Photograph by Sarah Borealis
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Chinatec elders prepare stone soup the traditional way, by the Papaloapan River.
Photograph by Sarah Borealis

Stone Soup Rocks in Remote Oaxaca

If you’ve heard of stone soup, you’re probably thinking about the fable where hungry wanderers trick locals into sharing their food. But, the real stone soup is more celebration than deprivation, and it’s alive and well in Oaxaca, Mexico. And, it has a long and legendary story of its own.

In The Path of Stone Soup, filmmaker Sarah Borealis documents the dish’s unique origins and preparation. Borealis traveled to Oaxaca in 2010 and first tasted stone soup in a roadside restaurant run by the Gachupin family, which has been maintaining the tradition within its indigenous community for generations. With their aid, she and director Arturo Juárez Aguila spent four years documenting the preservation of this traditional soup-making process. National Geographic selected this film for the Short Film Showcase, and I spoke with both Borealis and Aguila about their project. Our conversation was edited for clarity.

How did you first learn about the process of making stone soup?

SB: I first learned about stone soup while I was doing fieldwork in Mexico for my Ph.D. in modern Latin American History. I was working in a private archive on the outskirts of Oaxaca, and a friend invited me to lunch at the Stone Soup Family Restaurant, along the highway between Oaxaca City and Santa Maria del Tule. When I met the Gachupin family and tasted their ritual soup, I was reminded of a fable from my childhood and became determined to learn more about this ancient recipe and its role in the Chinantec community.

AA: The first time I heard about it was when I answered Sarah’s call looking for a filmmaker for this project, so we started contacting [one another] by mail. I was really intrigued. … She told me she wanted to get deeper, and the family was willing to co-produce this project, so we got to really know the process in its different stages and in their language, [going] into this deep culinary culture.

Why is it unique to this part of Mexico?

SB: The soup originated in a remote ritual site in the Papaloapan River basin, about 12 hours by car from Oaxaca City, in the highlands of the Sierra Madre mountain range. The geography there is very rocky, and in the Pre-Ceramic [period,] Chinantec ancestors developed an elemental way to cook their food using fire and stone. The ritual site features large boulders excavated to serve as large cooking pots, and I guess you might say that the rest is history! The recipe for stone soup features local ingredients and really is a product of this unique environment.

AA: Oaxaca is the nest of multiple original cultures, long before the Spanish came, and a lot of its original culture and language has been preserved, thanks to the people and families that know the value of their own culture and roots. There are more than 15 different languages just in Oaxaca, so you can imagine the various cultures among them, specifically the Chinantec culture from San Felipe Usila, Tuxtepec, Oaxaca. It’s located on the basin of the Istmo [de Tehuantepec], among mountains and rivers.

The Secret Ingredient for This Delicious Soup? Rocks.

What does the soup taste like? Is there a particular flavor?

SB: There are currently three methods for preparing stone soup, and each has its own variation of flavors. The soup prepared in the large boulders at the ritual site has a mineral cast to it, and the heat and energy of the stone-on-stone preparation really does infuse the seafood. When the soup is prepared in leaf-lined openings dug in the sand on the banks of the river, the flavor is slightly more “green,” with a fresh aftertaste. The soup prepared individually in jicaras—gourds—in the family restaurant brings with it the distinction of being made to order, and each bowl contains one or two individual stones, which are still emitting heat and energy when served, resulting in yet a third stone-soup experience. In all its preparations, the soup is simple and complete. The seafood is perfectly poached, and the vegetables maintain their own integrity, while the dish has an alchemical property that makes the flavor exponentially more than the sum of its ingredients.

AA: It’s really natural. I love the mixed one with fish and shrimp. It has a very light flavor that combines with the taste of fresh tomato and a touch of chile and epazote.

Have either of you ever tried making stone soup? Is there a recipe?

SB: The recipe for stone soup is closely guarded by the Chinantec community. The ingredients are not secret, but in accordance with its significance, the soup may only be prepared by Chinantec men, with stones designated by the elders, and may not be prepared in a large metal or ceramic pot, although that would bring added efficiency—hence, commercial viability—to the process.

I would never presume to prepare stone soup without them. Unfortunately, imitations of stone soup have been prepared in both Mexico and the U.S., but are not sanctioned by the Chinantec elders and therefore are quite offensive to the community. Currently, the only place to taste stone soup outside of the Chinantec villages is the Stone Soup Family Restaurant near Oaxaca City, or at one of the stone soup pop-up events hosted by the Gachupin family.   

AA: No, never. I’ve seen [stone soup made] and helped [prepare it] one time when we were shooting, but … you need the correct stones, a place to make fire, and the fresh ingredients. I love it, but out of respect, I don’t try to do it. There is a recipe, but you’ll have to see the movie to take note, or talk to the Gachupin family.

Rachel Link curates content for National Geographic’s Short Film Showcase and is working on a soup recipe of her own for fall, kale pumpkin quinoa. Follow her on Twitter.