of one inch thickness each) and then dice each slice. Soak the diced taro in cold water overnight in the fridge. Rinse the diced taro with tap water right before adding it to the boiling soup. Don’t let it boil more 5 minutes on low heat so it doesn’t get too mushy.
To finish up the soup, making the “taklia” (the mixture of fried garlic and ground coriander) is the last step and the most crucial one that lends to this soup its uniqueness.
Melt a piece of butter in a frying pan. When it browns, stir in the crushed garlic first and then the coarsely crushed coriander. Once this mix becomes fragrant, add a couple of ladlefuls of broth to the garlic and herbs mixture and then add it all to the soup. For directions, watch this step-by-step video.
In the case of using vegetable stock as a base for this soup, Koulkas becomes a full-fledged plant-based dish with a high nutritious value.
I suggest breaking the workload into two days.
- Cook the herbs. This step is the most laborious one, as the herbs take up to 30 minutes of stirring on low-medium heat to darken.
- Peel the taro, cube it, and place it in cold water in the fridge overnight.
- Prepare the homemade bone broth if you are using it.
- Assemble the dish. In a heavy bottom pan, heat the broth on low medium heat. Add the green water (retained from draining the blended greens) and let it boil for 3-5 minutes.
- Simultaneously, in a shallow frying pan, reheat the cooked herbs, and add the butter. Once it sizzles, stir in the crushed garlic and then add coarsely crushed coriander and keep stirring. Once that mix becomes fragrant, mix it into the simmering soup.
Taro and head in Arabic (kolkas and rass) rhyme together, so the joke goes that those who don’t eat taro soup (koulkas) will wake up the next day beheaded (bedoun rass).
Other than this Coptic ritual, there are multiple health benefits of taro that include but not limited to its ability to improve digestion, lower blood sugar levels, prevent certain types of cancers.
Kolkas (Taro-Greens) Soup
- 1 medium taro, diced
- 2 sprigs of chard and/or spinach
- 1 sprig of cilantro
- 1 cup and 2 cups of vegetable or bone broth, separated
- 2 tablespoons butter or ghee
- 1 tablespoon coriander, freshly and coarsely crushed
- 4 garlic cloves, crushed
- Salt and pepper
- 1 lemon, juiced
- Peel the unwashed taro and dice it. Add the taro cubes to a deep container with cold water, and keep it in the fridge overnight or no less than 5 hours to get rid of its sliminess.
- Rinse the taro with tap water and put it aside.
- Prepare the greens. Remove the stems, and keep the leaves of the chard and the fresh cilantro. In a blender, blend the greens’ leaves with 1 cup of stock.
- Squeeze the water out of the blended greens using a fine mesh sieve fitted over a bowl. Add the green water to 2 cups of stock and bring it to a light simmering on low heat.
- Add the diced taro to the simmering soup. Let the taro boil no more than 5 minutes.
- In the meantime, fry the greens in a shallow frying pan until it darkens in color. Add the butter, and once it sizzles, add first the garlic, and stir for one minute, and then add the coriander. Once the mixture becomes fragrant, add it immediately to the simmering soup. Cover the pan with its lid to concentrate the flavors, and turn off the heat.
- Add the salt and pepper to your taste, and add the lemon juice.
- This soup is best served hot, along with vermicelli rice and lemon wedges.
- Don’t wash the taro before cubing it as the water makes the skin too slimy to grab and peel away.
- To sharpen the taste of the soup, it is possible to add a cube of beef or vegetable bouillon.
- You can create an easy vegan version of this soup by using olive oil instead of butter and vegetable broth instead of beef bone broth.