Since antiquity, split pea soup has been a part of the cuisine of many cultures around the world. In Germany, Erbensuppe (split pea soup), used to be the food of men at sea as dried peas were easy to store and the soup was simple to make. Nowadays, the soup is quite common throughout the country, particularly during the cold winter months. It’s not yet winter here, but I like to begin cooking variations of split pea soup in the fall, when the temperature starts to drop, signaling the time for cozy sweaters, warm boots, hats and gloves is soon to come.
Depending on regional preferences, Germany’s Erbensuppe often contains meat such as bacon, sausage or Kassler (cured and smoked pork). Smoked paprika lends a nice hint of sultry smokiness in this vegetarian version. For added texture, and because I was just curious, I tried serving this split pea soup with a couple of different grains. One was spelt, the traditional grain of Germany.
Spelt is an ancient relative of modern-day wheat that originated in the near East and later spread across Europe. It became very popular in Germany where it was farmed throughout the Middle Ages. Spelt has never been hybridized, so a lot of its original character has been retained since antiquity. It has a very chewy texture and sweet, nutlike flavor. It’s also a good source of iron. Please note that it’s best to soak spelt berries overnight before using it in hot cereals, pilafs, soups or salads.
The other grain I experimented with is an ancient grain called Japanese Hato Mugi (Job’s tears). Resembling large barley and less sticky than brown rice, it can be enjoyed alone, mixed with rice or in soup. Hato Mugi adds flavor and body to soups and stews that require lengthy cooking, such as split pea soups. Like spelt berries, it’s best to soak Hato Mugi overnight before cooking.
I was able to purchased Hato Mugi at my local health foods market, but if you can’t find it locally, you can purchase it online. Or, you can use whole grain or pearl barley as a substitute. Depending on your preference, you can cook your grain of choice in the soup with the split peas, or you can ladle soup on top of your grain.
German-Inspired Split Pea Soup
Adapted from Saveur’s German Split Pea Soup
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1 stalk of celery, finely chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and finely chopped
1 celery root, peeled and shredded (or peeled and finely chopped)
2 bay leaves
8 sprigs fresh thyme
1 tablespoon smoked paprika, plus more for garnish
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 pound green split peas, rinsed and drained
7 cups water or more
salt and freshly ground black pepper
Hato Mugi, barley or spelt berries*
Heat oil in a large pot, add onions and cook over medium-high heat for about 1 minute. Add garlic, celery, carrots, and celery root. Season with salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 10 minutes. Add bay leaves, thyme, smoked paprika and turmeric and cook 3 minutes. Add split peas and 7 cups water. If using Hato Mugi, barley or spelt berries, and you’d like to add your grain to the soup in advance, add them here, with the peas. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until peas are very tender, about 1 hour. If necessary, add more water. In general pea soup requires a long cooking time—until the peas are really soft and mushy.
Remove from heat. Discard bay leaves and thyme sprigs. Use an immersion blender and pulse a few times. Blend a portion of the soup leaving small chunks of peas and other vegetables. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more salt and pepper to your preference. Ladle into bowls and serve. For garnish, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with paprika.