A Soup for the Soul: Une Soupe des Poissons

Standing outside at the Honolulu airport in the moist, warm night air, my body felt utterly exhausted.

Arriving back at home, I promptly fell into bed, worn out from a long day of travel—too many planes and airports, and hurtling through the atmosphere for too many hours. Convenient and speedy as it is, I don’t think our bodies were made to fly through the air at an elevation more than 30,000 feet while traveling at speeds over five hundred miles an hour. It’s unnatural. I always find long distance air travel a bit surreal—arriving in a totally different environment or culture from where I departed only hours ago.

I’ve been away from Hawai’i on the US mainland, a visit to my spiritual homeland of northern New Mexico—specifically the region of Taos but also, to a lesser extent, the rustic yet cosmopolitan town of Santa Fe. It has been five years since I was last in the high desert, a place that has long nourished almost every level of my being. Returning to those wide vistas beneath a turquoise sky, the dry air and pueblo-style adobe architecture that so beautifully suits the landscape, a warm wave of joy flooded through my bodysoul. Add to this the trills of emerald hummingbirds zooming by, the yipping laughter of coyotes at night, the scent of fresh green chiles roasting at the farmer’s market, and a delicious dinner reunion with a dear friend, well, everything in my being opened up like some desert flower. I found myself drunkenly content and deeply nourished. Home again.

Returning to Honolulu, my mood and spirit shifted. Sad. Heavy. Free of its touch for a week, I once again felt the constriction of body and heart that has become familiar since locating here from Maui in April. Certainly I understand that there are far worse places than O’ahu to return home to and I try to keep gratitude foremost in mind, yet my current suburban existence does not feed my wild, elemental soul in the way that I wish it did.

Feeling jet lagged, blue, and out of sorts, I took myself to the beach at Waimanalo to place myself in the healing waters of Mother Ocean. I needed to reconnect with myself and the island, to shift into a place of gratitude for being here. There is nothing quite so restorative as being immersed in a natural body of water after travel; I find it even more effective than standing barefoot on the earth, as it delivers a near immediate re-set of our bioelectrical field. Fortunately the waters of Hawaii are welcoming (as opposed to say, the coast of England), thus I drove around to the windward side of the island and plunged into the clear blue sea.

I swam for a bit, relishing the exercise and movement after the extended period of cramped inactivity during travel. Eventually I lay back in the gentle, aquamarine waves and floated on my back like an otter. It was then that I felt my constricted bodymind begin to relax and unwind, felt the protected shell around my heart begin soften and open. As I surrendered to the currents and waves, letting my body simply bob along like a sea turtle beneath the bright sun and jagged green cliffs, I could feel my bodysoul recalibrating. Realigning. It felt as if invisible hands moved my body, gently guiding me this way and that, while a nurturing sense of well being flooded through my core.

Feeling restored on a physical level, more expansive and allowing, I knew that the next step in shifting mood and attitude would occur in my kitchen. A soul ritual, of sorts. I yearned for something deliciously savory and comforting to eat, a lovely dish to share at the table with my beloved. As I considered some options, imagining the taste of each and deciding whether or not it would satisfy my craving, what rose to mind was a Provençal bouillabaisse—the classic Mediterranean fish stew. I hadn’t made one in years, not since living in Spain, and in some ways a hearty, hot soup in the humid, summer heat of Hawai’i seemed an odd choice. Yet when it surfaced in my gustatory mind, it rang bells as the perfect coming home meal.

Whole Foods Market at Kahala was crowded (as it nearly always is), yet even as I pulled inwards from the bustle of noise and commotion, I managed to find my better self amid the aisles of appealing fruits and vegetables. Held up to my nose, the anise-like notes of fresh basil and the clean scent of flat leaf parsley brought a smile to my face, and when I spied the pale bulbs of locally grown, organic fennel with their green, feathery fronds, I knew my imagined soup would come together in a delicious fashion.

In the south of France, few things are more hotly contested than what constitutes a ‘true’ bouillabaisse, each region—and cook—having their own rules and regulations. Typically, a Bouillabaissebouillabaisse is composed with several types of small fish (a few key ones are considered essential), cut up or served whole, and shellfish. Because of the fish, many would argue that an authentic bouillabaisse cannot be made away from the Mediterranean; certainly it is a dish that deeply conveys a sense of place in its flavors. While none of those traditional fish can I lay lands upon in Hawai’i, I felt inspired by the general idea of the classic—a rich tomato, fennel, and saffron-infused soup loaded with various fish, served with a spicy rouille (a red pepper aïoli) swirled into the mix or ladled atop toasted slices of baguette and covered with the broth. My island version would hardly be traditional, instead being more along the lines of a soupe de poissons, but it would be delicious. Served with a chilled glass of dry Provençal rosé, bien sûr.

At home in the kitchen, I laid out the ingredients on the white tile counter. I cut the firm filets of local fish—opah, hajiki, and monchong—into cubes; lacking small fish with gelatinous bones and fins, I tossed some fatty strips of ahi (yellowfin tuna) belly, along with a whole fish head into the stockpot to impart a deep flavor to the cooking broth.

As I began to pound the garlic in the heavy marble mortar, working the egg yolk and spices with the pestle to form the beginning paste for the rouille, I found myself settling back into being home. Familiar rhythms of the kitchen, working with fresh ingredients and tools that are dear to me, I felt myself arriving ever more fully into my bodysoul again. A sense of opening and expansion in the chest, a slight smile at the corners of my mouth. The high desert plateau of Taos began to fade, the ache in my soul eased through the beauty of good ingredients combined with artful care. The gorgeous, burnished golden hue of the finished sauce in the mortar—redolent with the beguiling scents of saffron and smoked chiles, pungent with garlic—was a prize in itself. Tasting it, I swooned.

Sitting down at the table, windows open to the warm, moist evening air, I inhaled the stew’s aroma, delighting in its subtleties and complexity before I even dipped spoon into the orange-hued broth. The spicy rouille was swirled into the bowl amid the glistening chunks of fish, the surface dusted with finely chopped fennel fronds and grated orange zest (grown organically in Ka’u on the Big Island). The aroma altogether enticing and freshly seductive.

As I tasted the stew in its wide, shallow bowl, I closed my eyes—savoring the depth and interplay of flavors, textures and scents.Yes, I think, this is exactly what I wanted.

Opening our senses—to beauty, to inspiration, to nature, to pleasure, to shadow—is one of the key soul skills that roots us down and fosters an expansion of spirit. Whether at the dining table or walking in a neighborhood, we nourish the soul by allowing ourselves to be seduced through polysensory awareness. Each thing waits for us to notice it, to acknowledge its presence, to celebrate its beauty or mourn its demise.

The soul only unfurls when we allow it to expand—to grow—and this we do through conscious choice. Paying attention and slowing down. Unlocking and stretching a tightly held bodymind. Choosing to shift our habitual responses. Relinquishing expectations. Trusting the mystery. Embracing gratitude.

When faced with a difficult passage or exploring their edges, Soul Artists endeavor to remain expansive rather than constricting into familiar, restrictive patterns. They root down into their surroundings and open their heart, senses and soul. They feel their fear, sadness and grief but go on, knowing the only way through is directly ahead. At every turn, Soul Artists create beauty in their lives and share it with others. They give themselves away, offering their gifts freely.

Gentle reader, here’s hoping you learn to recognize the things that truly nourish you—body, mind, spirit and soul—and that you consciously gather them into your life. Or live where you can find and cultivate them. May personal rituals and soul skills assist you to open and expand through your senses and heart, discovering new ways to pour yourself out and share the best of yourself with others. Wherever you are, I hope you come home to yourself and make a comforting stew for the soul—literal or metaphorical—following your own recipe and inspiration.

And trust that you are exactly where you need to be.

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