The 1980s might have seemed like a fun decade, but there are plenty of weird concepts to answer for: mullet, leg warmers, and packets of processed “French onion soup” mix.
As a first generation Australian kid who grew up in the ’80s, I spent a lot of time at children’s parties and memorable celebrations looking at trendy platters of crackers and dips. onion, made from a mixture of chalky sachets labeled “French onion soup” mixed with sour cream.
The taste was edible enough for a kid who liked the flavor of salt, except when you discovered an air bubble in the dip and ended up swallowing a mouthful of onion kernel.
When the mixture was used to create a “French onion soup” – made according to the instructions (adding boiling water) – the result was a muddy broth sprinkled with onion flakes, salt and other seasonings. Needless to say, the soup mix contributed to a childhood contempt for onions.
This dish was amazing – far from what I ignorantly thought was French onion soup.
Being a naive child, I was too innocent to know that real French onion soup was an age-old dish, made with caramelized onions, butter, flour and beef broth that tasted like sweet heaven. . I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know what “real” unprocessed French onion soup was until I embarked on a right of passage in my 20s and moved to London.
An English encounter with French onion soup
It was a late Sunday afternoon in the English capital. I was staying in a somewhat “shabby” hostel and couldn’t find the energy to explore the area in order to have a late lunch, as I was jet-lagged. So I went to the hostel cafe, occupied by European immigrants, for an easy meal.
Not being able to afford much, I chose the cheap French onion soup from the limited menu and expected little, remembering the mix of processed packets and the dip from my youth.
What I got instead was the onion soup: a dark brown broth, thickened with ladles of melted onion rings, seasoned with bay leaf and thyme. It was covered with a slice of floating bread, topped with cheese that slowly melted into liquid onion goodness.
I guess that explains why eating the soup feels like a sweet, warm hug: it’s a dish that bridges social status and offers food to both royalty and commoners.
This dish was amazing – far from what I ignorantly thought was French onion soup. In fact, it was an underrated bowl of inexpensive gourmet luxury.
The modern version of the soup I have tasted dates back to Paris in the 18e century and was associated with the French monarch Louis XV. Apparently, his court ate the soup to mask the smell of alcohol on their breath. Nowadays, it is often eaten in France as a hangover dish.
I guess this explains why eating soup feels like a sweet, warm hug: It’s a dish that bridges social status and offers food to both royalty and commoners.
Open my mind to culture and food
For me, the true power of the dish went beyond its taste: French onion soup pushed me to broaden my cultural culinary horizons.
Although I grew up in a European household, I avoided vegetables like the plague and ate fairly simply. Thinking back to my days before living abroad, I see that I was a closed-minded eater. But this soup, tasted while I dined alone in a foreign land, encouraged me to deepen the flavors I loved, regardless of previous influences.
Soon I started experimenting with my diet. Over the next three years that I lived in London, I traveled as much of Europe as I could and ate. I tasted new dishes and began to understand how food shapes our cultural identity. Like many young Australians traveling across Europe, my taste buds were often blown away and my mind was always expanding.
Forge new culinary traditions based on my own experiences
Soup has also shaped many personal moments. I was fortunate enough to travel across France with my late mother, perusing the ‘dish of the day’ in local towns, hoping to mark onion soup as the starter of a budget three-course meal.
In the months following my mother’s death in 2019, I made my slowly cooked French onion soup for my father, who is now deceased. It was heartwarming to see my grieving father raise his eyebrows with joy with each sip, nourished by its contents, converted to its charm.
These days, soup helps me forge new family cooking traditions. Recently I made the same simmered version that I gave my parents for my one year old son. Watching him obsessively devour the broth, cheese bread and caramelized onions – wearing half on his face and bib – warmed my soul.
That’s why my slow-cooked French onion soup also represents a refreshing tradition of self-discovery on so many levels.
The dish is a reminder that – in life, in the kitchen and at the table – we are able to forge our own unique paths. We are influenced by our genetics, the culture of our parents and the environmental factors that determine our childhood.
But then we become adults. If we are looking for new opportunities to explore, we can try new dishes, embrace new cultures, and change our minds about the foods we once hated or loved. More importantly, we can make choices about who we are and what we eat as we move forward into our future. And, if we’re lucky, we’ll get to eat a lot of French onion soup along the way.
Do you like history? Follow the author here: Instagram @yasmin_noone
Simmered French Onion Soup (French Onion Soup)
- 4 large brown or white onions, thinly sliced and separated into rings
- 6 tbsp Unsalted butter
- 1 tbsp White sugar
- 2 Garlic cloves, minced
- ½ cup cooking sherry
- 1.5 liter salted beef broth
- 3 sprigs of fresh thyme
- 2 dried bay leaves
- Salt and black pepper, to taste
- 6 slices of french bread
- ¾ cup grated Gruyere cheese
- Fresh parsley or thyme leaves
- Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Cook the onions in the butter for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent.
- Add the sugar to the pan. Cook, stirring constantly, for at least 30 minutes until the onions are caramelized and golden.
- Add the garlic to the onions and cook for one minute.
- Pour in the sherry and deglaze the pan.
- Place the onion mixture in a slow cooker on low. Pour in the beef broth, before adding the seasoning, bay leaf and thyme. Season with salt and pepper.
- Put the lid on the slow cooker and cook for eight to 10 hours.
- Once the soup has finished cooking and you are ready to serve, preheat the grill (choose the grill oven if this setting is available. Otherwise, opt for the grill setting).
- Pour a few generous spoons of the broth and onion into a heatproof serving bowl. Float the bread in the soup, so that its base is drowned in the broth and its top is above the liquid. Generously garnish the bread with cheese all the way to the corners.
- Place the soup bowl – with cheese bread – under the grill.
- Toast the bread until the cheese is melted (about 2 to 5 minutes depending on your grill). It must have brown spots and bubbles. Serve hot, garnished with fresh thyme.
- Cheese: If you can’t afford Gruyère, opt for Swiss cheese instead.
- Alcohol: Sherry can be replaced with Marsala wine. Other recipes also use dry white wine.
- Herbs: If you don’t have fresh thyme for the soup, use ¼ teaspoon of dried thyme. Fresh sage is another option if you have it on hand.
- Flour: There is no flour in this slow cooker recipe, but if you do it on a saucepan, you can create a roux first with equal parts butter and flour.
- Bread Type: Once your dish is done, your spoon should easily cut the bread into the soup. So, the softer the bread, the better.
- Bread Size: Use common sense to match the size of the bread slice with the bowl you are using. If you are using a baguette and a large soup bowl, divide a few slices of bread into the broth. But if you’re using a standard-sized bowl and a loaf of store-bought fresh bread from a bread maker, use a thick slice.