Nearly any soup with tomatoes as a primary ingredient can properly be called a tomato soup. Some of the most familiar tomato soups are simply pureed tomatoes, often with a bit of chicken stock, water, or cream added. There are many different versions of tomato soup, however. Almost every culture in the world has some sort of tomato soup recipe. From hot soups to cold soups, from mild broths to spicy stocks, there is a tomato soup to suit almost every palate.
Tomatoes grow well in almost any climate. They are cultivated worldwide and have become an important part of many different national cuisines. From ripe tomato pizzas and fresh sauces in Italy to the tomato stews of North Africa, the quintessential egg-and-tomato British breakfast, and the beefsteak tomatoes so frequently found atop American hamburgers, tomatoes are ubiquitous. So, too, is the prevalence of tomato soup. It was not always this way, however.
The first tomato plants grew only in the limited area spanning from what is now central Mexico down to about the middle of Brazil in South America. Spanish explorers and settlers arrived in this part of the world in 1400s, and the tomato plant was one of the many things they brought back with them to Spain. Tomatoes soon became widespread throughout Western Europe, the Spanish trade route and spice route, and from there most all points of the globe.
It figures, then, that tomato soups have been a staple of many different cultures’ cuisines for hundreds of years. Most soup recipes combine tomatoes with other locally available ingredients and produce. The tomato soup popular among the Aztecs and other native inhabitants of Latin America often featured corn, chiles, and onion, for instance.
Some of the first Spanish-origin tomato soups were served cold. Tomatoes typically are at their ripest in midsummer, and Spanish climate can be quite hot in that time of year. Early Spanish cooks first added tomatoes to gazpacho, a traditional chilled soup made with beans, broth, and cubes of stale bread.
Cold tomato soup preparations are also common in African cuisines. Many recipes from this region feature native vegetables, such as yams and peppers, along with fish, rice, and local spices. There is great variety with respect to how tomatoes should be prepared for these soups. Whether left whole, peeled and seeded, roughly chopped, or pureed, different tomato treatments and textures will yield very different types of soups.
In the United States and throughout most of Western Europe, tomato soup is generally a much simpler affair. Often times, the soup in these places is little more than tomato puree, tomato paste, and water. Some cooks add milk or cream, but for the most part, the ingredients are tomatoes and very little else. A reference to “classic tomato soup” most likely means this kind of very simple, very basic preparation. This kind of tomato soup is usually quite easy to make at home, although condensed tomato soups, typically sold in tin cans, are very popular, particularly in the United States.