To truly understand the beauty of Erdäpfelsuppe, I’m going to run you through a quick language lesson. When Columbus first encountered the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean in the late 15th century, they presented him with the sweet potato–batata in the Taíno language–which he first brought to Europe. But on subsequent trips, explorers returned with the white potato, first cultivated in the Andes mountains–papa in the Quechuan language–and people started confusing the two. In truth, it was a little unfair to introduce two very similar tubers, with similar names, to unsuspecting Europeans. This confusion endures today; the Spanish word patata, and English potato, are the result of compounding both batata and papa.
But as the potato traveled across the continent, filling the bellies of hungry Europeans along the way, people perceived the vegetable differently. For example, the Italians first supposed that the potato looked a lot like a truffle–tartufolo–and the sentiment spread to Eastern Europe (examples include the German kartoffel and the Russian картофель).
Personally, I think the French had the most elegant interpretation. Although they first went the truffle route, with the word cartoufle, they eventually switched to pomme de terre (“earth apple”). You see, the concept of earth apples isn’t new – the phrase had been used throughout history for various vegetables, including cucumbers and melons, as documented in Old High German, Old English, and Middle Dutch. And the French weren’t the only one to make this connection, because the word Erdapfel appears in Switzerland, Austria, and Southern Germany–all used to describe potatoes.
So in reality, today’s Erdäpfelsuppe is not really different from the more famous German Potato Soup (Kartoffelsuppe), but it’s an excellent moment to highlight the connection that many of us shares at the dinner table…no matter which name we use.